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FEATURE

On the Road Again

Customize Your Life with Location Independence

JULY 31, 2013 by MICHAEL NOLAN

As Leviathan hacks go, location-independent work isn’t exactly the stuff of legend. It’s not going to get you a statue, nor is it going to amount to as much as, say, making a dent in the highest incarceration rate in the world. You’d have to bring some measure of sanity to the drug war, at the very least, to do that.

Heck, independence itself has an unsavory connotation—at least for people who figure that any skepticism toward the State means your idea of the good life is some hybrid of the lives of Johnny Appleseed, John Wayne, and the Unabomber.

But some forms of independence, like financial independence, remain as evergreen as Chuck Taylors and as far out of reach as these Louboutins—at least for most of us. And I’d bet my friendly but stupid cat that, somewhere on everyone’s lists of what makes financial independence appealing, both freedom from work and freedom to travel make an appearance. 

 

Telecommuting with Visas

Location-independent work is the entrepreneurial response to these reality-constrained desires. If you don’t buy that, check out locationindependent.com, which sells bundles of services basically aimed at showing you how to do this if the idea grabs you.

Then there’s Life Remotely, which got me thinking about the topic. Basically, that site’s done by three people who have found gigs they could do on the road and then spent a decade doing them, mostly on the road. In the process, they’ve also developed a suite of skills and information that can make this kind of life that much more attainable to other people. 

Theirs is also an entrepreneurial response in that it fits together needs, desires, and resources in a novel way that helps people assemble their own happiness. Their response relies on the alertness to spot what can be made from things like mechanized transport and the Internet that haven’t been combined quite this way before. It also involves understanding the costs of this sort of lifestyle versus the costs of a more typical commuters’ lifestyle, and that comes down to spotting inefficiencies in your own pursuit of happiness and turning a profit on them. 

If the folks interviewed in Forbes are any indication, companies and clients benefit in the narrow business sense from more productive workers. And assuming the numbers in reports like this are true, then, as you’d expect if you read this magazine, “narrow business sense” actually points to something much broader. 

It’s also something different from the kind of entrepreneurial alertness that’s aimed directly at opening paths under, over, or around Leviathan. But freeing yourself to move from place to place should make you less beholden to particular groups of rulers—and make that “this is the greatest country on earth” line just that much less effective at covering oppressive and unjust policies like, say, tPatriot Act. 

 

You Load 16 Tons …

I happened across Life Remotely while trying to find out how far south a person can drive without hitting a penguin (it was a slow night and my iPad was feeling neglected). While I started out in message boards and travel forums, they quickly proved as full of fragmented and frequently outdated or irrelevant information as I remembered when travel first became an option for me a few years back. If I’d been serious about the trip and not just killing a couple of hours until Ambien time, it would have been very frustrating. In fact, when I used to put a lot of work into stretching my travel time and dollar, it was. 

But the Life Remotely folks have gone and filled in giant gaps (especially about the details that can make or break travel, like Wi-Fi connectivity and visa stuff), and that’s a valuable service. A lot of the information they give out is probably out there already anyway, but they’ve compiled it a lot more efficiently than even expatriate blogs, however fun those might be to read. 

They aren’t the only ones supplying this kind of content, of course. Migrationology, to choose almost at random, focuses on trying to live in Thailand without being rich. The list goes on and on. 

But what they all have in common is a fundamentally social orientation—particularly in generating mountains of consumer surplus. Since almost nobody travels in any form without being aware of the costs, it’s easy to get people focused on this and swapping ideas about it. So even if you don’t want to live and work on the road, or if you just don’t want to drive a Toyota 4Runner from Seattle to Tierra del Fuego, you’re sure to find a cheaper way to do what you actually do want to. 

 

The "So What?" Test

All of this matters for passing the “so what?” test: It’s interesting that some folks do this stuff, but so what? Everyone in every political ghetto can come up with some idea of a greater good that can keep you in place, working for their ideas. Isn’t location independence just one more type of modern selfishness, counting luxuries (connectivity everywhere, long-distance travel) as necessities? How are you helping humanity get freer and more prosperous if you’re not sticking around to collect signatures or work the phone banks? Aren’t you sacrificing community for a selfish and childish lust for adventure?

None of these questions actually seems relevant to me, and they all have at least the whiff of self-righteousness about them. They all push to the side the question of what good freedom and prosperity are if they only ever function as remote ideals. They also seem to ignore the possibility that individuals can figure out their own happiness without waiting for it to be granted to them. 

And that’s where community comes in. Even on less-specialized sites like TripAdvisor and VirtualTourist, you see a mind-boggling avalanche of freely given advice. When your interests are more specific—diving, golf, ecotourism, you name it—you actually open up new communities for yourself, this time focused on shared passions rather than simple proximity. That’s not the kind of community that’s necessarily useful to social engineers or politicians, but that doesn’t pass the “so what” test.  

Looked at another way, just because most of what we do at work we do because we’re getting paid, that doesn’t mean work has to be miserable. This might be the main way that location-independent work, and the stories of people who do it, increases everyone’s freedom: It helps divide what we owe our employers (productivity) from what so many employers demand (close monitoring, meeting after meeting, physical presence in dreary offices, a hierarchy down which to pass mainly the metaphorical buck). After all, tyrants don’t show up only in the State. I’d be surprised if anyone’s working life has reached even six months without teaching them this lesson. Mine lasted maybe 15 minutes; I still shudder when I drive by that ice cream stand. 

 

I’m Not a Businessman; I’m a Business, Man

Returning to the idea of entrepreneurialism, it helps to take a look at yourself and come up with new, creative ways to recombine your skills. It’s looking at yourself as, among other things, a business. But it’s tough to do this and scary to make a big change. Fortunately, other people have been down all these paths, and they’re willing to help.

I look at all this with a mixture of nostalgia and hope. Nostalgia because I took my first location-independent gig and lit out for places like Angkor Wat and Barcelona that I’d been dying to see but never had the chance to. The picture to the left, of my work station while I cooled my heels in Thailand, should give you a pretty good idea of why I’m a little nostalgic.

But it gives me hope, too. For one thing, I can go back to that life if the things I traded location-independence for no longer seem worth it. More broadly, whenever I see people shaping new kinds of lives for themselves—lives uniquely suited to them—it reminds me that the political world, with all its aridity and farce, isn’t the final word in making us happier. 

 

Everywhere You Want to Go, but Not If You’re Staying

Of course, visa and tax regimes remain even bigger obstacles than fear of change or understanding what you’re wagering if you take a step as big as going location independent. It will take the State a good long while to catch up, if it ever does. You can see this in visa regimes, which presuppose that the State gets to say who’s permitted to work where, doing what. The handful of countries that have anything like a self-employment visa usually require hefty investments so you count as an entrepreneur. Fortunately, idiotic visa and employment regulations are generally easy to dodge if your place of business slides easily into the bag over your shoulder. 

Taxes are a different story. U.S. citizens, with our exquisitely misanthropic tax regime, owe our rulers their due no matter where we are. The only break involves something approaching exile. That adds to the cost of going location-independent. I’m kind of assuming that location-independence means going abroad because I’ve got a hankering to get overseas again. But even if that’s not your bag, having to give the IRS and state governments their cut gives you that much less margin for error. 

I’d like to see location independence as part of a wider trend toward greater openness—in this case, of both borders and culture. There’s nothing much to be done about people who answer “I want to visit X country,” with, “What’s wrong with ‘Murica?” But what I hope is that location independence aids the process of mixing people around enough that, eventually, the nasty edge of the immigration debate becomes a demographic anomaly. 

After all, location independence is hard and risky, and has costs we each have to work out for ourselves (distance from family, language barriers, weird food, etc.). If this is true for people starting off with the skills and money that go along with being able to hold down jobs you can do online, how much harder is it for people willing to, say, cross an increasingly militarized desert to watch suburban kids, mow lawns, pick fruit, and do other low-paid, low-skill jobs? And why wouldn’t you want people that incentivized to make good, and that willing to take their happiness into their own hands? 

That might be too much to ask, but it’s not too much to hope. Meanwhile, I’m looking for someone to sublet my place for a while. Did I mention the cat?

 

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

September 2013

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MICHAEL NOLAN

Michael Nolan is the managing editor of The Freeman

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