All at sea – libertarians and the market for governance

artist\'s impression large seastead

Last month, PayPal mastermind Peter Thiel pledged $500,000 to The Seasteading Institute. Co-founded by Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton), the Institute‘s official mission is to

Establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems.

In an article for the Wired website, Alexis Madrigal zooms in on the original motivations of the Institute‘s founders;

True to his libertarian leanings, Friedman looks at the situation in market terms: the institute’s modular spar platforms, he argues, would allow for the creation of far cheaper new countries out on the high-seas, driving innovation.

“Government is an industry with a really high barrier to entry,” he said. “You basically need to win an election or a revolution to try a new one. That’s a ridiculous barrier to entry. And it’s got enormous customer lock-in. People complain about their cellphone plans that are like two years, but think of the effort that it takes to change your citizenship.”

While over at the excellent BLDGBLOG, Geoff Manaugh has turned his mind to the potential implications of “seasteading”;

What interests me here, aside from the architectural challenge of erecting a durable, ocean-going metropolis, is the fact that this act of construction – this act of building something – has constitutional implications. That is, architecture here proactively expands the political bounds of recognized sovereignty; architecture becomes declarative.

Sovereignty for sale? Whether you see this as a laudable quest for self-government or – as China Mieville arguesa morally bankrupt flight from responsibility, there are definite echoes of a certain late-80s paperback. But who knows? $500,000 might just be enough to give this scheme some real momentum.

[Image by Valdemar Duran, via Wired]

9 thoughts on “All at sea – libertarians and the market for governance”

  1. Definite hints of Snow Crash, also … and certainly influential on a certain fictional time/space known as New Southsea. 🙂

  2. Been done. It’s called Sealand. And it’s currently available for “custodianship” transfer, for a mere €750 million…

  3. @Ian – While the Principality of Sealand could be seen as a historical precedent to this kind of activity, there are a couple of important differences.

    HM Fort Roughs was a prexisting structure, used by the British as an anti-aircraft defense against Nazi bombers in WW2. The Principality of Sealand emerged from the Bates’ formal occupation of this abandoned platform. By contrast, “seasteading” relies on the creation of new territory.

    Furthermore, while Sealand maintains nominal (fictive?) independence, the Wired article suggests that these new installations will be operating under flags of convenience.

  4. “Establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems.”

    If this statement is to be taken at face value, I have to wonder how familiar Thiel is with history, which is replete with dominant ideologies seeking to quash any and all visible efforts to demonstrate working alternatives.

    Of course, he might just mean “diverse social, political, and legal systems” within a late capitalist framework.

  5. “a certain late-80s paperback”

    What, is “paperback” a shorthand term for “genre novel” now? ISLANDS IN THE NET was first published in hardcover. Indeed, the Wikipedia page you link to says so, in the caption to the illustration on top.

  6. @Patrick – not shorthand for “genre novel”, so much as shorthand for “second-hand paperback I have on my bedside table right now”. Perhaps I should have made that more explicit.

  7. Rest assured, Patrick, this is not a site that would condone any dissing of the output of Captain Sterling. Hell, I’d have to turn in my official fanboy card and dismantle my shrine! 🙂

  8. I think these structures would only work as hermit hideaways, not as libertarian paradises. As soon as you upset any powerful country (or group of them) enough they’ll deal with you soon enough, either with torpedos or isolation. If you want to be a serious haven of any kind (not necessarily just tax) you’ll have to be well defended. Even a decent radar setup and a nuke might not be enough.

  9. … the Rough Tower Sealand is since 17th January 2009 a U.N registered sovereign state territory of the Monarchystate – State Kingdom of Marduk – this is juridical irrevocable reality. The bristish government and government of Essex / Suffolk is juridical informed. The 3 + 12 n.m. sea zone araound Rough Tower Sealand is state territory of Kingdom of Marduk as the Sea “Pirate Bay” proclaim. More information in next time under or

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