Subsidizing Libertarianism: The Belle Isle Commonwealth

By Timothy Boscarino

Amidst an ongoing debate on the role of state government in administering Belle Isle, a group of wealthy investors are proposing an even more radical idea: turning the island park into an independent city-state, breaking away from Detroit and Michigan to become a low-tax paradise for 35,000 fabulously wealthy residents.

It won’t happen, of course. The U.S. Constitution reminds us that creating such an independent territory would require approval from both the Michigan Legislature and the U.S. Congress — and there’s no chance that either body would approve a deal that would allow the Belle Islanders to avoid paying almost all taxes.

But what if it did?

According to the proposal, devised by developer Rod Lockwood, former Chrysler president Hal Sperlich, Cornerstone Schools founder Clark Durant and others, it would cost $300,000 to move to the island. Once there, however, residents would be exempt from all federal taxes, save one: according to a website hyping the proposed commonwealth, “Belle Isle pays its share of the U.S. defense budget, based on its population [which would be] about $2,000 per person per year.”

Clearly, Lockwood, Sperlich, Durant, et. al, feel that they owe nothing to the nation that enabled them to become wealthy in the first place. They got rich on their own, they seem to think, and they deserve to stay that way.

SELF MADE MEN?

It’s a myth that’s been around since at least the days of Benjamin Franklin. But as Frederick Douglass reminded us, “there are in the world no such men … we have all either begged, borrowed, or stolen … we have reaped where others have sown.” If Douglass’s words were true in 1872, then they’re even more so today in our increasingly industrialized and globalized society.

If the Commonwealthers really think they can make it on their own, then fine, I say. Let’s give them an island (just not Belle Isle, please, I like it there) and let them set up the free-market utopia they dream of. Absolve them of income tax, capital gains tax, Social Security, and so on.

But let them know not to expect the federal government to enforce the contracts that enable their corporations to accumulate wealth — our judicial system takes care of that, with courts funded by tax revenue. Make sure that when they leave their island, they know not to use our roads, railroads, or airports, that the companies they’ve invested in are severed from our telecommunications networks, our power lines and pipelines. Forbid them from the technologies developed by our research universities, and by our military, and don’t let them take advantage of a workforce trained in our public school system. Need I go on?

What Commonwealth advocates really want is a place where they can enjoy all the benefits of being a part of the United States, but without any of the responsibilities that come with citizenship — a sort of subsidized libertarianism where regressive taxation plus corporate welfare equals “freedom.”

Welfare is a concept that Sperlich, in particular, ought to understand. Military contracts combined with a $1.5 billion federal bailout in 1980 saved Chrysler from bankruptcy during his tenure.

Or is Sperlich in the same category as George W. Bush, whom Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower famously described as a man who was “born on third base but thought he had hit a triple?”

RACE TO THE BOTTOM

“What about the 700,000?” Sperlich repeatedly asked when the Commonwealth proposal was formally unveiled at an invite-only luncheon on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, referring to the mostly low-income population of Detroit. Durant, at the same event, called Detroit a “city of opportunity.” With promises of construction jobs (for “golf-courses and country clubs” and condos for island residents), the Commonwealthers see an opportunity to recruit Detroiters as an unlikely ally in a campaign that would be a non-starter anywhere else in the country.

Perhaps the “opportunity” Durant sees is the clichéd “blank slate,” a population so marginalized, so desperate, that they can be bought off, supporting a far-fetched scheme in exchange for empty promises of low wage, service-sector employment.

The Belle Isle Commonwealth proposal was shot down by both mainstream and independent media as soon as it was launched, and it doesn’t seem likely to be taken any more seriously by our elected officials. Nonetheless, the underlying ideology, and the people behind it, are very much alive. Perhaps the real opportunity that Lockwood, Sperlich and Durant are providing the city is a brief, albeit unusually candid, glimpse into their madness.

 

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