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Seasteading: Some problems on the way to Castle Sovereign
David Brin   Aug 25, 2011   Contrary Brin  

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
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."


In interpreting the motivations of Peter Thiel’s initiative I lean towards thinking he is doing this for the profit motivation. Thiel is a business man, and as such will work diligently to attract investors and partners onto this nation, and businesses that bring in a healthy Return on Investment (ROI). I wonder if this effectively means ‘citizenship’ into this self-proclaimed floatilla will be on the basis of one’s existing financial wealth and portfolio. Given that no minimum wage and welfare is an option here, I’d guess only highly skilled people able to be useful to this SeaSteading initiative will be welcomed, unless perhaps the founders are also looking for cheap, homegrown unskilled labor? I’m personally doubtful of the latter given the negative publicity it would probably attract from the international media on production exploitation.

“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.”

Looking at an earlier example of a “start-up” micro-nation or ‘unrecognized state’, The Principality of Sealand (near the UK), it has not been recognized as a sovereign state by any other sovereign state/country, supranational entities like the UN and others, without multi-national trade agreements between itself and other nations. It now sits alone in the ocean, in ruin and for sale. If Thiel’s flotilla doesn’t have sovereign recognition by the US and other nations, will those engaging in activities on this floating island be subject to the laws of their nation, or will they be excluded from follow the laws of other nations if it’s on international waters? Will their courts, not having official sovereign state status, be able to enforce their ‘laws’ and will they have the final say (above UN international law, laws of other nations from which the citizens originate)?

What if the US claims it’s within their territorial waters, or the US extends its territorial waters? How will Thiel and Co., successfully fight this? America has a history of permanent military bases, and interventionist wars with those it considers a threat, so could this be invaded or taken over by the US government? What if the micro-nation of Thiel’s angers the US (defining him and citizens as ‘traitors’ or ‘terrorists’) and they put a trade embargos on it, effectively blocking all citizens and companies from doing business with them?

- Nathan Wosnack

&$@! them. If Thiel and his dilettante wannabe pseudo-rugged-individualist hypocrites have any sack or integrity, they’ll start from scratch and eschew every technological, financial and social connection to the society—to all the institutions, rules, regulations, authorities, and established civilities—that made their wealth possible.

But of course they won’t. They might be leeches on civilization’s fat belly, a bunch of uber-rich welfare queens in libertarian wrappings, who wave Atlas Shrugged with the bullying viciousness of Bible-waving Inquisition priests, but they’re not dumb. Because if they had to live by honest toil and their so-called principles, they’d be picked clean in a week.

As an ambassador for The Seasteading Institute, I would like to clarify that The Institute does not have specific plans of building floating colonies off the coast of San Francisco. ( The Institute’s primary purpose is research and movement building, and as a non-profit entity, it will not engage in projects of such a substantial nature.

However, Blueseed (, a for-profit seasteading venture, does plan to create a high-tech entrepreneurship center in close proximity to Silicon Valley, 24 miles offshore, in international waters.

If Thiel’s stated goal is for these islands to be mini petri dishes in government experimentation then making them entirely reliant on the mainland for the inhabitants wealth (at least as they are described here) seems somewhat counter-productive.  A true test would be to build self-sufficient societies that had to rely soley on their own political and economic systems for survival.  Otherwise all he’s doing is creating the ultimate gated community.

I have some ex-friends, whom I used to work with in the 1980s, who are just salivating at the chance that Mr. Thiel and Company will built their Seastead in the Caribbean or Eastern Pacific.

These people are all ex-Colombian Special Forces, and now high ranking members of Drug Cartels.

They can’t wait to pillage such a lush target…. Or, to take advantage of it (by threat of such piracy) to make use of it to smuggle drugs into the USA.


My earlier comment was addressing some of the concerns raised in Mr. Wosnack’s post concerning legal status.

The reason that these “Pirates” in South America are salivating over their perceived opportunity is that the upper strata of many of the Drug Cartels are highly educated and affluent people, most of whom are aware of the problems that befall nations or states that do not have international recognition (such as Sealand).

I propose full state expropriation of assetts held by anyone egomaniac making a suggestion like Thiel’s. The world needs less, not more, hiding spots for tax criminals.

Let me just highlight the two main problems with your argument. When talking about world government you are talking about the time *after* state sovereignty. We see this happening now. Sovereignty loses much of its meaning and importance. Small and medium states are forced to adopt the same policies as the bigger and mightier nations they wish to do business with. The small sovereign island states that you mention are in fact not even able to staff their own UN offices now. There’s at least one NGO (“Islands First”) that helps them by providing interns free of charge. The rich of this world don’t need to spend money on building seasteads to get small island states at the brink of financial ruin to do their bidding. You say the local population might not agree? But the rich would face the same problem on their own seasteads. The people who may ultimately bring a sovereign seastead into existence are not necessarily the same that would benefit from its sovereign standing in a legal manner should world government ever materialize. There might be rebellion on a seastead too. I wager seasteads “will wind up being more complicated, onerous and problematic” than even you envision.

My Google+ profile:

“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.”

- David Brin; if Peter Thiel is investing in this venture to escape ‘World Government’, as you assert, then why is he listed as a member of the Steering Committee* for the Bilderberg Group which consists of powerful government/political/business of large multi-national corporations to discuss world issues (likely with ‘projects’ and active initiatives in secret)? Though they claim no resolutions are proposed - along with no votes, no policy statements issued to the public - it is difficult to impossible to tell what is really going on there without relying on second-hand ‘leaked’ information that may or may not be reliable.

With secretive Bilderberg meeting attendees at Peter Thiel’s disposal, including Princes, Federal Reserve chairmans, and other powerful ‘globalist-minded’ people leads me to immediately think “world government” and not “Libertarian paradise”.

(* Source: - USA   Thiel, Peter A.    President, Clarium Capital Management, LLC)

- Nathan Wosnack

Does the author, David Brin, know that people have commented and have asked questions (including direct ones to him)?

It’s so tiring reading about the Bilderberg Group;
and don’t forget Halliburton! It began with JFK assassination conspiracy books; it has never let up since. If only you knew how stale it has become, Nathan. Every wingnut with a notebook full of flawed conspiracy info wants to write a book.

Post-post there is nothing conspiratorial about what I posted, and I resent the fact you compared the Bilderberg group to conspiracy theories. Here you have global-minded thinkers, elite and powerful leaders, meeting in private to discuss world issues of finance, war, technology in private from a central location and the details aren’t made public. Fact. Not a conspiracy. Try reading their website or any reliable source on the Bilderbergs; you might learn something.

So you have Thiel participating with these people. It just seemed a bit odd that Libertarian-minded person wanting to create a sovereign flotilla initiative away from a system of welfare, high taxes, gun rights, and at the same time closely associate in private with those who are big on welfare, high taxes and gun restrictions. It makes me, because I’ll only speak for myself, wonder what his real intentions are. No tin foil hat conspiracy theories here.

@Evan Landry; good question. I don’t think Mr. Brin likes communicating with his commenters. Too bad; he should be more accountable and defend his writing.

Learn the difference and stop blasting people, with your holier than thou attitude, for bringing up Bilderberg Group, Trilateral Commission, CFR as if they’re pseudo-intellectual swear words; the context is key, and the context in which I was using it was perfectly fine.

I made a short about seasteading. pls watch if you’re interested:

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