With many Western national governments, particularly in the English-speaking countries, increasingly approaching totalitarianism in their policies, the need for liberty-oriented reform has never been more urgent. This totalitarianism looms over us during a make-or-break time for human civilization. Depending on whether human beings will be allowed to innovate in peace, we can either achieve astonishing technological progress that will liberate us from age-old problems and bring about unprecedented prosperity – or we can descend into the barbaric abyss of interminable miseries that has characterized much of our species’ time on Earth.
Conventional political means are capable of rousing considerable passion – witness the Ron Paul movement in the United States. But, as the defection of Ron Paul’s son Rand to the Mitt Romney camp shows, such conventional means are vulnerable to the missteps of the liberty movements’ own leaders. Rand Paul’s endorsement of Romney fractured the Ron Paul movement and has created a widespread perception of mistrust among friends of liberty, many of whom will now go their own separate ways. Of course, it has historically been a considerable challenge to get libertarians to agree on a strategy for achieving beneficial change – and perhaps it is more reasonable not to expect agreement, but rather to develop an approach that would work in achieving greater liberty without the need for such agreement. It would also help if this approach did not need to be as cumbersome, top-down, and expensive as political activism.
Seasteading has recently emerged as a promising alternative to political activism. Seasteads – a concept originated by Patri Friedman and Wayne Gramlich – are modular floating ocean platforms that can be combined and recombined to create autonomous cities on the oceans. In 2008, Friedman founded The Seasteading Institute with the financial support of libertarian entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel. The idea has attracted respectable financing from Thiel and others, as well as input from legal and engineering scholars, and proposals for seastead designs and businesses. The Seasteading Institute makes available a large collection of research papers, project ideas, and public discussions, and it is not my intent here to probe into or scrutinize every detail of its ambitions. Rather, I hope to provide a general overview of the areas in which the concept of seasteading shows promise, as well as some of the significant challenges it will need to overcome.
As a friend of liberty, I wish the seasteading movement all the best. It is vital to explore every peaceful approach that has even a possibility of reversing the galloping totalitarianism of Western national governments and creating an incentive structure for accelerating human technological innovation.
In today’s countries, the land and most homes are fixed. One cannot move with ease if one finds the government’s policies oppressive; one is reluctant to lose one’s home, land, larger articles of personal property, and other location-specific amenities. Some governments, such as that of the United States, will even try to impose an exit tax or lay claim to income earned abroad. The physical detachability of seasteads solves this problem by enabling a person and his property to move inseparably to a variety of communities, or to remain as an autonomous unit. Patri Friedman’s goal is to create laboratories for political experimentation on seasteads. Much faster implementation of innovative political structures would be possible on a seastead, as compared to a traditional country, since each seastead community would be small and modular. Quick decision-making in a small group would enable beneficial innovations to be deployed, while harmful policies could result in much easier secession from the community – simply by detaching one’s seastead and setting course for a different community.
Seasteading would not directly change existing political structures. However, it may achieve greater individual liberation in a twofold manner: (1) by liberating those individuals who choose to live on seasteads instead of in traditional nation-states, and (2) by creating a virtuous cycle of political competition that motivates traditional governments to enact reforms in order to keep up with the prosperity and innovation occurring on the seasteads. It is extremely difficult to convince a majority of citizens of a multimillion-person nation to adopt a radical new policy or to radically abolish existing policies, even if the change promises to improve life dramatically. But many people – including some politicians – who are reluctant to pioneer an improvement will be willing to accept it if it has been tried and shown to work elsewhere.
A major advantage of seasteading is that it can begin as a sufficiently low-profile movement to avoid crackdowns by existing centers of political power. The seasteading movement does not threaten the sovereignty of any country; it does not propose to take away any nation’s territory or to challenge its government’s jurisdiction over that territory. Indeed, the infant stages of seasteading may, out of practical necessity, entail the creation of seasteads that explicitly submit to the jurisdiction of the United States, Canada, or a country in Europe or East Asia. The purpose of those early seasteads would not be the direct exercise of political autonomy, but rather experimentation with seasteading technologies and modes of living. The early seasteads would yield useful insights about how to construct floating modular platforms to be durable, cost-efficient, spacious, and comfortable. At this stage, the seasteading movement does not require the support or even the notice of most people – or even all liberty-oriented people. The people who are interested can advance the viability of seasteading by their direct work on improving seastead design and creating viable seastead-based businesses.
Yet the initial stage of the seasteading movement remains its most vulnerable. Seasteads must be built somewhere under the jurisdiction of an existing government. It is possible for the various requirements pertaining to building standards, licenses, permits, and zoning to hobble the construction and deployment of seasteads. In most parts of the United States, it is difficult enough to obtain permission to build a new house or small office building! If federal agencies, such as the US Coast Guard or the Environmental Protection Agency, become involved, the difficulties would be further compounded. The seasteading movement would be greatly benefited by capable legal representatives who understand what current laws permit and would be ready to defend the construction of a seastead if it is challenged. Furthermore, it is essential to choose relatively lax and business-friendly jurisdictions for the construction and deployment of the initial seasteads. I recommend the approach of full compliance with all laws that actually exist, combined with a thorough knowledge of such laws – to give the seasteading movement the ability to refute arbitrary compliance requests that are not based in law – as well as a choice of jurisdictions where the laws in question are not as onerous. The seasteading movement must particularly be vigilant for attempts to quash the concept of seasteading itself, under the guise of achieving some formalistic compliance, but in reality motivated by an ideological opposition from the powers in a particular jurisdiction.
Once seasteads become sufficiently cost-effective and tested to be appealing to broader segments of the general public, the deployment of truly autonomous ocean communities can begin. Such communities could begin to arise once seasteads reach areas outside the territorial waters of any nation – but even there a risk exists of boarding, expropriation, and arrest by representatives of traditional nation-states. This risk is particularly high if a seastead is perceived to be engaged in activity that threatens the nation-state – such as trading in weapons or currently illegal drugs. Even though many advocates of seasteading, myself included, support drug legalization, it may be advisable to abstain from permitting certain substances on seasteads out of prudential considerations.
True political independence for seasteads will likely come about through an evolutionary process – much like the “benign neglect” of the American Colonies for decades by the government of Great Britain created a political culture that resisted restrictions on liberty when the British government began to impose them. Perhaps benign neglect from the United States and other Western powers will be the best that the early seasteaders can hope for. The first quasi-autonomous seastead communities might make a demonstration of complying with restrictions that Western governments would be particularly interested in enforcing extraterritorially. If a culture of such compliance is established, the seasteads might otherwise be left alone and free from the petty micromanagement that extends far beyond such matters as prohibiting trade in certain substances. But once there are enough seastead communities – each with already flourishing internal economies and many technological innovations to their credit – they may begin to have the resources and internal strength to resist impositions from traditional nation-states. Hopefully, this resistance will be accomplished by a peaceful assertion of sovereignty, a declaration of good will toward all other political jurisdictions, and simple acquiescence by the nation-states. Perhaps the economies of the seasteads and the traditional countries will have become so inextricably intertwined by that time, that violence will be deemed out of the question by all parties – and the populations of the traditional countries would strongly object to the notion of attacking another peaceful, prosperous, civilized community with many common cultural and even personal ties to these countries.
But inanimate nature can pose dangers to seasteads that are as great as the dangers posed by man. The oceans are not known to have the most clement conditions. Aside from severe storms, which can probably be withstood with sufficiently durable construction, the risks of earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis are immense – as Japan’s experience in 2011 has demonstrated. The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and consequent meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant undermined confidence in nuclear power worldwide – despite the existence of more advanced nuclear technology that can avoid meltdowns. An earthquake and tsunami can wipe out even sturdy seastead communities. Furthermore, a large earthquake on the ocean during the early days of seasteading may greatly undermine interest in the movement. Therefore, it is particularly important to choose sites of low seismic activity to deploy at least some of the early seasteads. Deployment into more seismically active areas will be more viable once seasteading has reached such popularity that placing a seastead near an earthquake fault will be seen as no more unusual than building a house in California.
As a risk-averse person who prefers ample space, I would not be an early adopter of the seasteading lifestyle. However, I salute the pioneers who would be willing to live on the first seasteads, with their likely cramped conditions and limited amenities. They are paving (or, as the case may be, floating) the way for the rest of us. Ultimately, however, seasteads will need to be designed to accommodate the living standards to which people are accustomed on land. Persons with a strong desire to actualize a principle or with a particularly hardy disposition may be willing to accept some degree of privation; they would be a needed and much appreciated first wave of adopters. If the political situation on land becomes physically perilous to large numbers of people, a major exodus onto seasteads might be conceivable even before the seasteads become comfortable. In the absence of such an unfortunate development, however, I anticipate that seasteads would need to have the space and facilities typical of a small American house, or at least a large recreational vehicle (RV), before they become attractive to people without significant pioneering or ideological motivations.
The incremental evolution of seasteads toward viability, autonomy, and mass adoption seems the most likely practical course, but it is legitimate to ask whether it will be enough to stem the tide of encroachments on our freedoms today. Perhaps it will – combined with other forms of pro-liberty activity, including political activism in each country and continued technological and cultural innovation in areas where it remains possible. Seasteading may not be sufficiently mature to serve as a remedy to our current condition of servitude, but it may help us keep totalitarianism at bay in combination with other approaches. This is another avenue for friends of liberty to explore, and we need as many of those as we can get. Ultimately, the objective for libertarians and others who think similarly should be not to reach complete theoretical agreement on everything, but rather to enable each individual to arrive at a position where his or her direct efforts can effectively produce greater liberty, prosperity, and progress. Seasteading will hopefully serve to empower increasing numbers of people to make such lasting contributions.