Seasteading: Some Problems on the way to Castle Sovereign

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. 

A few thoughts? I’ve been pondering this and related concepts for a very long time (see below).  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 things 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. (Pretty clever, some think!) 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- A related matter. 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.  There will be a captaincy… though it possibly might be AI-based in order to be neutral.  Nevertheless, if 6000 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 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, then 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 principle 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- Otoh 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’re are doing this not in order to escape government, but because we on Planet Earth appear to be heading, inexorably, toward a world government (WG). 

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, 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.


Filed under economy, future, society

8 responses to “Seasteading: Some Problems on the way to Castle Sovereign

  1. Brilliant…. and inspiring. A psychic told me long ago I would live on a “floating city”🙂

  2. As a libertarian activist and participant in the ongoing Ephemerisle festivals originally begun by Patri Friedman’s Seasteading Institute, I agree with some of David Brin’s democratic/egalitarian concerns as they apply to potential models of seasteading. I’m interested in new ocean-based countries following a libertarian model of strong individual rights and political power wielded on a bottom-up basis within the constraints of those rights, not a propertarian model where those with the most money can limit society-wide freedoms as they choose.

    Like Brin, I favor an approach toward seasteading that emphasizes civil liberties and the freedom to engage in social experiments, rather a narrower focus on its tax-avoidance benefits. Happily, my sense is that the Ephemerisle community, which includes the folks at the Seasteading Institute, is in fact *much* more oriented toward personal freedoms and social experimentation than toward wealth-protection.

    However, Brin’s obvious distaste for Ayn Rand, and apparent love-hate relationship toward libertarianism — I’m getting much the same sense of conflicted sentiments that I got from his remarks when I heard him talk at a Libertarian Party convention some years ago — seems to have led him to take a rather negative view here, in which he makes what I believe are some unfair pronouncements and judgments. Rand didn’t oppose violence, she opposed *aggression*, same as libertarians do. The Non-Aggression Principle which constitutes the heart of libertarianism, and to which Rand subscribed, affirms peoples’ rights to defend life, liberty, and legitimately acquired property, but not to *initiate* force or fraud against others.

    Sure there will inevitably be differences of opinion on what constitutes force or fraud, and what types of responses to them are reasonable. Rand, for instance, thought extra-national military interventions by the governments of relatively free countries like the United States for purposes of protecting life, liberty, and property from the depredations of more authoritarian regimes were justified, while many libertarians do not.

    Brin presents no evidence that folks like Friedman or Peter Thiel are advocating the imposition of obligations on others. Having met both of them, I don’t believe they favor any such thing. In fact I haven’t heard any seasteaders suggesting that seasteads or new countries should seek military protection from existing nation-states, or making other demands of them or their citizens. To the contrary, I think most of us would actively oppose such reliance.

    Engaging in free trade with the world, and asserting the right to not have one’s life or property controlled by governments beyond the extent to which such control may be reasonably justified under the Non-Aggression Principle is *not* the same thing as a feudal lord “living off proceeds from the surrounding country” in a coercive relationship with the peasantry.

    Without acknowledging the ethics of non-aggression, I think any critique of the seasteading movement or the possible motives of those funding or leading such efforts is going to fall short.

    That said, Brin is a visionary sci-fi author whose criticisms and predictions are worth thinking about.

  3. Sum Wun

    David– Regarding Your highlighting of the “legal standing” issue: You really have put your finger on the heart of the matter. With the seemingly inevitable decline towards world government, we are reaching backward in time, to an era where power arises out of its assertion of its own authority. The only difference is the nomenclature: Instead of King, Emperor, Caesar, or what-have-you, we will just be forced to defer to the authority of the “World Government”, which has infinitely more power than any single individual.

    We can see this trend established as far back as 1957 in one of the foundational documents of the European Union, which starts off with this phrase: “By order of His Majesty, King of the Belgians…”. Contrast with the Preamble to the Constitution, which begins with, “We the People…”. The entire notion that the citizen is sovereign, and that the citizens delegate a portion of that sovereignty to the government, is being swept away in a statist coup.

    For a very long time, the US was one of the few holdouts against this “King of the Belgians” sort of thinking. Now we seem to be trying to out-EU the EU in our race to a very grim future.

  4. I see this as a hard lesson for the wealthiest libertarians. How much will they have to spend to pay off, protect and maintain these islands? Far more than they would pay in taxes. How will they deal with the almost certain abuses of their workers (servants…slaves?) and the resentment that will come from it. They will have to have laws… otherwise, they are as much fair game to their underlings and servants as their servants are to them. Under who’s juristiction will a murderer in Randland fall? An embezzler? A rapist?

    Many of these people did not get where they were by following the middle-class morality of the common man; they already believe they are owed what they can take. What happens when these personalities are concentrated together on a little piece of property? When they can

    They have to have laws; and so they will have to have some means of making laws, and some means of enforcement. Otherwise, they will just become armed camps of Xi/Blackwater operatives, where the lord is the law (until someone deposes the lord), and fighting amongst each other as their egos and property are bruised by their neighbors. It is why (as you so clearly understand) that humans follow the same tendancy of all life, moving towards greater organization else they perish.

  5. I think Ayn Rand has a lot to recommend a distaste towards her, and I think libertarianism as most often envisioned is morally indefensible.

    However, I am still pro-seasteading, for the same reason that Patri Friedman started The Seasteading Institute and the same reason that Peter Thiel keeps funding it: because there is nowhere left to go to create true governmental and economic innovation, and this world desperately needs for new ideas to be tried.

    That said, the fact that seasteads will likely be funded by billionaires and populated by high-end businesses as their kicking off point certainly does push proclivities towards trying “certain sorts” of governments and economies.

    The real challenge of seasteading isn’t technological, and probably isn’t a question of defense either. It’s how to make a community on a seastead last long enough — without driving everybody on it crazy — to actually see the desired innovative aspects through to their logical conclusions.

  6. Naomi, I’m curious how you feel libertarianism is “most often envisioned”, and what you find “morally indefensible” about it. Do you want people living on seasteads to be coercively taxed against their will? I hope not. It seems contrary to the spirit of true governmental and economic innovation. Personally I believe it is government based on widespread, systematic aggression that is morally indefensible.

    • Here is how I see libertarianism as presently envisioned: let’s just stop taxing people right now, and then the “free market” will take over and solve all the world’s problems.

      I’m an anarchist, actually. And if I had to pick a form of economic system most agreeable to me, it would be syndicalism.

      But there is no larger-scale culture (more than 1000 people) in the world ready for either anarcho-syndicalism or capitalistic libertarianism. Present-day culture is not geared towards the success of these systems. Trying to make them work without significant, widespread memetic changes will result in massive human tragedy.

      Put simply, individuals are not accustomed to making economic choices that benefit society at large.

      The reason we tax is because we don’t expect people to think about making economic choices to benefit themselves via social services. When taxation ceases, people will need to see the benefit in spending money for public good in order for things like herd immunity (vaccinations), wildlife protection, birth control, ocean resource protection, and protection of “public goods” that fall prey to the tragedy of the commons, etc.

      So an abrupt shift to a system in which people suddenly have control of all of their wealth but have no 20,000-ft perspective of how resources must be spent to keep humanity healthy and happy will most likely be an abject failure… where failure == increased pollution, permanent loss of natural resources, plague, decreased availability of fertility control to underprivileged classes, and lots more.

      That is why I think libertarianism, as currently envisioned, is morally indefensible.

      But that’s also why I’m absolutely FOR the experimentation of libertarianism upon a brand new seasteading colony.

  7. Pingback: The Libertarian: Seasteading - the Libertarian Nirvana ?

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