Some Men Would Like To Be Islands: The Hows And Whys Of Seasteading

Here’s one way to avoid the hassles of the nation-state: Shove off on a boat or a platform or something else that won’t sink and establish your own little country. “Seasteading” is the name that’s been coined for it, though it has more of a rebellious, fantastic flavor than its dreary old antecedent, homesteading. Build a treehouse on a pirate ship, free yourself up from the tyranny of the majority and never have to take out the garbage again! Of all the big ideas simmering out there, seasteading may sound like the most fun.

While not exactly burning up the front page, the seasteading movement has blipped recently as the subject of a syndicated column by original kayfabe victim John Stossel — and, more intriguingly still, as one of the pet topics of very busy man Peter Thiel. Thiel — whose résumé includes lawyer, trader, PayPal founder, Facebook funder, published thinker and current president of a global macro hedge fund — recently made news by offering to grant twenty youngsters $100,000 apiece to drop out of college and start up a new business, partly for reasons inspired by his belief in an education bubble. But seasteading, also promulgated in the National Review’s long interview with Thiel earlier this year, has less to do with renegade venture capitalism than it does long-view futurism, and it certainly has a more pronounced degree of difficulty: Ditching your sophomore year for cash is easy. Starting a nation on a boat is hard.

Thiel’s libertarianism is a matter of public record, and it’s libertarianism that’s fueling the seasteading movement. For the discerning libertarian, seasteading represents a possible middle frontier, between the now of cyberspace and the distant future of the commercialization of outer space. The intended purpose of these miniature autonomous zones is to establish floating havens not technically in the US and accordingly outside the reach of the Feds and the individual states that together impinge on the enlightened citizen by imposing taxes and other impediments to self-actualization and bliss. Tiny little Galt’s Gulches, but asea.

Thiel is not the originator of this movement, and he does not claim to be so. The founder of the organization seeded by Thiel, The Seasteading Institute (a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation) is Patri Friedman, the grandson of Milton Friedman. And ultimately the concept is a direct descendent of the concept of “micronations,” impossibly tiny bits of territory that claim sovereignty for various reasons. In the ’70s they were hailed as the solution for libertarians trapped in a society of which they did not approve: Why not start your own damn country? Eventual data haven Sealand you might have heard of, as you might have Minerva, a South Pacific reef dredged into tiny island size, founded and flag-planted by a libertarian, which made the mistake of attracting the attention of the Kingdom of Tonga, which invaded it less than a year later.

But what’s going on here is not as simple as retreat — the purpose of pursuing the eventual seastead, as promoted by Thiel, being not merely to establish a libertarian haven, but also to influence the behavior of all the world’s other nations:

The idea is that we need to create competition between governments. If it’s very hard to reform existing ones, we need to create new sovereign states — in the oceans or elsewhere.

He presents it as a post-political solution; instead of fighting in the marketplace of ideas, establish a place where libertarian ideals can be applied in real space. And as the planet’s land masses are almost completely subject to the laws of some government or other, put this place out into the big wet two-thirds of the rest of the planet. I find the appeal here easy to see — many, many gigabytes of information have been produced arguing one political viewpoint or another, and a barely measurable portion of this conversation has actually had tangible effect. Why not skip the talking loud and go straight to doing something? Why not try to create proof-of-concept? I’m leery of the magic wand of “competition” (gaming the system is as much the product of competition as efficiency), but an entrepreneurial approach to address the problems of governments and their governed is novel enough to merit more than a glance.

So let’s leave aside for a moment the argument over whether this is a desirable thing to do, or a right thing to do. After all, the idea of the seasteading movement is not to impose some structure over the body politic, but to create a volitional “law-free” community outside of the world that you and I live in and hope that we’ll either get jealous and join up or keep our worthless non-contributing selves out of their Platonic ideal. In the spirit of letting our brothers and sisters pursue their dreams as long as they aren’t hurting anybody, let’s designate right and wrong as irrelevant for the time being. Since seasteading is intended as an exercise in practice and not in theory: Can it actually be pulled off, in the fullness of the concept?

The most basic conceptual problem is whether or not a seagoing vessel can be truly free of laws, whether a process to “secede” a population from their citizenships can be viable. The lack of a flag could arguably negate the laws of the origin of the passengers, but there is also a body of maritime law, developed over a millennium, that governs interactions in international waters. Granted, since there is no world-governing body, admiralty laws are invoked and enforced by treaty between participating nations. On paper, the seastead could just refrain from entering into any treaty granting admiralty law jurisdiction and thus remain law-free. The possibility of flying a so-called flag of convenience is an intriguing workaround, but it would also fly in the face of the purpose of the seastead, agreeing to be bound by the laws of yet another country instead of being free of all of them other than the self-imposed, so let’s rule it out on grounds of principle.

On the other hand, it would be safe to assume that if the seastead engages in any transaction with a sovereign nation, that nation would insist on some degree of applicability of its own laws. Hypothetically, if a seastead wanted to buy a couple tons of, say, Australian diesel, Australia could insist that a sales tax, levy or duty be paid. The potential exists for some unexpected complexity to arise from these now-international transactions, and I don’t see how the seasteads would be in a position of leverage. Additionally, if any of the seastead passengers are not free of the need to have an income, any commerce conducted in a sovereign nation by the passengers (say, if they were commuting) would be subject to the very same taxes that are trying to be avoided as well as to any regulations governing the applicable industry. Of course there are shelters and all kinds of other mechanisms used to sneak around tax obligations, but in the case of a seastead the tax-avoidance strategy would have more in common with the arguments of :David-Wynn: Miller than the slick kung-fu of a Hungarian shell company (at least in the eyes of the relevant tax authorities, who, historically, have not been convinced by the argument that the taxpayer is not liable for tax obligations because the taxpayer says so).

Operationally, the viability of the seastead is an even better question. After all, a network of dirigibles with free backrubs and unlimited comic books is also an excellent idea that might not work. In a seastead, flagged or not, there will be dirty-fingernail necessities, from engineering to deck-swabbing, that would presumably not be the purview of the Galt-Goers, the enlightened objectivist remnants, taking advantage of the budding utopia unfolding. Look at the cruise-ship industry, the industry most closely related to seasteading. I spoke to a former cruise-ship contractor, to get a sense of what kind of support is required to service a population of indiscriminate size bobbling in international waters, and he painted an interesting picture (spoken of elsewhere) of a sizable workforce, homogeneous by caste, creating shadow economies below-decks, with overtones of mistreatment by employers. The overall sense is that the cruise industry is powered by their very own Morlocks.

This does not necessarily have to be the case for seasteads. Perhaps seastead operators can manage to staff a functioning craft with shiny-uniformed, smiling experts, each as well compensated as an airline pilot and all ruthlessly efficient and relentlessly charming. But then libertarianism has never been famous for extravagant compensation for maids and porters.

Then there is the problem of the acquisition of food and fuel, and waste disposal, and those other nuts-and-bolts questions that are boring but essential. Yet again, it’s difficult to envision anything approaching self-sufficiency in any of these issues of materiel. It’s a question of technology, which is advancing rapidly, but not quite there yet. Solar/tidal energy? Krill farms? Some next-gen recycling? A seastead would definitely be a useful laboratory for these studies, but to the extent that these advancements don’t happen in a soonish manner, then these materials must be acquired. This is not a failure in concept — what nation is truly self-sufficient? — but the seastead will absolutely need to trade with other nations, which, as we’ve discussed, could be sticky depending on which country’s laws the seastead is trying to abrogate, or even in the sense of the current unreliability of the potential rogue state trading partner.

Speaking of sticky relations, how would a seastead deal with the messy topic of self-defense? It’s pessimistic to bring up the issue, but remember that piracy remains a modern problem. Is part of the workforce a dedicated security service? Do the passengers/residents arm themselves to the teeth? And keep in mind that pirates are scary (and fun), but in the event of a dispute with, say, another seastead, or another nation, a gun-bearing population won’t matter. How does a seastead defend itself from navies?

There’s nothing to say that a seastead could not ever ever work. But, in addition to the challenges that must be overcome, for the seastead to be truly unfettered by government interference, it needs to be truly self-sufficient. And this is the practical aspect that tends towards the untenable.

To be fair, if you look over the FAQ page of TSI, some of these conceptual problems are anticipated (as well as explored more in depth elsewhere in the site). As currently envisioned, the seastead is not intended to be a full-fledged micronation but instead would operate almost as a libertarian resort. There it would float, a residential center/business zone on a specially designed vessel, just off the coast of some major metropolitan area, not self-sufficient at all with regards to food, fuel and services, providing a haven for those industries that can flourish without government oversight, like banking, tourism (both regular and medical) and presumably (though not a stated goal) black market enterprises deemed criminal elsewhere. For now at least, it seems that seasteading is about starting your Minerva without having to be too far from a good restaurant — and without getting invaded by Tonga.

But starting small does not answer some of the bigger questions. To address the concern of whether the seastead would be allowed to raise its own flag by the international community, TSI cites how the aforementioned cruise industry has been getting away with it for years due to the economic influence the industry has on its port cities. But what would be the commensurate economic effect of a seastead, other than to siphon revenue from the urban center it’s moored near? And how exactly does hiring a crew and staff fall within the worldview of individual achievement? Are this crew and staff entitled to the political exigencies afforded the residents/passengers? It falls well short of utopia.

The Peter Pan appeal of seasteading is undeniable: living on a boat, breaking the rules, talking like a pirate, etc. Of the friends/family surveyed, it was the kids who were the most enthusiastic about the concept, and some of the grown-ups were only marginally less so. But, even assuming that all the kinks are worked out and all the ideological tests passed, wouldn’t being trapped on a comparably small (when compared to land) craft with a finite group of people universally thought of as at best a tolerable two weeks and at worst a supposedly fun thing to do? Maybe having ocean views and the salt spray in your face for the morning jog could be pluses, but it seems like it combines the worst parts of living in cities and in the exurbs: very close living circumstances in an environment difficult to escape. All the luxury that the salvaged remnant could muster would do little to make that tolerable in the long term.

Thiel is primarily a technologist. His clothing does have an objectivist cut to it and he does wear it well, but the filter through which Thiel sees the world is that of technology and its uses. Of course, as a leading light libertarian, the shadow of government intrusion looms, but his first solution to what he sees as problems is the advance and implementation of technology. And tragically it is the technology that fails the seastead. It’s just not yet plausible in its ideal state, and in its practical beta version, it’s not very different than an offshore casino/hotel with really cheap cigarettes. And even if tech catches up somehow to create a closed environment that produces enough calories for everybody, the social tech of acquired labor will somehow trip this up. Maybe energy can somehow be created in a circular fashion, but society decidedly will not be. Someone is going to have to clean the toilets, and a ship crewed only by captains is going to have a hard time addressing that.

As Thiel says, “There are libertarian perspectives from which cyberspace is appealing because it is relatively free of state regulation and intervention. But the basic problem, or basic fact, is that people are biological, physical entities that live in the real world.” The same could also be said for seasteading. In fact, the fact that people are corporeal entities in a tangible world, and that there are an awful lot of them, could be the most important thing to keep in mind for the big sociopolitical thinkers of the day.

Brent Cox is all over the Internet.

Seasteading images by Andras Gyorfi and TSI, via Wikipedia Commons. Thiel photo by David Orban.