Re-examining Beran’s notion of “dissenter’s territory”.

Back in the late 1970’s, political philosopher Harry Beran published what he thought might be a solution to the worries of other philosophers, specifically anarchist ones, that the state necessarily violates the consent and liberty of its citizens, day in, day out, all day long. These proto-anarchists worry that the state has not asked permission to govern to the fullest extent, and therefore its authority is questionable at best. In his paper, Beran came up with a simple yet important solution to this problem: The dissenter’s territory.

Dissenter’s territory is a portion of a country where no laws or rules apply, and is set aside for people who do not wish to be governed. For example, Canada could designate Newfoundland Island for dissenters, removing its police and military presence, and making it exempt from all Canadian laws. Anybody that has had enough of the Canadian government, or the state in general, is free to opt out of the obligations put upon them and move to Newfoundland.

Beran’s idea is quite radical, and no state in the world currently offers this way out. Most states only allow citizens to relinquish their citizenships if they’re going to acquire citizenship from another country, and most stateless people in the world are those who have been deprived of citizenship (see refugees of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war), not those who have chosen to deprive themselves (see Garry Davis).

While this may seem like a simple solution to the problem of consent, upon closer examination, Beran’s idea seems to raise more questions than it answers.

For one, it is not clear how the state could truly achieve consent in its citizens. Using the example of Canada again, the government would presumably need to offer a consent referendum which asks whether people wish to remain under the rule of the state, or move to Dissenter’s Newfoundland. But this is by no means a free choice, for one cannot remain in their home and opt out of Canadian laws. The state would essentially be blackmailing people to accept their authority or be deported to an anarchist territory, which ironically violates people’s consent.

It’s also not clear at what point we could ask this of citizens. Should the referendum be annual, bi-annual, monthly? Or should citizens be able to file paperwork relinquishing their citizenship at any time, with a 24-hour deportation force ready to move them to Dissenter’s Newfoundland at the drop of a hat? What about children? If a parent decides to opt out of Canadian law, should their children under the age of 18 be deported too?

So from within the state there are many questions raised. But outside of the state, dissenter’s territory itself looks quite problematic. For one thing, the type of people who wish to relinquish their citizenship are not going to be Mr. and Mrs. Smith who live on Ordinary Lane. These people probably have some issues with how the state is run and the type of laws it enacts, but they are content to voice their concerns at the ballot box during elections, and can reconcile their remaining issues with the government. Criminals and terrorists cannot, for they are unconditionally opposed to state authority, and know well that they will be unsuccessful in influencing the laws that are passed. Somebody who doesn’t like laws pertaining to copyright might be dissatisfied with the state but work to change it from within. Somebody who doesn’t like that they can’t murder people will probably leave.

It is reasonable to think that the main bulk of people who move to Dissenter’s Newfoundland will be radical anti-government activists and perpetrators of violence and exploitation (I do recognize that the governments of many states are full of these people too). Presumably these people have very little concern for consent too, given that their jobs involve violating people’s liberty with murder, theft, and the like. Therefore Dissenter’s Newfoundland may end up being something of a hostile military base on the doorstep of Canada, posing a danger to those who have chosen to remain in the state.

With no surveillance measures to combat terror threats, and no laws governing the acquisition of weapons, residents of Dissenter’s Newfoundland would be free to plot and scheme and attack Canada. Under international law, Canada has the right to defend itself if it is not occupying Dissenter’s Newfoundland, but then the entire enterprise seems pointless – why give people the option of setting up their own anarchist commune if you’re going to end up attacking it and violating the consent of its residents soon after? Similarly, dissenter’s territory means the state would be totally powerless in the event of humanitarian catastrophes. If Dissenter’s Newfoundland ended up being a haven for exploitative land barons who control all the grain, Canada could do nothing but watch as those who own no land wither and die.

In short, Beran’s notion of dissenter’s territory may seem to solve the immediate problem of consent, but it simply pushes the problem back a step. Allowing people to opt out of the state’s laws and be deported is no real choice, and even those who are happy to have their consent violated just to get away from Canada may find themselves at the receiving end of a military intervention, if and when a terrorist attack against Canada happens. It is hard to imagine states offering citizens the choice to relinquish their citizenship. It is even harder to imagine states not responding to acts of terror by dissenters out of fear that this would violate their consent.

Perhaps security is more important than consent. Perhaps the way to reconcile our differences with the state means sacrificing some of our consent and pushing to change the mechanics of the state. Simply abandoning the entire project seems not only juvenile, but ineffective, since the only alternative is probably a terrorist-ridden hell-hole somewhere off the coast. If this seems anti-anarchist in any way, it’s because it is.

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