Picture it: a self-governing community of little more than 35,000 people, living amongst “dramatic natural scenery”. For over the past two centuries, the people of this same community have been renowned for their independent spirit and love of freedom. Though originally little more than an agrarian community, today they have a modern economy oriented toward tourism and sport. There is a great “pedestrian main drag” where one can find such diversity as “modern art, hotels and slick office parks.” It is often remarked that even though it is a tiny place when compared to the rest of the world, “the views are big, and hiking (and skiing) possibilities go on and on.”
Sound familiar? A self-governing community of over 35,000 people of independent spirit settled amongst a fulfilling natural landscape. It would not be at all surprising if such a description conjures up visions of our own Queen City, but this would be only partially correct. Such descriptions, though also synonymous with Burlington, VT, actually come from a PBS documentary, “Rick Steve’s Europe”, about the small Western European country of Liechtenstein.
The Principality of Liechtenstein is doubly landlocked between Austria and Switzerland. The historical tract of this often overlooked yet remarkable little nation is in many ways comparable to that of our own Green Mountain community, except that they are reversed. “Ruled” today by a hereditary constitutional monarch, the Principality of Liechtenstein was bought by the reigning prince’s medieval ancestors and in the 18th century became a sovereign member state of the Holy Roman Empire. However, around the turn of the 19th century when the sovereignty of the Vermont Republic had degenerated into just another member state of another infamous empire, Liechtenstein received independence from an outdated and collapsing political system. By the end of the First World War, Liechtenstein became a fully independent nation, equal in its sovereignty to any of its European neighbors.
And so begs the question: How can this tiny principality of no mean size, a people smaller in number than those inhabiting Burlington and populating an area the size of our country’s capital, last and indeed thrive in this world dominated by “meganations”? Why do so few in this time of megalomania, swept up by the “bigger is better” mentality, never question this postage stamp country while continuing their adversity to the mere concept of a Free Vermont? This is the same Vermont which has almost eighteen times the population and one hundred and fifty-five times the area of this successful little country.
Liechtenstein, though amazingly tiny with only eleven actual villages, has one of the highest standards of living and per capita GDPs in the entire world, not to mention one of the lowest unemployment rates. Not only are the people of Liechtenstein able to draw much revenue from tourism while having few natural resources of which to speak, their country remains highly attractive to businesses from all over the world. This is greatly due to their low tax laws and diplomatic independence on the world stage.
And yet, Liechtenstein has been able to do all of this with no seaport, no airport, and, you guessed it, not even a standing army. Through the strength of this small country’s ideals, they have taken a historically insignificant piece of alpine territory and turned it into the poster child for life and governance on a human scale. “Small” is not only “beautiful”, but it works too.
It appears that in many ways Vermont has forgotten its similar love, and indeed its aptitude, for such independence as espoused by this amazing country. Since tasting its complete independence, Liechtenstein has become ever more mindful of the value of which neutrality in international affairs can inherently bring. It found, therefore, a freedom that many in Vermont can now only imagine in a passing daydream. This freedom has been obtained by abstaining, like close financial partner Switzerland, from such supranational organizations of bureaucratic tyranny as the European Union. Unlike the United States, Liechtenstein is free from foreign entanglements and alliances. They have instead continued to have faith in themselves through implementing devolution and direct-democracy; ideals of power sharing that Vermont also once held dear. If 35,000 Liechtensteiners have responsibly provided for the welfare of their communities and neighbors, then why could more than 626,000 similarly spirited Vermonters not do the same?
Perhaps key to Liechtenstein’s success, for all it is worth, is something which Vermont currently lacks in both name and spirit: a living embodiment of unity, a prince. This is not to say Vermont need throw out its traditional interpretation of the egalitarian principle, but it does mean that Vermont may have even more to learn from the point at which the energy of this principality’s society is focused: the prince himself.
Prince Hans-Adam II, as the current head of his royal house and nation, is a passionate believer in the ideas of simpler and accountable government. But what he quite possibly sees as even more vital to a free and prosperous society is the ideal of self-determination. His utter faith in such a principle, especially at the local level, is concisely argued in his own political treatise, The State in the Third Millennium. What is truly remarkable is the evidence proving how this monarch is no passive believer and actively advocates his ideas as a way to resolve some of the world’s most pressing issues. In alliance with Princeton University in the year 2000, Hans-Adam set himself up as patron to the “Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination”. In conjunction with experts and leaders from all realms within the private and public spheres, the LISD forms panels, teaches courses, and holds conferences. All discuss self-determinative solutions for conflicts ranging from the former Soviet sphere to the Middle East. Because of his work, Prince Hans-Adam’s Liechtenstein is now a disproportionately bright beacon of freedom, independence, and self-determination. In short, he has taken so-called “radical” ideas, accused of appealing only to the most extreme political theorists, and legitimized their discussion and practice among the world’s most powerful elites. Prince Hans-Adam reigns over a small domain and yet has used his nation as a ladder with which to influence the highest pillars of power. This is by no means a small feat.
So, does Vermont need a modern-day prince to offer similar independence and influence in the wider world? Or do we already have the makings of something equally, if not more powerful? Because of its founder, Thomas H. Naylor, at least SVR exists as one organization proposing such a vision. Perhaps through more discussion between this former Professor and communities of our own small corner of the globe, Vermont could lead by example in pursuit of its own values of freedom, unity, and independence. Then, just as with Liechtenstein, Vermont might engage foreign nations through free association and open partnership, establishing institutes promoting its own values and peaceful conflict resolution. Vermont may not have a prince as a standard bearer for such goals, but we have our own rich history, our own semi-mythical figures of Ethan Allen and the like, and so too may create a vehicle with which to pursue change. Who amongst our wealth of people is ready to lead us on to such a future? Who else is waiting to be inspired with enough courage and hope to do so?
If we only dared to imagine…a Free Vermont.
August 6, 2012
Undergraduate of St. Lawrence University ’13; pursuing B.A. in History, B.A. in Government, and Certification Minor in Education.