Could be the start of a magical utopia where government is small, freedom is plentiful, and the only limit to the pursuit of happiness is your ability to swim. Or, it could be “Lord of the Flies.” Either way: Exciting.
Maybe there’ll be a “President Paul” somewhere after all.
It goes like this: Friedman wants to establish new sovereign nations built on oil-rig-type platforms anchored in international waters—free from the regulation, laws, and moral suasion of any landlocked country. They’d be small city-states at first, although the aim is to have tens of millions of seasteading residents by 2050. Architectural plans for a prototype involve a movable, diesel-powered, 12,000-ton structure with room for 270 residents, with the idea that dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of these could be linked together. Friedman hopes to launch a flotilla of offices off the San Francisco coast next year; full-time settlement, he predicts, will follow in about seven years; and full diplomatic recognition by the United Nations, well, that’ll take some lawyers and time.
“The ultimate goal,” Friedman says, “is to open a frontier for experimenting with new ideas for government.” This translates into the founding of ideologically oriented micro-states on the high seas, a kind of floating petri dish for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons.
It’s a vivid, wild-eyed dream—think Burning Man as reimagined by Ayn Rand’s John Galt and steered out to sea by Captain Nemo—but Friedman and Thiel, aware of the long and tragicomic history of failed libertarian utopias, believe that entrepreneurial zeal sets this scheme apart. One potential model is something Friedman calls Appletopia: A corporation, such as Apple, “starts a country as a business. The more desirable the country, the more valuable the real estate,” Friedman says. When I ask if this wouldn’t amount to a shareholder dictatorship, he doesn’t flinch. “The way most dictatorships work now, they’re enforced on people who aren’t allowed to leave.” Appletopia, or any seasteading colony, would entail a more benevolent variety of dictatorship, similar to your cell-phone contract: You don’t like it, you leave. Citizenship as free agency, you might say. Or as Ken Howery, one of Thiel’s partners at the Founders Fund, puts it, “It’s almost like there’s a cartel of governments, and this is a way to force governments to compete in a free-market way.”
Some experts have scoffed at the legal and logistical practicalities of seasteading. Margaret Crawford, an expert on urban planning and a professor of architecture at Berkeley, calls it “a silly idea without any urban-planning implications whatsoever.” Other observers have mocked it outright, such as Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, who deemed it perhaps “the most elaborate effort ever devised by a group of computer nerds to get invited to an orgy.” Despite the naysayers, Thiel appears firmly committed to the idea; he has so far funneled $1.25 million to the Seasteading Institute.
An isolated community populated by people desperate enough to work for less than minimum wage with easy access to weapons of all sorts sounds like quite a ride. Although I’m more intrigued by the selling point about building codes. Are zoning laws so terribly frustrating to some people’s architectural dreams that they need to move to Waterworld to fulfill them? Wouldn’t the engineering requirements of life on the ocean prove to be way more restricttive than building codes anyway?
Three videos for you here; the guy in the second one is Patri Friedman, former Google engineer and grandson of the one and only Milton Friedman. Do note that the Seasteading Institute’s FAQ (which includes a section, “What about pirates?”) emphasizes that this venture isn’t limited to libertarians. At its most fundamental, it’s a Rawls-ian experiment in how newborn societies develop under a given set of political rules. If the last few Hopenchange dead-enders want to head out off the coast and make Obama king, presumably they could do it. However it shakes out, it’s the greatest game of Sim City ever. Exit question one: Can we learn something truly enlightening/useful about how societies develop from people who think it’s cool to live on a retrofitted oil rig? Exit question two: How long would it be before these seasteads produced a gambling mecca/vice den that put Vegas utterly to shame? Anything goes. Anything.