Free Cities are in many ways a manifestation of a new beginning for those jurisdictions that are looking to start over. Big changes may not always be palatable to the population or politically feasible but smaller-scale experiments can often pass the test. At the same time, many Free Cities are themselves starting from scratch and really represent a new beginning to the development of infrastructure, culture, human interactions, and the development of new and improved ways of doing things. In much the same way that the new year represents a hard stop and a way to change one’s habits, Free Cities offer the same in governance and lifestyle.
Many jurisdictions around the world are rather illiberal. While it is easy to criticize from the outside, the problem of reform is not so easily solved. It is easy enough to proclaim that taxes should be lower, building permits should be easier to request and receive, or that licenses to operate a business should be fewer in number, cheaper in price, and easily granted. Of course, saying is easier than doing. Any given government body will necessarily have established traditions and ways of doing things. Bureaucracies will necessarily pop up to issue these permits and approvals or collect those taxes. Unfortunately, while this way of doing things may not be in the best interest of the citizens at large, meaningfully cutting these programs requires laying off numerous people, radically changing the way things operate, and potentially disrupting the established mechanisms for how to get ahead.
These established institutions are not easily altered or abolished as many, even those ideologically motivated, do not want to create more enemies than absolutely necessary. This is one of the unfortunate limitations of electoral politics at large. Institutions often must see truly over-the-top problems before they are altered or abolished. These changes must be tied to severe issues. About the only thing that normally occurs is minuscule changes to fine-tune the way a system works. When was the last time you heard of governments updating technology before absolutely necessary or removing a number of permits needed to provide a basic service? It takes a perceived crisis such as Covid-19 to propagate widely the idea that many things can be taken care of online and that doctors can provide telehealth (a heavily licensed and regulated profession) across jurisdictions.
This is a very human problem and not necessarily something that can be overcome through voting for the right candidate. Just as it applies to bureaucracies and institutions, the same level of reluctance to change exists for humans. It is for this reason that we look to milestones as a way to do something different or make a change. We make new year’s resolutions to work out more or eat healthy. We could make these changes any time in the year and it would probably be better if we did, but tying the change to a certain time period is an easy way to convince ourselves that this time is different. Of course, like changes in government institutions, our likelihood of committing and sticking to one of our new year’s resolutions is exceedingly low.
Free Cities as New Beginnings
While making changes — either in government institutions or in personal life — can be difficult, solutions do exist. While I won’t wax poetic about making personal changes, Free Cities present this opportunity to update the way things work and present a new beginning for those bold and willing to seize the opportunity.
Free Cities are generally smaller jurisdictions and do not have delusions of grandeur. Rather, they are attempting to change the way regulations, security, and dispute resolution (among other areas) work — all in just one small place. This is a much easier request from many governments than a complete overhaul of their system nationwide. The request is not to reform the current system (although that is not necessarily a bad idea) but rather to present a new course, a new path trialing alternative solutions, available to voluntarily opt-in by people for whom the current government does not work well.
Typically Free Cities are experiments that are tried in the most desperate of times such as experiments in communism or Covid-19 lockdowns leading to massive systemic economic problems, unemployment and a debt explosion. Much as people tie their changes to a new year, many jurisdictions tie their experiments in Free Cities to the absolute need for them. For example, both Honduras implementing the ZEDEs and China implementing the original SEZs were both done to increase economic activity and rule of law in desperate times. Both, I might add, have been successful thus far bringing in investment and creating new jobs and a new way of doing things.
Free Cities also represent a new way for cities to develop physically. While cities have grown over centuries in much of the world, these cities were developed in times before the mass production of automobiles. As such, they can be difficult to navigate by car and relatively narrower. While many American and other quickly developing cities were built while the automobile was in existence, they failed to take into consideration how the success of cities is rooted in close human interaction and meaningful use of land. As a result, new cities can often be ugly, contain inconsistent or uninteresting architecture, and be not easily navigable by foot or other means of transportation except for the car.
The result is that many cities are simply subpar, and are easily recognized as such. Free Cities, being typically started on greenfield sites, present an opportunity for expert architects and developers to try small-scale experiments, develop some areas of a city as best as they can, and use market feedback to determine how to further expand. As a result, Free Cities present an opportunity to create truly world-class cities in terms of livability. Cities that are easily navigable for both automobiles and pedestrians. Cities that look beautiful, contain appropriate levels of greenspace, shade, and all the other amenities people need and like. While existing cities can be improved in many regards, a new beginning in the form of a Free City presents the easiest mechanism to create a high-quality urban life.
Finally, voluntarily opting into a new Free City is itself a new beginning. A new beginning in which an individual or a family might choose to try something new and radical. While Free Cities are in development, they present real opportunities for starting a new life, a new company, a new job, and more. All of these new things represent a new beginning. It is these new beginnings that a Free City is all about. Free Cities stand for the idea that if you are not harming someone else, you should be free to do business and innovate. If you work hard and earn money, you should be free to keep that money. If you like a service being offered, you should be able to purchase it. If you have a business idea, you should be able to give it a shot. While these new beginnings are sometimes possible in the existing world to some extent, they are the lifeblood of Free Cities.
Free Cities are the new beginning for those that choose to make them so. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a happy new year. Here is to a new year and a new Free City.
This blog post is an amended version of an article originally published in Escape Artist Insiders Magazine in January 2023. Visit their website for more articles, information and advice on becoming an expat or digital nomad.