A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How do I go about starting my own country?

March 30, 1990

Dear Cecil:

I want to start my own country. My question is, how do I go about this? I assume it is illegal to buy land in an existing country and proclaim sovereignty simply by virtue of ownership. Is there any way to avoid this difficulty and either (1) buy some territory in an existing country with the intent of seceding; (2) claim some previously unclaimed (or at least not very heavily guarded) land; (3) settle an area that had not existed earlier (e.g., a volcanic island); or (4) find some other way to realize my dream of founding a nation where all people are truly equal, the state respects individual rights, and free pizza delivery is constitutionally guaranteed? The fate of a nation rests on your answer.

Cecil replies:

I'm used to it, James. There are several schools of thought on what it takes to establish an independent state. One is that you're a nation if other countries recognize you as such. This approach has a certain practical appeal, but from a philosophical standpoint it eats. It suggests the minimum number of nations you can have is two, so each can recognize the other. More important, it denies reality: if you look like a nation and act like a nation, why should nonrecognition by a bunch of foreigners prevent you from actually being a nation?

OK, but what constitutes looking and acting like a nation? Opinions differ, but some suggest there are four conditions:

(1) Defined territory. In other words, a nomadic tribe with no fixed address cannot constitute a sovereign state. My advice: get yourself some stakes and string, put in a border crossing and a video store, and bingo, you're covered.

(2) Permanent population. Here's where you get into trouble, Jimbo. In theory the authorities don't have any problem with small-population states, presumably including the one-man variety, but somebody always has to mind the store. Your problem is, the second you go to visit Mom in Poughkeepsie, the population drops to zero and there goes your country. Maybe you and Mrs. Hyder can just take separate vacations so there's always somebody around to baby-sit.

(3) Government. They're a drag but you have to have one. No prob, though — you can vest all sovereign authority in yourself. People will call you excellency and maybe you can get Moammar Gadhafi to lend you one of his hats.

(4) Capacity to enter into relations with other states. Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, had a rather literal idea of how to go about this, but you needn't go to that extreme. Basically the question is: are you in charge — i.e., do you exercise supreme bosshood over your chunk of real estate, and thereby have authority to negotiate on an equal basis with other sovereign states? If not, did you ever? (This is the sleeper clause that lets conquered nations, e.g., the Lithuanians prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, claim sovereignty.)

Seems to me you're on pretty weak ground in this department, so your best bet may be to outfit yourself and a couple buddies with AK-47s and nuclear bombs and see if you can fend off the local panjandrums for a few years. (And don't leave the premises to go to the bathroom, either — see number 2 above.) If you can manage it, I'll recognize your sovereignty, and that's basically the ball game. A chore? Sure, but nobody ever said being a country was a bowl of cherries.

A country of one's own: A follow-up

To the Teeming Millions:

Regarding my column on how to start your own country, a reader has chastised me for not mentioning the 1984 book by that title written by Erwin Strauss and distributed by Loompanics Unlimited, an outfit that also peddles sells such gems as Human Sacrifice in History and Today and Ragnar's Guide to Home and Recreational Use of High Explosives. Strauss describes successful new countries such as Sealand, founded in the 60s by former pirate radio operator Paddy Roy "Prince Roy" Bates on an abandoned antiaircraft platform off the coast of England. He also mentions the smallest country in existence, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, whose realm consists of one building in Rome. So there's hope for you would-be potentates.

Strauss describes five routes to nationhood:

(1) Traditional sovereignty. This is the approach I mentioned in my column. You need territory, people, and a government, and you have to defend it against all comers. Strauss takes this pretty seriously. Readers who do likewise may wish to obtain his other book, Basement Nukes, priced to move at $8.95 (no kidding). If that sounds a bit drastic, you might check out another book from Loompanics, Uninhabited Ocean Islands, by Jon Fisher.

(2) Ship under flag of convenience. Register your tub with a see-no-evil outfit like Liberia (well, maybe not Liberia these days, but you know what I mean), and for all practical purposes you're independent, and mobile too. Not exactly sovereignty, but maybe close enough.

(3) Litigation. Sue the bastards and make them recognize you, or at least let you alone. It worked for Roy Bates in England, but I wouldn't try it in Iraq.

(4) "Vonu." A coined term basically meaning out of sight, out of mind. Slip off into the forest where the gummint can't find you and establish your own society. The favored region for this seems to be the Pacific Northwest. Fine if you can stand the giant slugs.

(5) Model country. That's model as in pretend. Declare your bungalow a sovereign state, issue stamps, fly your own flag — the "real" government won't care so long as you pay your taxes and otherwise cooperate with your oppressors. Maybe not as spiritually satisfying as traditional sovereignty but you might live longer.

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