20,000 Nations Above the Sea

Is floating the last, best hope for liberty?

Ideas evolve quickly along the Friedman family tree. The late Milton Friedman, an economist at the University of Chicago, was one of the 20th century’s most respected and influential advocates for classical liberalism. In scholarly books and popular articles he argued that if we want the greatest possible wealth and freedom, government should be restricted pretty much to cops and courts. It shouldn’t be in the business of manipulating or dictating our choices, whether they involve education, the economy, or joining the military.

Milton’s son David took this attitude a step farther in several books on political philosophy and economics. Given the manifest inefficiencies of government, David argued, the healthiest and most efficient social and economic system requires no state at all.

Now David’s son Patri has taken the family tradition one step beyond. Inspired by his dad’s classic 1973 book The Machinery of Freedom, Patri Friedman has concluded that society’s design flaw goes deeper than just government itself. Think of the state as a business—but one with enormously high barriers to entry and enormously high exit costs. As it would in the business world, this set-up breeds sclerosis, inefficiency, and the tendency to treat customers like dirt.

From Patri’s point of view, Milton’s path of steady, sober education about the advantages of liberty wasn’t changing the basic negatives very much. And although David might be right that government isn’t even necessary, the fact remains that governments, however inefficient, control virtually every chunk of planet Earth. Winning control of a piece of land almost necessarily involves bloodshed, with very little likelihood of success. High barriers to entry, indeed. So while the libertarian movement maintained its traditional orientation toward scholarship, journalism, and political activism, governments were busy perpetrating mass murder on a scale no other institution could manage, mucking up market transactions that could improve everyone’s lives, and ruining millions of lives over private but illegal choices, such as consuming disapproved drugs.

Patri Friedman was doing all right himself, living with his wife and child in a mini-commune of sort—the kind people today call an “intentional community”—in Mountain View, California, a bit south of San Francisco. He had a great and challenging job with a great company, Google. But his preoccupation, his passion, lay elsewhere. He thought he had figured out the real underlying problem bedeviling society, and it went deeper than just governments themselves. The real solution, he came to think, would involve the lure of the bounding main, the unbounded horizon, our vast and empty oceans.

Remember those high exit costs? Friedman wondered: What if you could just move—not just you, but everything you own, including your home, and, if your neighbors agreed with you, your whole community? What if you could move all of it where no government would bother you at all, and you could make a new, better society?

Friedman called his theory “dynamic geography.” He remembered a line from his dad’s book The Machinery of Freedom about how differently terrestrial government would behave if everyone lived in trailers and could easily flee state oppression. If land itself could get up and go, the incentive structure of government would change even more, moving it in a libertarian direction.

In the past, such thoughts led many libertarians to dream of space colonization. But you don’t need to leave the planet, Friedman reasoned; just make “land” that can float on the ocean.

And so Friedman is no longer with Google. He is president of something called the Seasteading Institute. He thinks he has a feasible plan to accomplish something neither his father nor his grandfather managed, for all their inspiration to him and hundreds of thousands of others: actually creating a libertarian society. Even if it’s a small, floating one. “I would be sad if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime,” Friedman says. “But even looking at optimistic scenarios, I can see it will take several decades before I can say I really changed the world.”

A Sunken History of Floating Nations

Wayne Gramlich is a voluble, white-bearded tech geek and science fiction fan—the kind of guy who thinks about how things work, and could work, a bit deeper than most people do. A former Sun Microsystems engineer, he became interested in creating free lands on the ocean after stumbling across the website of the Atlantis Project, a.k.a. Oceania, a failed scheme to do just that from the early 1990s. Gramlich took an idle notion about liberated ocean living and turned it into an experimental social and physical engineering project. He set his ideas afloat on the sea of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s under the name “Seasteading: Homesteading the High Seas.”

Gramlich’s solution to building new land on the ocean was cheap and inventive: achieve flotation by lashing together empty two-liter soda bottles; convert the bottle-raft into usable land by covering it with five-mil-thick (roughly fivethousandths of an inch) black plastic sheeting and dirt. (He later realized he had underestimated the power of waves in the open ocean, and he now dismisses his plastic bottle idea as “just a glorified form of suicide.” But in calm waters, it could work.)

Friedman stumbled upon Gramlich’s seasteading manuscript in the early 21st century. The two men began chatting online, realized they lived near each other, and forged a partnership that in April 2008 was formally chartered as the Seasteading Institute. The organization now has two part-time paid employees in addition to Friedman (who is salaried) and Gramlich (who is not, as he spends far less time on the project). It is dedicated to pursuing and proselytizing for ideas and techniques that could allow human beings to live on stateless floating “land” on the ocean. The institute is throwing conferences, patenting aquatic platform designs, sending Friedman to spread the word at far-flung gatherings of tech world bigwigs and libertarian visionaries, and receiving friendly coverage on CNN and in Wired.

To longtime libertarian hands, though, seasteading seems like an old idea, one weighed down by the corpses of many ill-fated plans. Most of these efforts are legend, barely documented by history. Their tales are recounted in moldering tiny-circulation newsletters seen only by enthusiasts (and in 1970s issues of reason). One of the most influential of the small magazines pushing libertarianism in the 1960s was Innovator, and in its latter days the journal’s editors had come to think along the same lines as Friedman, though with far less rigor.

Innovator’s leading theorist of taking to the seas for liberty was an anarchist writer named Kerry Thornley. Thornley’s essays on oceangoing freedom inspired the science fiction writers Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson to create an anarchist yellow submarine that was central to the plot of their influential 1975 novel Illuminatus! But when it came to real-world endeavors, Thornley wasn’t the ideal pioneer. Among other things, he was confident that he had been groomed to be a patsy of sorts in the John F. Kennedy assassination, given his previous acquaintance with, and supposed resemblance to, Lee Harvey Oswald. (Before that fateful day in Dallas, Thornley had already written a roman à clef about Oswald, whom he knew from the U.S. Marines.)

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  • Bug||

    An article from the Kochtopus - even about something as fantastic as floating freedom - wouldn't be complete without a dig on Ron Paul. Now those hundreds of millions are well spent!

  • Alan Vanneman||

    I suggest that anyone seeking a libertarian paradise move to Dupont Circle, which is where I live. I'm not the first to observe that living on an overgrown houseboat combines all the inconveniences of prison with the additional hazard of being drowned.

  • phalkor||

    There's an interesting case-study on this that needs be called to attention.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioShock

    I think it covers seasteading quite thoroughly.

  • Seitz||

    I can't read about this stuff without thinking of "Sea Britain".

  • the innominate one||

    Seitz - nice AD ref

  • ||

    Among other things, he was confident that he had been groomed to be a patsy of sorts in the John F. Kennedy assassination



    If there is a constant in the radical libertarian quarter, is it an unwavering commitment to nuttery.

  • Jeff P||

    If the inhabitants were exclusively regulars on this board, living there would be some strange cross between The Prisoner and Gilligan's Island.

  • ||

    Now, Brandybuck, you aren't paranoid if They really are out to get you.

    And who can deny, any more, that They really are out to get all of us?

  • Matt||

    Why not Antarctica? Yeah, I know some nations have claims on it, but most are disputed. Lay a claim on Norway's territory. I'm suuuuure they'll come and kick your ass.

  • ||

    Who is Number 1? Why, the Skipper, of course.

  • ||

    Gilligan is obviously Number 6.

  • ||

    It's pretty sad that will all the millions of square miles of land on Earth, people that are interested in freedom have to float on the friggin' ocean.
    And if it ever got started, some nation (probably the USA) would show up with the gunboats in order to "protect the children".

  • ||

    R C, it's forty five years later, and they still haven't send Jack Ruby to blow away Thornley's ass. His hopes and dreams of being a conspiracist martyr have been dashed.

  • ||

    Of course if you could just get enough liberatians to move to one state you could get most of the benefits without having to live at sea. Sure you would still have to deal with the feds on occasion, but half the problems come from the state.

    you could have things like
    school vouchers
    legalize (or at least decrminalize at the state level) drugs
    little zoning regulation etc

    Plus that would get you at least 2 libertarian senators, and 3 congressmen.

  • ||

    "And if it ever got started, some nation (probably the USA) would show up with the gunboats in order to "protect the children".


    All it takes is one rumor of child abuse or one underage girl sending a topless picture of herself to her boyfriend and you get burned to death. If you don't beleive me, ask the Branch Dividians.

  • PantsFan||

    This reminds me of "Armada" from China Mieville's _The Scar_, except it went around attaching other ships to it.

  • ||

    Of course if you could just get enough liberatians to move to one state you could get most of the benefits without having to live at sea.

    The huge and encroaching national government would still be there, taxing and regulating you. Could you get a marginal improvement? Sure. Most of benefits? Nope.

  • ||

    I'd say that the idea is bad if seen from the point of view of logistics. But I suspect that some of the negative comments here are motivated by ideological reasons, not by practical ones.

  • ||

    How about this idea. Lets find an area that is not really a country but a protectorate under the UN and some old colonial power. An area that we have some historical ties to. Then, lets go there and take land that no one else wants, like swamps and desserts. We then take that land and improve it and eventually make our own country. It is perfect. It is not like any of the other loser countries around us will hate us for our success and blame all of their problems on us or anything. How about it?

  • zero||

    Kroneborge, the free state project would like to have a word with you about an idea they already came up with. Of course, a floating prison may still be more habitable than New Hampshire come February.

  • Myron||

    "It's pretty sad that will all the millions of square miles of land on Earth, people that are interested in freedom have to float on the friggin' ocean."

    That's always bothered me too. Wouldn't it be cheaper to just buy a chunk of land from some country? (DRTA)

  • DADIODADDY||

    The Obama
    Where's your environmental imapct statement? Huh? Huh? you pathetic dupe...

  • ||

    There's always the Moon.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Neutral Moresnet, miaj amikoj!

  • ||

    The supporters of seasteading don't piss me off as much as 9/11 truthers, but they are just as delusional.

  • ||

    Wouldn't it be cheaper to just buy a chunk of land from some country?

    Buying land does not a nation make. Having a monopoly on justifiable violence does.

  • ||

    I'd actually never heard of the free project, but it makes sense that I'm not the only one to have thought of it.

    maybe something to look into. We for sure want to move out of CA.

  • ||

    "If you don't beleive me, ask the Branch Dividians."

    They were sexting?

  • ||

    Seasteading is a great idea. There are admittedly a lot of problems, but a lot of the criticisms show a serious lack of imagination.

    1. The cruise ship model shows that a quality lifestyle can be had on the ocean. With advancements in technology, I think this lifestyle could be affordable in a couple of decades.

    2. Seasteaders don't care if you think they're fanatics.

    3. I wish them the best of luck. They will have my financial support, such as it is.

  • ||

    @phalkor:

    re: bioshock

    Here is another case study you may want to peruse.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_(cruise_ship)

  • ||

    I would imagine you could setup a number of exteremly profitable sin cities out there. Cruise out 12 miles for the weekend and not have to worry about cops cause you are doing a bit of drugs etc

    I wonder if you would get hasseled by the coast guard though.

  • Myron||

    "Buying land does not a nation make. Having a monopoly on justifiable violence does."

    Implied in my comment about "buy a chunk of land from some country" is, you know, buying land. Buying as in "I own it now and not you."

  • ||

    "I wonder if you would get hasseled by the coast guard though."

    Easy target for gangsters.

  • ||

    Then, lets go there and take land that no one else wants, like swamps and desserts.

    But, but, everybody wants dessert!

  • ||

    i

  • Sean Scallon||

    "For real change [electoral politics is] totally hopeless. Think how much more likely to succeed [libertarians would be] if that amount of resources were put into something that could actually work."

    You Cosmos must really, really despise Ron Paul to actually give these whack jobs a platform when history had repeatedly shown the failure of "seasteading" and the millions of wasted dollars trying to create an ocean utopia.

    Then you have the nerve to call the Paulians crazy.

    Why don't endorse Mitt Romney now and get it over with?

  • NeonCat||

    Re: The Obama 4:33 pm

    I believe some people tried that about 62 years ago. Some of the neighbors are still pissy about it, to say the least.

    But then I suspect you already knew that.

  • jpocali||

    R C Dean | June 8, 2009, 5:19pm | #
    Then, lets go there and take land that no one else wants, like swamps and desserts.

    But, but, everybody wants dessert!


    How else are you going to convince them to move to the swamps?

  • Andrew Ryan||

    I am Andrew Ryan, and I'm here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? 'No!' says the man in Washington, 'It belongs to the poor.' 'No!' says the man in the Vatican, 'It belongs to God.' 'No!' says the man in Moscow, 'It belongs to everyone.' I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, Where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.

  • ||

    Of course make sure to watch our for the splicers, lol

  • ||

    Pykrete: look it up!

    With this stuff, you could make land out of water and sawdust (or some other binding agent) and float off the coast the Northern US and Canada.

    Of course, you still have many of the same political, financial and resource issues. However, you now have a base that is more stable than 2 liter bottles of soda and plastic sheets.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Just float it off the coast of Somalia and no government will bother you...

    ;^)

    The tyranny of the condo board will make the federal government seem mild...no?

  • ||

    FWIW, I'm a cosmo. I am not a big fan of seasteading and I think Ron Paul is alright. I am also a radical anarchist. Figure it out. The cosmo/koctapussy stuff is lame.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The tyranny of the condo board will make the federal government seem mild...no?



    Unless condo boards are now sentencing people to five years of being caged, beaten, and raped for taking un-correct substances, then... no.

  • robc||

    I can speak from personal experience - telling your condo association to go fuck themselves has no repercussions.

  • ||

    Oh ye of little faith... Year before last I was travelling in Mexico and had the good luck of running into Ritchie Zowa. This once upon a time carpenter has built himself an island! Google "isla mujeres, man made island".

    There lingers hope! good luck,
    ChrisL

  • Douglas Gray||

    Awhile back, someone figured out that if you want to take care of your parents when they get old, the most economical alternative is to put them permanently on a cruise ship. They actually get better quality food, lodging, and medical care for your dollar than most land based senior care facilities.

    Some of the same principles apply. When you are on the high seas, the relative absence of regulation, plus competition for the cruise ship dollar brings a certain efficiency to everything.

  • The King||

    "How else are you going to convince them to move to the swamps?"

    Some people thought I was daft to build a castle in the swamp, but I built it just the same, just to show them! Then it fell into the swamp. Then I built a second one, and it fell into the swamp...

  • Mike||

    This is why I am a huge proponent of space colonization. People who want an alternative to governments currently in power should always have a place they can go. This is a big reason why America has been so free, and why we are in danger of losing our freedom now. There is no place to go.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    Well gosh-darn-it no-how. Somebody beat me to my very first thought when I started reading this article. Douglas Grey says

    the most economical alternative is to put them permanently on a cruise ship.

    To hell with taking over a state. Why isn't there already The Anarchist Cruise Ship Line? You want a business model, here it is. Then you can start building re-supply platforms out on the open seas through this corporation and you've got legit cover for the operation, on top of a business model.

    "Come sail a week with us, and for seven days you can do whatever you want. Because we're anarchists. Bring your wallet (to buy whatever services you may find yourself in need of) and you may want to bring your guns too."

    Doesn't this just sound peachy?


    Given the manifest inefficiencies of government, David argued, the healthiest and most efficient social and economic system requires no state at all.

    Anything can be argued. It has, for example, been argued that Santa Clause -- a really big fat man in a red suit -- climbs down the chimney every December 25.

    Now, if they'd only argue that Santa Clause is this really small, skinny guy all dressed in black sooty clothes, I'd much sooner buy the argument.


    the fact remains that governments, however inefficient, control virtually every chunk of planet Earth. Winning control of a piece of land almost necessarily involves bloodshed

    Here's one of your first clues that anarchism has some holes in it. I mean just in the theoretical sense, before we even put ourselves out there and shed some of our very own blood.

    And while I really like this idea

    Friedman called his theory "dynamic geography."

    making it real is just a nice pipe dream.



    it will start small, with tiny family-sized platforms called "coaststeads" near the mainland serving both as proof of concept and a laboratory for working out the kinks before community-sized seasteads are ready to sprout in international waters.

    Yeah, and that will all be fine and good until

    anything that suggests a challenge to existing wealth and authority could hobble the movement while it's still trying to find its sea legs.

    If this whole idea ever does become technologically feasible, it's going to become a challenge to existing wealth and authority, one way or another. I'll let your imagination take it from there.

    It's ultimately going to challenge existing power and wealth. Because that's the explicit goal.


    The Anarchist Cruise Ship Line makes way more sense to me. First you build re-supply platforms at sea. Then you evolve them into little destinations in their own right, places where passangers can get off and stay. For as long as they want because after all we're anarchists and you can do whatever you want. It's total freedom, man. Make it up as you go along.


    We just want to create a laboratory for experimenting with social contracts, and a world in which people are free to create societies with groups of like-minded compatriots. The details of those societies are up to you.

    So if anarchism really does make sense, tell me how come the Dark Ages which followed the fall of the Roman Empire ever came to an end?

    Oh yeah, that's right. Post-Roman Europe, in all its anarchist bliss, got run over by Germans and Visigoths and Huns (white ones, black ones, and all other colors) and Muslims of various flavors tried, and I forget what else.

    Somehow the necessary self-defense forces did not spontaneously rise to the occassion. Which is precisely why

    governments, however inefficient, control virtually every chunk of planet Earth. Winning control of a piece of land almost necessarily involves bloodshed

    Hate to rain on this happy-dreamy little parade but I don't see anarchism ever working. And I humbly submit that it has had it's chance to succeed more than once in history. Post-Roman Europe is one example. China has gone through five dynastic collapses over the past 2000 years leaving the nation effectively without government, and somehow it's never quite worked out there either.


    In any case this is definitely an interesting article, Brian, kudos for that. I may not agree that anarchism makes any particular sense, but I have to admit that you anarchists come up with some interesting ideas at times.

  • Quiet Desperation||

    Look, Bioshock was an awesome game, but, sorry, plasmids are eternally science fiction. An experimental Libertarian nation will not fall due to people being able to shoot lightning, or bees, or bees that crap lightning, or lightning made out of bees from their hand. Nor will it be destroyed by a crime boss because in the real world crime bosses *like* stable and healthy economies where disposable income exists to be spent on vices. Like I always say, you want Vegas to be fun again? Put the mob back in charge.

  • roy||

    "If this whole idea ever does become technologically feasible, it's going to become a challenge to existing wealth and authority, one way or another."

    ...yeah, but the idea is to be initially unthreatening... and once there are 100 seasteads.. it might be too late for the states to react. Plus if one is attacked, the others can migrate... the sea is very large.

  • ||

    Independence, self-reliance, and seamanship need to be developed. Buy your family a sailboat before considering Seasteading. I read this and think that you would be trading one form of government for another.

  • phalkor||

    on Bioshock

    plasmids aside, Andrew Ryan failed because he was not 'libertarian enough'. Substitute splicers for speed-freaks with tommy guns and it's a very plausible scenario.

    about the anarchy cruise line: I just don't think I trust people enough to get on a boat with a bunch of gunslingin', boozing, druggy anarchists. I think somebody is bound to get maimed or killed withing 24 hours of reaching international waters.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    These are valid concerns, and I thank you for raising them.

    Obviously, it couldn't be total anarchy. What would make more sense is a cruise liner that has an organized crew, but passengers can do whatever they want within limits set by the company. By boarding the ship you are agreeing to their terms, and the crew can detain you and force you to leave the ship when it puts into port when you break their rules.

    The rules would be painfully strict, probably, because countries aren't all that happy about total freedom. The contract would probably be phrased as you cannot do X, Y, and Z, rather than you can do A, B, C, D, E, ...

  • Anchors aweigh !||

    These "libertarian" sea outposts will be easy pickings for states with navies.

  • LibSailer||

    Read about the micronation Sealand at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principality_of_Sealand

  • Scott Jensen||

    On the Discovery Channel's show "Mega Engineering" (http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/mega-engineering/mega-engineering.html), they talked about making a floating ocean city. Their spin being this is what people in New Orleans should do. However, the show "Mega Engineering" is science-light to say the least.

  • Tristan ||

    Have you guys forgot about the pirates? Think commercial ships are an easy target? How about a bunch of retards floating on 2 litter soda bottles (or seasteads... whatever).

  • ||

    Hey, guys, I volunteer for TSI and am currently trying to get together a NYC meetup. If there are any NYC Reasonites out there interested in tossing some ideas around, let me know.

    JackDayton@gmail.com

  • Jim ||

    I'm surprised movements like this are not just more concentrated on relocating to less invasive government controlled countries. New Zealand and Costa Rica come to mind.

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