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Seasteading: Libertarians Set to Launch a (Wet) Dream of 'Freedom' in International Waters

A fringe brand of libertarians have been planning to escape the iron fist of democracy by founding a new country in the middle of the ocean.
 
 
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Ever since the Democrats' November rout, various factions of the conservative movement have demonstrated widely varied but always amusing methods of coping. 

The economic conservatives have held tea-bagging summits, where they protested President Barack Obama for raising their taxes, even though he didn't actually raise their taxes. 

The neoconservatives have formed a virtual death cult surrounding Dick Cheney and torture advocacy that's eerily reminiscent of the bomb worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

The militia wing of the movement, meanwhile, has devolved into bizarre conspiracies about Obama's birth certificate or outright public weeping.

Gone largely unnoticed, however, has been a fringe brand of libertarians who have been planning to escape the iron fist of democracy by founding a new country in the middle of the ocean.

Before I continue, I'd like to point out that while I’m not a libertarian, I do value the contributions that they make to our political discourse. Think of libertarians as the short-sellers of state power -- the people in the back of the room who reflexively call "Bullshit!" whenever the government tries to expand its reach. While I think they're often misguided, their role as bipartisan skeptics of government intervention is a necessary and important component of any democracy.

That said, libertarians can get themselves in trouble when they fail to accept that they’re doomed to be a frustrated minority who only score points when the government tries to overreach its authority. The problem with being against any sort of government expansion is that the public often votes for politicians who pledge to proactively make their lives better. 

This inevitably involves expanding state power, whether it’s through increased funding for health care and education to wage a war on poverty, or increased funding for the military and law enforcement to wage a war on drugs.

When libertarians get overly upset with their fellow citizens' statist preferences, they can retreat into Randian fantasies of fleeing their unworthy societies to found their own small-government utopias. 

One such escape plan currently is being hatched by the Seasteading Institute, a think tank that is encouraging libertarians to build large, floating, concrete platforms in international waters where they can live without the greedy hands of Uncle Sam taking their hard-earned cash.

Seasteading is largely the brainchild of Patri Friedman, a libertarian activist and the grandson of famous right-wing economist Milton Friedman. 

In an essay published by the Cato Institute earlier this year, Friedman proclaimed that democracy was "not the answer" for libertarians who wanted to live in true freedom because "libertarians are a minority" and thus "winning electoral victories is a hopeless endeavor." 

Friedman said that seasteading was his personal solution to this problem because, "expensive though ocean platforms are, they are still cheap compared to winning a war, an election, or a revolution." Additionally, Friedman pointed out that "the unique nature of the fluid ocean surface means that cities can be built in a modular fashion where entire buildings can be detached and floated away." 

In other words, if one seastead platform decides to sell out and implement tax hikes, libertarian True Believers can stick it to The Man by floating their house farther out into the ocean. Suck on that, Obama!

Although Friedman's proposals have a distinct "They called me mad, mad!" quality to them, he insists that seasteading is a very pragmatic endeavor. To prove this, he and his fellow seasteaders have published their own manifesto dedicated to allaying the concerns of skeptics who ask sensible questions about how they'll make money or acquire fuel and food when they're stuck on a platform in the middle of the damn ocean. 

Fear not, though, because the seasteaders have come up with a brilliant solution to these issues: They're going to base their economies on illegal activities. In the "business models" section of their book, the seasteaders sketch out a variety of plans to bring money into their oceanic platforms, many of which involve using seasteads as havens for activities banned by most countries. 

Drug addicts, for instance, can benefit from an offshore facility that "offers a wide variety of high-quality drugs in a legal setting with available medical care in case of an emergency." Companies that don't want to obey patent laws, meanwhile, can use the platforms to "implement some portion of a patented process on a seastead" to sell cheap goods without paying royalties. 

The best idea, though, is to have a seastead dedicated to experimental medical research where companies will be free from the iron fist of the Food and Drug Administration, which "has historically been slow to approve new medical treatments." One presumes that this platform will be distinct from the other seasteads in that it will be populated mainly by children who have five eyes and no knees.

At this point, some practical concerns arise. First, any offshore facility that specializes in narcotics trade is going to become the world's No. 1 target for pirates. The seasteaders briefly address the threat of piracy by explaining that "most pirate attacks are either very small-scale, preying on unarmed ships, or very large-scale, with organized groups stealing entire cargo ships. A seastead will be too tough for small pirates and not financially worthwhile for big ones." 

Really! An entire sea platform filled with highly profitable illegal drugs would not be financially worthwhile for pirates to attack! Good luck with that.

The second big problem that seasteaders face is that most governments will be none-too-thrilled to have platforms located just off their coasts that pay no taxes and that profit directly from undermining their own legal systems. 

In the best-case scenario, governments will enact heavy tariffs on any goods imported from a seastead, thus negating whatever competitive advantage is gained from erecting "patent-free zones." In the worst-case scenario, they'll send out their navies to shut down the whole operation.

The seastead manifesto keenly observes that ocean platforms would be "quite vulnerable to larger weapons" from navies since "concrete is tough but far from indestructible." But even these limitations shouldn't keep a good seasteader down, because "sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles like the Chinese Silkworm are fairly cheap and quite effective," and "a rocket engineer in New Zealand has set out to prove that you can build a small cruise missile for $5,000." 

The manifesto concludes that while seasteads will initially be militarily weak and thus dependent on diplomacy for their survival, their eventual success could make them "large and rich enough to join the ranks of dangerous nations."

Although seasteading is very clearly a pie-in-the-sea project, it has amazingly attracted a $500,000 donation from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, whose enthusiasm for seasteads derives from his belief that freedom and democracy are "no longer … compatible." 

Indeed, Thiel thinks democracy in the United States has been a dead end since the 1920s, when "the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women -- two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians -- have rendered the notion of 'capitalist democracy' into an oxymoron." 

While Thiel never explicitly states that women would not be allowed to vote on his seastead, you can surmise from his attitude that their chances for achieving equality on his concrete platform are very slim. Why Thiel expects any woman would willingly give up her right to vote to join him on his oceanic dorktopia is puzzling -- perhaps he'll take a page from North Korea's Kim Jong Il and start kidnapping famous actresses.

In the end, the strangest part about the seastead project isn't its founders' impracticalities but rather their base motivations. 

Normally, when a minority of people want to break off from their homeland to form a new country it's because of genuine oppression such as religious persecution, ethnic cleansing or taxation without representation. Thiel, on the other hand, lives in a society whose promotion of capitalism has let him grow rich enough to blow $500,000 founding his own personal no-girls-allowed treehouse in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

What exactly does he have to be angry about, again?

Brad Reed is a writer living in Boston. His work has previously appeared in the American Prospect Online, and he blogs frequently at Sadly, No!.
 
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