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Seasteading

Wired reports on a scheme to make new nations:

Tired of the United States and the other 190-odd nations on Earth?

If a small team of Silicon Valley millionaires get their way, in a few years, you could have a new option for global citizenship: A permanent, quasi-sovereign nation floating in international waters.

With a $500,000 donation from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a Google engineer and a former Sun Microsystems programmer have launched The Seasteading Institute, an organization dedicated to creating experimental ocean communities “with diverse social, political, and legal systems.”

Excellent. Most of the bad ideas about how to govern nations have been tried out for centuries. They work moderately well for luckier ones amongst the plunderers, more or less appallingly for the plunderees. The good ideas, like very low taxes, very light regulation – in short: liberty – have been attempted only very occasionally. Anything which tilts that balance in the good direction is to be welcomed. I strongly believe that all social, political, and legal ideas should indeed be allowed on these jumped-up oil rigs (rather than merely my own social, political, and legal ideas), as the Seasteading Institute clearly envisages, but only if all those involved in each attempt consent to being part of it.

That should shoot most of the collectivists at the starting line. Most collectivist political ideas are about what should be done by them, the evil collectivists and their evil friends, to others who can’t defend themselves against their ghastly ideas even by running away, let alone resisting plunder. If only for that reason, the evil collectivists are all going to hate this stuff. And if only for that reason, I already like it, even if it never gets much beyond internet speculation.

The more honestly deluded among the collectivists, who really think that people will consent and go on consenting to their rancid notions, like those 1620-vintage (have I got that date right?) settlers on the east coast of what is now the USA, will, if they are ever silly enough to try one of these schemes, get a crash course in what they really should be doing and how the world really works.

I found out about this plan via one of my internet favourites just now, BLDG BLOG. The BLDG BLOG man is torn between architectural excitement and political unease:

It’s not just a question of producing better loft apartments, for which you can charge an extra $300,000, or of perfecting the art of luxury kitchen space; it’s a question of designing architecture for extreme conditions and, should your architecture survive, thus opening up room for a new form of what might be called post-terrestrial sovereignty, i.e. governance freed from landed terrain.

Which is not to be confused with advocacy of the project; I just like discussing its political side-effects: architecture becomes wed with, indeed inseparable from, a political project. It is construction in the service of constitutionality (and vice versa). Wed with oceanic mobility, the architecture of seasteading doesn’t just aesthetically augment a natural landscape; it actually encases, or gives physical shape to, a political community. It is architecture as political space in the most literal sense.

He’s not advocating it, you understand. Perish the thought. Who knows what frightful political genies may be let out of the bottle of the twentieth century collectivism to which most architects are still wedded? But, he can’t stop himself thinking: cool. I hope he’s right. About the coolness, I mean.

I’ve been doing some more reading of the Wired piece. One of the moving spirits behind the Seasteading Institute is Patri Friedman, who is David Friedman’s son. If David Friedman is anything to go by, Patri (whom I have not met but whose blog I dip into from time to time) is surely a great guy. However, this makes me fear that the people doing this particular scheme are experts not on money, power, etc., but on libertarianism. This is not a good sign. Schemes like this cannot merely be virtuous. They have to work, and I fear that this one won’t. I mean, if it only starts to look like working, think of the number and nature of the people who will want it squashed. I really do hope that I’m wrong about this particular scheme. If I’m only wrong once about schemes like this, it will be a different world and a massively better one.

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43 comments to Seasteading

  • MarkS

    I’m interested to know what happens to someone’s citizenship and taxes if they choose to be a nomad. Let’s assume that I leave the UK and travel the world, never staying in any one country for more than 90 days. I make my living by writing, investing and I bank my money in a third country and draw on it using a credit card. Am I liable to tax anywhere? I often here collectivists saying: “BUt you have to pay tax somewhere.” They also say that it doesn’t matter where you pay the tax as long as you pay it. Would that be true of a seasteading community?

  • jules

    One step closer to Bioshock?

  • One step closer to Bioshock?

    Except if it all goes crazy, you can detach your module and float off somewhere more congenial.

  • bradley13

    Taxes: as I understand it, countries tend to have reciprocal agreements with each other: I won’t tax my citizens living in your country if you don’t tax your citizens living in my country. With the result that people wind up paying taxes where they live rather than where their passports come from.

    Seasteaders won’t be living in a country with the influence to get such agreements. Hence, they can expect the country where they hold citizenship to tax them. And until seasteading is very, very well established, it would be very risky to give up your passport or to refuse to pay taxes.

  • However, this makes me fear that the people doing this particular scheme are experts not on money, power, etc., but on libertarianism. This is not a good sign.

    Quite. Reminds me of something the excellent Jim Henley of US libertarian blog Unqualified Offerings once said about being “better at advocating capitalism than practicing it” – a syndrome one sees a lot of in certain circles.

  • However, this makes me fear that the people doing this particular scheme are experts not on money, power, etc., but on libertarianism. This is not a good sign.

    Quite. Reminds me of something the excellent Jim Henley of US libertarian blog Unqualified Offerings once said about being “better at advocating capitalism than practicing it” – a syndrome one sees a lot of in certain circles.

  • RAB

    Nope
    Never
    not in my known
    Universe
    Ever.

    the statists will kill it at birth.

    Besides i’m not that fond of fish.

  • Jainine McM

    Taxes: as I understand it, countries tend to have reciprocal agreements with each other: I won’t tax my citizens living in your country if you don’t tax your citizens living in my country. With the result that people wind up paying taxes where they live rather than where their passports come from.

    The USA is weird as it makes claims on the money of US citizens regardless of where they make their money even if they live overseas full time. This may indeed be mitigated by reciprocal agreements but the tax obligation technically remains.

    Most other countries lose interest in your activities if you move out of their turf for a significant period of time, the US still demands you make tax returns on your global income regardless.

    I know a couple former US nationals who tore up their US passports and took another nationality as they made way over the $70,000 threshold (this number may have changed for all I know) for overseas income and they did not see why they should have to share information about their affairs with Uncle Sam.

    Technically they still owed tax (or at least tax returns) for a number of years after abandoning their US citizenship (10 years I think), but as neither of them ever intends to return to the USA, all they sent the IRS after they “expatriated” was a rather rude drawing on a tax form.

  • RAB wins the thread.

    This is utter nonsense. To begin with: running away from the threat will never work. Beyond that, we’re talking about life at sea. You’d need a strong microscope to see the number of real live humans who are going to be interested in that.

    Friedman’s a bloody loon, worse than his father.

  • Leo Lencioni

    Has anybody think the posibility of having it registered as a ship under the flag of a suitable country. In that way the structure will be floating in the ocean but under the rule of a country. Onboard the ship the law of the registerd country applies. So the only thing that you need is a small recognized country with libertarian rule, but with the potential of having a lot of population.

  • Richard Freeland

    So I wonder what happens when pirates plunder such a place? Do they try to run for the nearest navy?

  • nick g.

    A while back I was looking into places around Australia which could be settled, and I thought that Ashmore Reef might do the trick. Then I read about how unblessed by water it is, though there are some sources onthe small islands.
    However, intrepid libbers could do a Holland, by putting a sea-wall around all the islands, and draining the lagoon dry! Then you’d have an island smaller than Singapore, but liveable. Those sovereignty ships could settle nearby, and the passengers get out and about on reclaimed dry land.
    Or we could all get together and invade Tasmania, secede from Australia, and start with a nice-sized island.
    Which do you prefer?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Sealand, the old UK flak tower in the North Sea off Felixstowe, Suffolk, is still a bona fide nation, as far as I know. There is also a place in western Australia.

    Billy Beck’s comments on Patri and dad are out of order. The Friedman’s have done rather more for the cause of liberty than most.

  • wot about all moving in and taking over San Marino?

  • So I wonder what happens when pirates plunder such a place? Do they try to run for the nearest navy?

    What makes you think such places will not be armed? Also, if piracy means there is a demand for non-state based naval protection services, the market would surely provide them.

  • Laird

    In the article there is a link to a book on seasteading that Friedman and Gramlich are working on (it’s still in draft form and incomplete, but can be read on-line), in which they address many of the issues raised in this thread (i.e., fresh water, piracy, flag of convenience, etc.). I don’t pretend to have read it, just skimmed through, but it appears that they’ve thought about these issues pretty carefully. Worth a closer read, when I have the time. Anyway, this is an interesting idea, and could work for those of us whose occupations can be pursued on-line from remote locations.

  • Paul Marks

    For once some good news about a silicon valley millionaire (so many of them are collectivist in their politics). I agree with Brian that this is a good idea – and the man has a done a noble thing by donating money to back up his idea.

    Although I wonder how they will get round the United Nations “law of the sea” collectivist treaty – which was written to try and block this sort of thing.

  • “Billy Beck’s comments on Patri and dad are out of order.”

    Not in my experience, pal. I stand by what I said. David is barely tolerable, and his kid is a total loss.

  • Sunfish

    Although I wonder how they will get round the United Nations “law of the sea” collectivist treaty – which was written to try and block this sort of thing.

    By ignoring it.

    “Oh, you’re from a debating society in New York? How cute. By the way, nobody cares and you’re trespassing.”

  • Ian B

    Didn’t Elron Hubbard already try this?

  • Ian B

    Scenario:

    The Great Nations Of The Earth declare Seatopia One to be a nest of organised crime, terrorists, paedophiles, smokers and all the other hated enabling bogey men, and impose sanctions. Sanctions are declared. No transactions are permitted between onshore banks and Seatopia One. How does Seatopia One by food and new O rings for that failed sewage macerator? How long can the Seatopians survive with no external contact?

    What happens when the US navy invade?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Not in my experience, pal. I stand by what I said. David is barely tolerable, and his kid is a total loss.

    Why? I have met David F. several times – not his son – and he struck me as a smart guy. Very smart in fact. Anyway, I don’t want to get off topic.

  • Nick M

    Fuck it.

    Some people bank off-shore to escape the collectivists.

    I want to bank off planet.

    “Yeah, if you want to check my TV license it’s the first stop on the left, just past Jupiter”.

  • Axion the Saxon

    The Great Nations Of The Earth declare Seatopia One to be a nest of organised crime, terrorists, paedophiles, smokers…. Sanctions are declared. No transactions are permitted between onshore banks and Seatopia One.

    Thr Seatopia One’s modules uncouple, and go join a different cluster.

    How does Seatopia One by food and new O rings for that failed sewage macerator? How long can the Seatopians survive with no external contact?

    Sure just like the US has proven totally capable of interdicting the drug supply lines and rolling up the concain industry. And you think finding food to buy is difficult?

    What happens when the US navy invade?

    Dispersal. My guess is such people have more imagination than you and imagination is a survival trait..

  • DavidNcl

    I cannot speak for Billy Beck and I have never met any of the Friedmans. Some of the people I have heard discount or dismiss David Friedman are very strong advocates of natural law and David is very much not. In fact he (rightly) ridicules it and axiomatic moral philosophy. This tends to make the more rigid followers of Mises & Rothbard uncomfortable.

  • valdemar

    Who will clean the toilets in Sea Libertaria?

    1. The rich will clean their own toilets. Hmmm.
    2. Poorly paid staff will clean the toilets, commuting to and from the nearest mainland.
    3. Poorly paid staff will clean the toilets, commuting to and from Libertaria from a nearby ‘floating estate’.
    4. Poorly paid staff will clean the toilets, and live in cramped servants’ quarters aboard the rich folks’ mansion podule rig things. Ah, liberty…
    5. Well paid, contented staff will clean the toilets, and live in nice spacious quarters aboard the seastead mega floaty pods.
    6. A race of shiny intelligent robots will clean and the toilets until they realise that Asimov’s Third Law is a fictional concept and massacre their masters.

  • tomwright

    Neal Stephensons ‘The Diamond Age’, anyone?

  • John

    I brought up a similar concern with Nixon’s Freedom Ship as mentioned by valdemar…never did receive any kind of response, much less a reasonable one.

  • Valdemar and John: who cleans your toilets now?

  • valdemar

    Good question, Alisa. I do. I am not rich.

  • valdemar

    John, I’m not surprised you got no response. I’m a great fan of sf and Utopian ideas, but the practicalities are often a bit too messy for the theoreticians. I seem to recall that Jack Vance, in one of his novels, did suggest a solution to the ‘who cleans the toilets?’ question. It involved a society of aristos who, on a rota basis, took on every conceivable dirty job for a while, thus freeing some of their time for good living. This is of course a kind of anarchist communism, which is surprising given that Vance has libertarian admirers. But perhaps if you go far enough in one direction you end up returning from another…

  • nick g.

    I think the Vance novel is ‘Big Planet’.
    Re- plunbing. In reality, waste is fertiliser. You might have a good business collecting ‘night soil’ and selling it to farms to recycle. Maybe you, the supplier, could charge by the kilo, and then complain when food prices start to escalate because of the costs of fertiliser…

  • Ian B

    The question of “who cleans the toilets” isn’t really just about toilets; it’s a question of whether Seatopia will have a real economy or just be a floating condominium for the wealthy. Economies need many people to do infrastructural work, and while not all of it may be so basic as cleaning toilets, much of it is work that a wealthy person is unlikely to want to do, and is unlikely to be skilled at doing. You need engineers to keep the sewage system working and the generators running and the lights on, you need bar workers, cooks, window cleaners, road sweepers, builders, labourers, delivery men, carpet fitters, waiters, shop workers and many more. If Seatopia is a place you pay to live, it’s unlikely anyone with the money to pay to live there will want to do many of these jobs. Is it a place that ordinary people can live in as citizens or just a floating paradise for the wealthy? What is the economic basis of Seatopia? Is it a society or a floating hotel? Are the cleaners citizens, or employees of Seatopia Inc. hidden below decks?

    I’ve nothing against the wealthy living the high life; that’s what money is for and the incentive to earn it productively. But it’s the less wealthy classes who are most in need of some liberty at the moment.

  • Valdemar: OK, so I understand that if you could afford it, you would hire someone to do it for you. I have two questions, then: why do you see anything wrong with this, and why do you presume that everyone there will be rich?

  • Ian B

    I note that for instance the Freedom Ship mentioned by John is designed to have 40,000 residents and 20,000 crew.

  • valdemar

    I agree, Ian B. If I won the lottery tomorrow I’d be considerably more free than I am today. But I wouldn’t be living in a freer society.

    The Vance novel may well be Big Planet. I think something similar appeared in Cugel’s Saga or The Eyes of the Overworld, which are fantasy but still chock full of good ideas.

  • Ian, your comment was not up while I posted mine, and you make a very good point.

  • Laird

    Re Ian B’s question about whether “Seatopia” will be a functioning economy or just a floating condominium:

    The seasteading concept is that there will be many “Seatopias”, each with its own answer to that question. Any particular one could be either, or something in between. Friedman isn’t trying to provide a definitive, “one-size-fits-all” answer to that question. One of the fundamental premises of his proposal is that “seasteading” will permit a nearly infinite variety of governmental/managerial/lifestyle arrangements, selected to suit the preferences of those who choose to live there. His discussion of “self-sufficiency” is a proxy for that issue, since the more self-sufficient any particular seastead is the more it approaches a true functioning economy. (Keep in mind that no economy is completely independent; all import and export with others.) Here’s an excerpt from his book-in-progress:

    “Seasteads can choose their level of self-sufficiency based on factors like size, distance to land, initial capital available, and desired levels of trade and luxury. The initial seasteads will probably be small and less self-sufficient. The variety of goods used in modern life is staggering, and it will simply not be feasible to make them all onboard. This is especially true because the ocean is a demanding environment, and it will be difficult to meet its challenges without some serious technology. Fortunately water transport is quite inexpensive, which makes importing many goods feasible. Thus we expect needs will be served by a continual series of compromises between local production and trade.

    “Different perspectives on self-sufficiency will yield very different choices. We’ve had libertarians and futurists scoff at the idea of growing their own food rather than just importing it, and we’ve had environmentalists who thought our ideas of self-sufficiency still depend way too much on the outside world. There is no “correct” solution, since the optimal seastead for someone who sees local, do-it-yourself production as a plus is different from the optimal seastead for someone who sees it as a minus. This may cause difficulties (and require compromises) on the first seastead or two, at which point the groups will probably split. Our exploration of these technologies is biased by our particular viewpoint on a good level of compromise, but keep in mind that more or less trade are always available options.

    My guess is that until its population reaches some “critical mass,” no seastead will really be a functioning economy. However, once that size is reached and you start to see substantial division of labor and specialization, it will begin to approach one. That may take some time; these entities will grow by accretion.

    Friedman also discusses different “business models” which a seastead could follow, in which each is organized to provide a particular service (such as advanced medical research and treatment, offshore manufacturing, banking and financial services, communications, etc.). Such entities would probably look less like an independent functioning economy than an old-fashioned “company town” (with all that implies). That probably makes more sense than a simple “floating city”. Still, the possibilities are endless and the idea is fascinating.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Laird, to reprise an earlier comment thread, seasteading is a valid example of the “gated community” concept we talked about.

  • Laird

    I’ll grant you that it fits the definition of a “gated community”, but what does the word “valid” add to your sentence?

  • Paul Marks

    David Friedman is not quite the enemy of either Common Sense school (i.e. intuitive) or Aristotelian principles of morality, that some people think he is.

    David Friedman has stated that he uses utilitarian arguments – rather than is a utilitarian.

    This is because if one claims that a certain principle (the nonaggression princple) leads to more material prosperty this is subject to proof (either via logic, the Mises way, or by empirical evidence – which David Friedman often uses).

    But if one just says that violating the bodies or goods of other people “is wrong” one may well be right – but one does not have lots of “studies” and other such one can show people.

    This does not mean that utilitarianism is correct (which is why David Friedman refuses to commit himself to it).

    For example, trying to calculate whether the pleasure of the rapist or rapist is greater or less than the pain of the victim is to miss the point that “right and wrong” are not really about “pleasure and pain” – the utilitarian has fallen into a category mistake.

    And the utilitarian is not saved from this mistake by substituing “rule untilitarianism” for “act utilitarianism”.

    For it is NOT the “long term consequences” of allowing rape that make a rape wrong – it is that rape (and so on) is wrong.

    It is wrong – because it is wrong. Not because of some pleasure-pain calculation or because of the “general consquences for society….”.

    But to say “it is wrong because it is wrong” ends a discussion – it does not allow one to deploy lots of studies and so on that might win over people.

    So to say “if you violate the bodies and goods of others you do evil, and I will oppose you” may be totally correct – but it is not useful for winning people over.

    Hence David Friedman’s use of arguments intended to show that they will be better off materially if the accept the non aggression principle.

  • charles marlow

    interesting, dissenting view of sea-steading and dealing with legal, political and cultural aspects – from the perspective of an experienced seafarer: http://tiki38.blogspot.com

  • Eric

    “Neal Stephensons ‘The Diamond Age’, anyone?”

    Was that libertarian or collectivist?

    The giant ships in that novel were orphanages, each housing about 50,000 girls who had been abandoned by their parents at birth.

    In the novel, Neal Stephenson said nothing about the adults in charge (Dr. X, Judge Fang, Hackworth, the sailors, the wet nurses, etc.) charging the biological parents any fees for these services or charging the girls themselves fees for these services (and considering the girls in debt until they somehow repaid).

    There was even public education; in one scene Judge Fang tells Dr. X “These young ones must all be educated” instead of assuming that if the girls need education the market will provide it and if the market won’t provide it then the girls don’t need education. Dr. X then gives each girl a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (an interactive e-book with 12 years’ worth of homeschooling built in) at age 4, and Stephenson said nothing about anyone being charged tuition for this system.