Thursday, April 15, 2021

Scott Siskind on Próspera

Próspera ia a planned "Charter City" on an island off the coast of Honduras. At the moment it is a very small deal, just 58 acres with three buildings. But its backers, mostly rich libertarians, want to make it a beacon of good government and prosperity, transform by example the badly-governed parts of the world, etc. Its opponents come from two camps, the anti-colonial nationalists who think this infringes Honduran sovereignty and smacks of colonialism, and the leftists who think it portends a corporate-dominated anti-utopian nightmare.

The people of Próspera will mostly be Honduran citizens, and Honduran criminal law will apply. It will not have its own port or international airport, so entry will still be controlled by Honduras. It's a pretty limited sort of autonomy. But the backers still think they can create such a good business climate that people will flock there.

I think it is unlikely to amount to much of anything. But if I lived in Honduras, I would be intrigued; equally if I lived in Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, or any of the other countries in the world where the people are suffering from bad government, bad institutions, and bad history. If you don't like this scheme, what's your plan for helping people in those countries lead decent lives? Complaining that the whole problem with those countries is centuries of outside meddling is not helpful; even if that is true, the meddling happened and it can't be undone now. I can see worrying that more outside meddling is inevitably going to screw things up just like it has in the past, but, again, what is the alternative? Waiting for the government of Honduras to become wise, and its drug gangs to become pacifists?

Scott Siskind has a long look at the project, going at least a little into the weeds of the legal and political background. Here is his conclusion:

Thousands of Hondurans make the dangerous journey to the United States in search of freedom, safety, and a living wage. They're tired of poverty and murder and corruption and think that a well-run polity with capitalist institutions can help them build a better life. I can’t blame them one whit. America is a better place to live than Honduras. This isn't because Americans are smarter, or harder-working, or morally superior. It's because Honduras has bad institutions.

But these people will probably or get turned away at the border, or languish in ICE detention camps, or die en route. Right now, we’re failing these people, not to mention the thousands more who wish they could make the same journey but are too scared to try. Próspera wants to give these people a better option by bringing American-style institutions to Honduras. They're not going to displace any existing residents or include anyone who doesn't want to be included. They just want to give people who have been ill-served by statism and nationalism a choice other than traveling three thousand miles and scrambling over barbed wire fences.

If you were a completely ordinary Honduran, making $1,300 a year, having a medium lifetime risk of being murdered, with the government occasionally taking your land and killing you if you complained - would you want the option of moving to Próspera? With its civil rights, property rights, strong security, good education, and higher salaries? I have these things right now in America and they're great. I can't imagine wanting these privileges for myself and also working to deny them to others. The people who like statism, ultra-nationalism, and the status quo have an entire world to play around in, and it's turned out...well, you can see how it's turned out. The Prósperans want 58 acres to try something different.

I am not nearly this optimistic. The first problem scenario that comes to mind concerns those very wealthy and powerful drug gangs; what happens when they move into Próspera? Will the administrators go to war against them, or try to cut a corrupt deal? Either choice looks bad to me. And what happens when the next populist leftist becomes President of Honduras on a platform of sticking it to foreign interests? 

One reason Hong Kong and Singapore (two of their models) were successful is that they were backed by the British Empire, which protected them militarily, invested heavily in their infrastructure, and funneled trade to them. A handful of rich libertarians hardly compare as a base. 

I suspect this will have very modest success, perhaps as a center of medical tourism, but then either go bankrupt, be taken over, or fade away.

1 comment:

David said...

Among other things, it's not clear to me in what sense statism is a problem, either in general or in Honduras. Denmark and Japan have very strong states. It seems to me that Honduras has a very weak state. To me, a strong state means, in the first place, a professional legal system and law enforcement apparatus, whose members are more loyal to their own profession and the institutions that back it than they are to, say, family members or patrons--plus, the taxes to pay for these things. If Honduras had that, gangs would not be the problem that they are. My impression incidentally is that the problem with gangs in a place like Honduras isn't so much drug trafficking, as that the lower reaches of the gang world there draw their profits from local extortion.