Inspired by Ayn Rand, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, along with Patri Friedman and others, are helping the Seasteading Institute plan a floating ‘start-up country’ off the coast of San Francisco, built on oil-rig like platforms in international waters.
Here residents will be able to live by Libertarian ideals, free of regulation, laws, and the welfare state.
I’ve been pondering this and related concepts for a very long time. The seasteading model has many aspects that need to be decrypted, in a spirit of due diligence.
Look, I say all of this not out of unfriendliness… I know Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman and a lot of their cohorts. In fact, I quite like the guys, though I think they have a romantic view of history and human nature. Nothing wrong with that! Frankly, I don’t mind the experiment. Heck, if they ask (and they should), I’ll even advise them.
My next novel—Existence—portrays just such a seasteading colony, in some detail. Still, there are many issues to consider.
1 - The core aim is to escape meddling by any modern states—mostly advanced enlightenment democracies, with their heavy taxes and regulations, while seasteader owner members will still retain full, web-accessed control of their investment portfolios and dividend incomes from those societies. This anisotropy of flow in information, income and influence may be difficult to maintain. It will be necessary to exert great influence on those democracies (the current program) since they have big navies and they influence Law of the Sea jurisprudence.
Taking a step-back, big history perspective, the model we’re talking about here is an age-old, classic one—using one’s current high status to maintain fat channels of influence and control in one direction and money flow in the other, while preventing influence and control from going inconvenient ways. It used to be the uncontested human norm; indeed, this aim may be woven in our genes. But in the context of enlightenment liberal democracy, it may be quite a challenge, especially given the bad press that will inherently swarm over such a project. A substantial fraction of the top U.S. monied caste will have to buy into the concept and use its sway with the same fierce effectiveness that it has in the first decade of the century.
That first decade seems to suggest bright prospects. In addition to altering U.S. law to make it top-friendly, many in the upper castes are already engaged in different kinds of offshoring—e.g., distributing/caching profits in Swiss-style accounts and Patagonian mega ranches. If seasteading is viewed as a variation on this theme, one can see why these smart fellows are betting with good odds. There’s no doubt that other, much bigger players are watching and offering encouragement.
Side note: Want irony? The rising oligarchies of non-democratic nations may become crucial allies, for two reasons. First, these clades have even greater influence over their home nations than western billionaires have in theirs, perhaps enough to cause those nations to apply their legal standing in international bodies in ways that help protect autonomy for the proposed neo-sovereignties. See more on the issue of legal standing, below.
Reciprocally, seasteads may look like good places to build backup homes, in case the status situation ever changes, back home. For both reasons, we can expect substantial developing world involvement, even if the ideas and know-how start out as pure Yankee.
2 - This business plan has to compete with an older and more reliable one: when you want an “offshore” country of your own, simply buy one that already exists. One with built-in labor pools and reliable fresh water supplies. Of course, this isn’t as easy as it was in other eras. Latin America used to be ripe for bought caudillos. Nowadays, you can still purchase 10,000 acre ranches and whole villages… but rising education levels help make underclasses uppity, filling them with lawyers. There’s always Burma and Benin… still, one can see why “build-your-own” starts to have appeal.
3 - Now, in fairness, this may not only be an option for the rich! In my 1989 novel Earth I portray a floating nation, composed mostly of the poor and dispossessed, taking to international waters out of desperation, led by the “Swiss Navy.” You’ll have to read to understand the why and how. In any event, such a rabble of “SeaStaters” might be of concern to the more elevated SeaSteaders, for reasons we’ll get to.
4 - The ocean is a harsh and dangerous environment. Corrosive to metal and other parts. Your shiny paradise soon looks like Waterworld. This is non-trivial in so many ways. Especially in an era when most of the intellectual castes you need for solving the problem - from scientists to engineers to ... well, every other professional clade… are turning hostile to the Randian message. (Name one of them that isn’t under relentless attack by the Murdochian branch of the press. Name even one.)
This new state must be high tech and relentlessly maintained by skilled labor, so finding a way to bridge the growing memic divide will be essential. Instead of offending or waging war on professional castes, getting the “boffins” to buy in will take subtle understanding, and psychology. Still, history suggests that it’s inevitable. For example, read up on how Machiavelli and Galileo—originally populist radicals—became willing servants of their oligarchs. In Existence, I portray some of the advanced techniques, arguments, and buy-ins that may solve the “boffin gap” in coming decades.
5 - There will be a captaincy. When you are at sea, facing nature’s full brunt, including typhoons and corrosion and threats of all kinds, the daily details of running the place will be neither anarchic nor democratic… though it possibly might be AI-based in order to be neutral. Nevertheless, if six thousand years of seafaring history is any judge, there’ll be a captain.
Now, there is potential compatibility with libertarian values! Commercial vessels have long distinguished between the policy authority of owners and the tactical supremacy of the captain. The former can fire the latter, any time they like. Under whatever covenant or constitution they set up, the owners of a SeaStead will have Locke’s recourse of rebellion against the authority they allocate. Still I wager it will wind up being more complicated, onerous and problematic than they now envision.
6 - Clearly there is a shortcut through all the red tape and other dangers. I portray it in Existence. That trick is to forge alliances with already-existing small, island states. Places like Tonga, Vanuatu, etc are currently terrified of being literally wiped off the map by rising seas. What I show in the new novel is an alliance with rich seasteaders that allows them to build their initial pillared paradises on land that is currently relatively dry and already sovereign.
What do the islanders get in return? Why, the promise of participation—indeed, continued “existence”—as their reefs and beaches gradually drown! Buy the novel (coming in June) to see it illustrated.
7 - But let’s return to the seasteads that start de novo, on some submerged sea mount or patch of open sea. Here’s a crucial question:
If you reject the democracies, will you call them for help when an armed gang comes to simply take over your sovereign land, by right of conquest? Perhaps with the fig leaf excuse of a “revolution” of the proletariat of sub minimum wage servants? Or else, rationalizing that strength, cunning, and will are the only righteous justifications required? (Ayn Rand personally repudiated violence; but those who espouse her core principles don’t always agree with that part.) A Sea State of refugees is the least of many sources of such danger.
Whatever defensive arrangements you’ve made, there is always some combination of force and cleverness and treachery that can overcome it. So plan well! Then subject the plan to critique.
8 - On the other hand, the whole thing might be done with superb skill. If all concerns, including environmental ones, are solved (these are clever fellows, after all) we might very well see not only the rise of several dozen unique sovereignties but also wondrous spinoffs—subsidized technological developments that could benefit us all—as I portray in that coming novel.
Piece of advice? Instead of emphasizing the tax-avoidance aspect (a meme which I predict will bite its promoters back, very hard, in the near future), I’d rather see the emphasis be on freedom to do social experiments. Feminist enclaves? Polygamous or polyamorous paradise? A haven for drug experimentation? For genetic self-mod or for bureaucracy-minimized space launch? A place of self-exile for sex-offenders? A MYOB festival? Hey, these things will resonate with public opinion, helping build support. Diversity is the thing, right?
I admit I am less keen on aspects that simply replicate the feudal castles that all our ancestors had to look up at on the hill… and now at sea… where the lords got to evade all accountability, while holding us to our many obligations to them. I asked Patri Friedman if he realized his aim was to re-create that feudal castle… still living off proceeds from the surrounding country. He changed the subject. But isn’t that what it boils down to?
There are design elements that can solve this. Positive-sum ways to both achieve their goals and retain fealty to the overall civilization that engendered their fine lives. I hope these fellows intend to create something cool, that combines the best elements and prevents the worst.
CODA: The real reason for this venture
Remember, these are smart fellows and they can see what you cannot. The “totally autonomous separation” thing is (as we’ve seen) just polemic. But there’s another reason I think they are doing this. Indeed, the deep-down legal subtext is never mentioned.
They are doing this not in order to escape government, but because we on Planet Earth appear to be heading, inexorably, toward a world government.
Um… Brin just said… what?
Yes, I said world government (WG). Let me explain before you… oh, too late! Well, anybody who covers his eyes and ears at this point, shouting “nah!” is simply in denial.
Look at the charts. The rate by which the international civil service (the equivalent of government “departments”) is growing in size and reach. Next see how quickly nations are accepting the legally binding authority of international tribunals, such as the World Trade Court.
Sure, the most blatant and visible parts of a WG are slow in coming, in part because American citizens would go into screaming heebie-jeebies if we saw executive and legislative branches coalescing at the same pace. But the other two branches—the bureaucracy and courts—are taking shape with startling speed.
Elsewhere, I may explain how I see the executive and legislative aspects of WG happening faster than anyone could presently expect. And no, I’m not talking about alien invasion or some “unifying threat from the outside” or any other cliche. It is a really surprising scenario and one that cannot conceivably be stopped. Because it falls into place trivially, even organically, over the next 30 years. No matter what Americans say.
(Hint: it has almost nothing to do with the UN! Indeed if Americans want to have a say in the design of the coming WG, we had better start thinking about it and speaking up, instead of staying in frantic denial! Disclaimer… as an American, I feel distaste toward what is forming. Believe me, nearly all Yanks—left or right—are totally creeped out by this notion. I just have the guts to look it in the eye.)
Okay, so how do I connect these dots back to the grand plan to create artificial sovereignties at sea? How to reconcile the surficial Seasteader mantra of autonomy from all governments, with the fact that smart guys like Peter Thiel and his colleagues can see WG looming on the horizon? How will Seasteading help them, in such a world?
The answer is to be found in a phrase I highlighted earlier. Legal Standing. Because of the way that WG is forming on Planet Earth… with the judiciary and bureaucracy first and the legislature last… the chief effect is to ensure that individual humans have no legal standing before international agencies. Only sovereign nations have standing, can file suit, negotiate treaties, or assert rights and privileges.
There are many aspects to this situation. For example, it is what has allowed most people—especially Americans—to pretend in their minds that everything is still “international” and not planetary. As I said, the psychology of all this is delicate, nervous and fraught.
But here’s the crux. If they can establish a dozen or so new, sea-based national entities, to stand alongside the 200 or so that already exist, then the Seasteaders will be in the same position as the original founders of the New York or London Stock Exchanges.
They will have inheritable or negotiable “seats”—a grandfathered position of “standing” allowing them to step up before WG bodies representing the interests of millions of clients. Large and small.
Think this is about autonomy? Or feudal privilege? Or social experimentation? Naw. These guys are smarter than that.
It’s about getting in on the ground floor of the 21st century’s great new business frontier.*
* You heard/read about it here first. Remember that, when it is common knowledge and the way of power, a generation from now.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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