Hettie O'Brien lives in London and writes about political economies and cities for the London Review of Books, Jacobin and City Metric.
The Seasteading Institute wants to construct a network of ocean structures to liberate humanity from state control (and taxes).
In 1972, millionaire Michael Oliver founded a sovereign state off the coast of Tonga. He chose a shallow reef buffeted by ocean currents, and contracted a company to build an island dredged from the seabed. Oliver named his small island the Republic of Minerva, declared independence, and minted currency. This riled the King of Tonga, who rallied an army to depose his rival. Over time, the sea gradually reclaimed the sand, and the millionaire’s tiny utopia was no more.
“Plans to settle Minerva reef were crazy,” says Patri Friedman, former Google engineer and pointman for the Seasteading Institute. “But that didn’t mean the ideas themselves were crazy.” The California-based nonprofit has a different vision of waterborne independence: It promises to free humanity from state control via a network of ocean homesteads. As its website states, the Institute’s floating nations will feed the hungry, clean the atmosphere, cure the sick, and enrich the poor.
As a young libertarian, Friedman—the grandson of economist Milton Friedman—recognized his political utopia was unavailable on land, so he began searching for his own Minerva 2.0. In the early 2000s, he joined forces with Wayne Gramlich, a software engineer who proposed using plastic bottles to build floating platforms. Together Friedman and Gramlich self published a book called Seasteading: Homesteading the High Seas that sketched plans for a waterborne homestead in the San Francisco Bay. The book caught the attention of Peter Thiel, co-creator of PayPal and current libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley billionaire. Thiel wrote a check for $500,000, Friedman quit his job at Google, and in 2008, the Seasteading Institute was born.
“This was around the time I went to my first Burning Man,” Friedman tells me over Facetime. Fans of the annual desert festival often display a fondness for the idea of creating a more permanent arcadia: Seasteading Institute director Randolph Hencken and president Joe Quirk are also ex-Burners who hold up the self-created Black Rock City as a model of the longstanding libertarian desire to exit state reach. At a recent talk held at the libertarian Cato Institute, anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist and private governance advocate Mark Lutter extolled the festival as “a quintessential example of the libertopian ideal,” where self-policing individuals prep for scarcity, supply their own resources, and shun freeloaders.
But when it comes to making Black Rock City for real, libertarians meet a problem. Land is already claimed, leaving few options for true nation-making. Thiel believes technology holds the answers. Political solutions are primeval; sea and space are his preferred frontiers. “Would you rather work for IBM, and try to change [the system] from the inside, or would you rather go and found Google or PayPal?” says Lutter, the director of the Center for Innovative Governance Research.
In the government business, seasteading sees itself as the disruptive startup that will take on the nation-state’s calcifying IBM mainframe.
But progress has been fitful. Friedman and Gramlich’s 2008 plans for a San Francisco “Baystead” never materialized. Later prototypes followed; in 2010, seasteaders announced plans for “ClubStead,” a 200-person resort floating off the California coast, but exorbitant costs blocked construction. The Institute launched its current Floating Cities Project in 2013. By this time Friedman had stepped down as the institute’s director, passing the baton to his successor, Hencken.
After reckoning that the fierce currents of the stateless open ocean would complicate the engineering, the seasteaders reluctantly turned their attention to calmer territorial waters. French Polynesia’s pirate-free lagoons and strong broadband cable made it an ideal test case. The institute met with Tahitian ministers and in January 2017 signed a memorandum of understanding to build a tax-free floating city in Tahiti’s Atimaono lagoon.
But attempts to launch this structure have lately run into rough seas. A plan to build a platform in a tropical lagoon caught heat from locals, and a campaign stoked by opposition politician Valentina Cross swept away their proposals for an inaugural colony. In February, the Tahitian government stated publicly that an agreement with the Seasteading Institute in 2017 was now outdated and non-binding.
In particular, residents were skeptical of the benefits that a tax-free seastead would bring to Polynesia’s economy, and feared the platform’s polluting effects on the lagoon. “How would a new tax-free zone … have the potential to change the face of our economy?” asks Alexandre Taliercio, a Tahitian radio and TV host who’s helped lead to opposition to the scheme. Despite the Institute’s promises of job creation, Taliercio thinks that many locals lack the requisite engineering skills to help build ocean platforms.
That leaves the Institute, and their movement, once again at sea, shopping for a new host nation willing to take on a partnership. This might be appropriate, since the libertarian notion of competitive government is a key element of the movement’s philosophy. Instead of a traditional state/citizen relationship, seasteaders advance the idea that government is a product, with customers electing their preferred mode from a marketplace of providers. You want a socialist seastead? A libertarian seastead? A Muslim seastead? Name your price. The extension of this logic looks like a cross between Seaworld and anarcho-capitalism, where citizens sign user agreements with government providers, disputes are settled in arbitration courts, and insurance companies replace public law courts.
Titus Gebel, a seasteading advocate and founder of the Free Private Cities movement, believes that these floating nations will be free from land-based conflicts. People can choose to live among those who share their ethnic, religious, and political persuasions. For Gebel, competitive government will “disarm and transform politics into just one product among many,” bracketing differences while ceding democracy to gated communities. Think of your chosen seastead as the ultimate urban filter bubble.
Media coverage of the Seasteading Institute tends to focus on the group’s shimmering architecture and eco-friendly technology—these future structures will be solar- and wind-powered showpieces of advanced zero-emission gadgetry, as well as floating startup incubators for “aquapreneurs” who seek to unlock the profit-making potential of the high seas, free from meddlesome regulations. But it’s also possible that the showy glass biomes and origami atolls seen in their group’s renderings mask ambitions that lie closer to shore: Seasteading may be more about changing onshore policy than building offshore platforms.
That’s the conclusion some scholars of the movement have come to. Philip Steinberg, a geographer at Durham University in the U.K., argues that even Friedman may not see the movement as a truly practical alternative to the nation-state. “[Seasteaders’] purpose may be more to spur thinking about current limits that the state places on freedom so that others will dream up and implement more practical alternatives,” he wrote in a co-authored paper.
Framed this way, the Institute sounds more like an aquatic tax lobby, one who’s true intent is pressuring existing governments to slash taxes in a race to retain the highest bidders. “Life would be a lot easier if the competitive pressure to cut taxes would just boomerang back on to the United States,” says Quinn Slobodian, a visiting fellow at Harvard and professor of history at Wellesley College. “Seasteaders wouldn’t even have to detach themselves from the mainland.”
When I ask Friedman whether Seasteading is more concerned with changing existing government policies or actually building new floating nation-states, he tells me these impulses are “two sides of the same coin.” Disrupting current forms of government will create new rules that existing governments can copy, he says. “And existing governments will have a reason to copy them, otherwise they will worry about people or capital draining out of their country and into other countries.”
Behind this vision of competitive government lies a stark calculation of capital flight. Seasteading will give people the power to “leave governance they don’t like and choose governance they do,” says Seasteading Institute president Joe Quirk via email. Who would choose to pay taxes when they could simply relocate?
Of course, as Seasteaders leave government regulations and taxes onshore, they’ll also jettison the protections associated with the social safety net and labor rights. Redistribution doesn’t feature in this worldview. “Comb the pages of the Seasteaders’ work and you will find numerous references to ‘freedom’; rarely will you see the word ‘equality’” writes Raymond Craib, a professor of history at Cornell University at work on a history of libertarian “escape” projects.
With their plans for a Polynesian colony now stalled, Institute director Randolph Hencken says that 51 other potential host countries are now in conversation. The seasteaders remain optimistic, though their floating city may be no closer to reality. As Joe Quirk advises me in an email: “Get ready for a better blue world.”