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.)