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The Straight Dope



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. --James Hyder, Columbia, Maryland

Actually, James, you've posed a question that is quite profound, in an idiotic sort of way. The issue of sovereignty--i.e., at what point does a people become a nation?--is at the heart of the dilemma facing the U.S. as it considers whether to recognize Lithuania now that it's declared independence.

There are several schools of thought. One is that you're a nation if other countries recognize you as such. This approach has a certain cheesy appeal, but from a philosophical standpoint it stinks. 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 ignorant 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 the Lithuanians claim sovereignty.) Seems to me you're on pretty weak ground any way you look at it, James, 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.

Why, when someone stops using a drug abruptly, do they call it going "cold turkey"? --Michael P. Weiner, Washington, D.C.

Some say it's because heroin addicts undergoing withdrawal are so pale and covered with goose bumps their skin looks like that of an uncooked turkey. As with most good stories, however, this appears to be crapola. "Cold turkey," which dates from 1916, is related to "talk turkey," meaning to cut the comedy and talk frankly. Similarly, when you go cold turkey, you dispense with the preliminaries and get right down to it. Why turkey rather than sparrow, say, is not clear, but perhaps it was because the turkey, as your standard U.S. game fowl, recalled the no-bull simplicity of frontier life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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