Wedged between the borders of the Alliance of Free Worlds and the Empire of the Radiant Throne is a cluster of planetary systems that, while comparatively small in size, represent the third largest power in known space. This power is not military, but economic: and that power rivals, perhaps even exceeds, anything either superpower can bring to bear.
The Free Trade Baronies are, essentially, corporations that grew so large that their infrastructures encompassed worlds, then solar systems. In time the logistics involved in supporting these corporate monstrosities grew so complex that they developed into governments, with the HR department transforming into a judicial system, managers becoming governors, subsidiary holdings becoming fiefdoms, and the CEO becoming a monarch. Ownership of a Trade Barony is transferred through the family line, usually the oldest child of the current Baron though each Baron has free will to designate any heir he or she chooses. The Trade Baron’s power, however, is not absolute – the executives of each company under the barony’s umbrella wield great power in their own right, and from time to time a Trade Baron can find him or herself voted out of power… or worse.
Trade Baron corporations specialize in cutting-edge technology. Trade Baron products are generally considered top-of-the-line in their market segment, and are usually significantly ahead of their competitors. The Tylaris Shipyards, for example, one of the prime holdings of the Tylaris Barony, are the premier shipbuilding facilities anywhere – both the Alliance and the Radiant Throne contract with Tylaris Shipyards to create their top of the line military craft. Tyrelos Industries, a major division of the Tyrelos Barony, specializes in exotic materials and alloys, and even the Tylaris Shipyards prefers to use their alloys when creating top of the line starship hulls.
Trade Baron society varies. Some Trade Baronies are very strict and authoritarian, with the companies rigidly controlling society and the local economies in order to meet certain undefined long-term goals. Most, however, take the view that anything can be had for a price, and the question then becomes whether the profit lies in regulating or permitting certain behaviors. For this reason, many Trade Baron worlds have become havens for people engaged in professions that would be considered criminal in the AFW and the Radiant Throne: pirates, smugglers and slavers frequently operate out of Trade Baron space, and are in even sometimes contracted by Trade Baron corporations when they need to “expedite” certain activities and don’t want to work through the red tape of legitimate governments. This has been a source of frustration for both the AFW and the Throne, who argue that the Trade Barons abuse their neutrality by employing fleets of unofficial privateers and smugglers to increase their profits by bypassing government laws and tariffs.
So how do the Trade Baronies stay independent? At first glance it appears there is no reason they should. Both larger governments view Trade Baron space as a source of much of the crime and corruption that plagues their border worlds. The Trade Baronies are small compared to either the AFW or the Radiant Throne – the largest of the Baronies consist of only a few star systems, while most are confined to a single star system only – and their small size makes them tempting military targets. From a logistical perspective either government could invade all of them with ease.
The true power of the Trade Baronies isn’t military, however: it’s economic. Trade Baron companies operate on a scale far above other corporations, and they are so tightly intertwined with the economies of both governments that any attempt to take over a Trade Baron system by force would wreak economic havoc on a galactic level. Trade Baronies remain independent because neither the AFW nor the Radiant Throne could afford to invade them.
There is some speculation that the threat of economic instability has even prevented those governments from attacking each other.
Taken from An Informal Guide to Known Space, Edition XVI, McPherson/Sovitt Publications.