Seasteading in the Eyes of Mother Jones

Mother Jones's Josh Harkinson (who tends to cover the libertarian-oid beat for them) attends the latest conference of the Seasteading Institute, and finds--surprise!--people with unusual views, and of course he leads with the one most likely to make his audience mistrust the subject. (A neo-Filmerian, no less.)  

It does get better from there. Some excerpts with comments:

before anyone can emigrate to any of these floating utopias, somebody needs to figure out how to build them. The institute has created the Poseidon Award, which it hopes, by 2015, to bestow upon the founder of the world's first seastead that hosts at least 50 full-time residents, is financially self-sufficient and politically autonomous, and is willing to offer its real estate on the open market....

In the short term, seasteading fans have put their hopes in Blueseed, another [Peter] Thiel-backed startup, which aims to anchor a floating residential barge off the coast of Northern California; it would house 1,000 immigrant tech workers who can't qualify for US visas. "Question is," Blueseed's president, Dario Mutabdzija, tells a tableful of interested tech guys over lunch, "will the United States be okay with this in the end?"

That is indeed the ultimate question, and the sticking point in my enthusiasm for Seasteading. I have a hard time believing that existing sovereigns won't just throw around their sovereignty til it swamps Seasteaders. And what about non-state nuisances, too?

In the afternoon, after a Duke University student schools us on on nonlethal ways to repel pirates—LRAD sound cannons, high-pressure hoses, fortified "citadel rooms"—the lib-tech flotsam turns to the question of whether seasteads will be allowed to claim sovereignty. Myron Nordquist, associate director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia, recounts a 1970s visit from the crown prince of Tonga during his past life as a State Department official.

The prince, who had arrived in DC sporting a top hat and a monocle, wanted to know if the United States would protect a group of American libertarians who, to the monarchy's chagrin, had built their own micronation, the "Republic of Minerva," on an artificial island close by. "We don't protect anyone, especially if they are American," Nordquist recalls telling him. Thus emboldened, Tonga commissioned a New Zealand tugboat and stormed Minerva with an invading army that included a few palace guards and a four-piece band. The libertarians pulled up stakes, and the abandoned island has since disintegrated back into the sea.

My July 2009 Reason feature on Seasteading, which also sums up earlier attempts at libertarian Zionism, such as the Republic of Minerva.

My reports from the first and second Ephemerisle festivals, where Seasteading fellow travelers experiment with floating festival living. (The fourth one is happening right now, and after attending the first three alas book promotional duties keep me from this one. My report from the third one is contained in my book Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired.

Blueseed boss Max Marty explained his company's potential benefits in Reason's May 2012 issue.

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  • John||

    In the afternoon, after a Duke University student schools us on on nonlethal ways to repel pirates—

    Why do they have to be nonlethal? They are pirates there to harm you and steal your stuff. Kill them. And if you don't have the will to kill people who come there to pillage and burn the place, your seastead will not be long for this world.

  • RBS||

    I agree. But, perhaps they are worried that arming themselves will bring unwanted attention from places like the US?

  • sarcasmic||

    It's not arming themselves that will bring unwanted attention from the government, it's generating wealth without paying for protection.

    "Nice seastead you've got there. Be a shame if something happened to it."

    Death and taxes.

  • RBS||

    What I meant was even more unwanted attention. Unarmed they are just as you said. When they are armed they become "dangerous lunatics hording weapons."

  • CE||

    Non-lethal means to deter the military forces of power-mad nearby nations might be advisable though, to avoid all-out war. Something like a sonic/EMI pulse that would knock out attackers and their electronic equipment.

  • R C Dean||

    I don't follow sea-steading, but I think a sea-steading operation that doesn't claim at least a form of sovereignty (autarky?) is doomed. If you aren't sovereign, and willing to kill in self-defense, then you are a hobbyist, and will suffer the fate of the Minervoids.

  • John||

    And even then, most countries are going to be able to kick your ass. The problem with a seasted is that if it actually has the things you want, legal drugs, sane banking laws and so forth, the rest of the world will immediately grant it a criminal enterprise and the US Navy will show up at your door. So you are left with the choice of being sunk or living by the world's rules which pretty much defeats the purpose.

  • R C Dean||

    I suspect you're right. To be a viable seastead, you probably need nuclear deterrence. At a minimum, you need to be able to stand off a couple of carrier groups.

    Sad, isn't it?

  • John||

    A seasted with nukes is pretty much comic book arch villain territory. In other words, will never happen.

  • BarryD||

    But if you CAN get a few nukes, the rest would be trivial... ;)

  • Mickey Rat||

    Yes, "The Mouse That Roared" scenario. To be left alone you either have to so innocuous no one knows you exist or have a trump card no can afford to ignore.

  • Apparently a 'statist'||

    "I suspect you're right. To be a viable seastead, you probably need nuclear deterrence"

    The very idea will lead to every Rapture immediately being bombed to smithereens, and probably with good reason.

  • ant1sthenes||

    You could make its core industry something with karmic appeal, like rescuing sea turtles or providing inexpensive surgery for maimed kids or something.

  • NoTalentAssclown||

    +1 Doherty
    ...for including an excerpt with a top hat and monocle reference

  • fish||

    I for one would like to formally welcome the Crown Prince of Tonga to our ranks and congratulate him for choosing the ceremonial garb of Libertarianism!

  • CE||

    Here's the thing... we're going to have to take the top hat and monocle. You can't be an honorary libertarian after you use military force to run off some actual libertarians.

  • crazyfingers||

    I think the Free State Project is much more practical. It's hard to imagine the U.S. government allowing an autonomous seastead to happen, never mind the U.N. or whoever claims to be in charge of international waters.

  • tarran||

    I wish these guys luck, but I believe they are pissing into the wind; the sea is an expensive place to live, and requires much more resources than land in return for equivalent living standards.

    The only way it becomes profitable is if governments make the land so uninhabitable that the seastead's sucky economics become better in comparison.

    But, that implies a degree of totalitarianism that will not blink at sending an invading army to conquer any seastead that was attracting its residents. And there would be no forested hills to flee to. The closest analogue to the ocean that one can find on land is the Sahara desert.

  • John||

    Space is really the only alternative. And that isn't happening any time soon.

  • tarran||

    Space is even more of a non-starter.

    It's a thousand times more hostile than the sea.

    I would be very surprised if people could give birth to viable children outside of a ~1G field.

  • MisterDamage||

    Space has harvestable resources which, if it can be economically sent to earth, (think space elevator, aka tech that doesn't yet exist) can pay the freight. Gravity can be simulated via rotation. It's a long way off but I haven't abandoned hope just yet.

  • yonemoto||

    Eileen Collins was preggers when she captained the space shuttle. Kid came out fine, despite the radiation. People give birth in 0-g all the time; the hippies love it and call it "water birthing". After all the fetus is basically under neutral bouyancy conditions the whole time.

  • Tulpa the White||

    I suspect tarran was referring to spending large durations of the pregnancy in low gravity, not the birth itself.

  • Tonio||

    But...there are only a few organizations (mostly nation states) with manned launch capabilities. Any punk with a tugboat can ruin your seastead; it will take a while before manned spaceflight will be cheap enough for nations like, say, Tonga, to be able to afford to be players.

  • CE||

    An undersea seastead would be far more accessible than space, and more defensible than a ship or an island. All you'd have to worry about are frogmen, and you could train some dolphins to repel those.

  • RBS||

  • NeonCat||

    Depth. Charges.

    See also Sealab 2021.

  • Tonio||

    ^This. Squirrels ate my similar comment.

  • Paul.||

    the lib-tech flotsam turns to the question of whether seasteads will be allowed to claim sovereignty.

    Anyone can claim sovereignty. Maintaining sovereignty usually requires some pretty big guns and rough men willing to do violence to defend it.

    To successfully claim the former without the latter, it requires a large state benefactor who has the latter, and is willing to expend them on your behalf.

  • sarcasmic||

    Maintaining sovereignty usually requires some pretty big guns and rough men willing to do violence to defend it.

    And before you know it you've created that from which you attempted to escape.

  • Paul.||

    I disagree. I don't believe in pacifism. You're either willing to defend your beliefs or your not. If you create a body politic which respects limits to what government can do, I think it can work.

    Sure, you can be Tibet, and get Tibet's results.

  • sarcasmic||

    I don't believe in pacifism.

    You misunderstand if you think that's what I was advocating.

    If you create a body politic which respects limits to what government can do

    Except that you can't. All governments are a one-way ratchet.
    Always have been and always will be. It's human nature.

    No matter what you do, government will grow until it exceeds society's ability to support it, then it will fail.
    Then a new one will arise and do the same thing.

    That's the story of history.

  • Paul.||

    I really can't deny that. But my point still stands... sovreignty isn't worth the Twitter feed its posted on if you can't defend it, or have a consortium of sympathetic nations defend it for you.

  • CE||

    History changes sometimes. Start with a few hundred people who agree with strict limits on government. Make the constitution difficult to change (like 90% to amend or so.) Limit immigration to those who score in the limited government quadrant of the Nolan Chart, with a buyout clause if they subsequently prove to be more authoritarian than advertised.

    It would become like a libertarianish HOA, without the annoying old lady who doesn't want you to work on your car in your driveway.

  • Paul.||

    Make the constitution difficult to change (like 90% to amend or so.)

    Our constitution is arguably difficult to change, so you could that it creates incentives to constantly 're-interpret' stuff with wider and wider latitude. Commerce clause?

  • yonemoto||

    meh, the notion that gov't is a one-way ratchet is simply not true. we got rid of slavery, and the depredations on free speech today, while *potentially scarier* due to more enforcement potential still pale in comparison to the alien and sedition acts (which we did get rid of).

  • sarcasmic||

    History changes sometimes.

    Human nature doesn't. And it is human nature for assholes to seek power for power's sake.

    Start with a few hundred people who agree with strict limits on government.

    Do you kick your kids out if they don't share your political beliefs? Politics is not hereditary.

    Make the constitution difficult to change (like 90% to amend or so.)

    Who needs a constitution when you can find a clever way to interpret a few words to mean unlimited power?
    (COMMERCE CLAUSE SMASH!)

  • Paul.||

    If you were taking issue with my glib comment about 'rough men willing to do violence', that's merely a euphemism. If you're going to have an effective military, it's going to be filled with people who are willing to fire shots in anger.

    For instance, I have a firearm in my home... I have it on the pretense that I'm willing to point it at someone and pull the trigger if the occasion arises.

    I suppose that differentiates me from people who are honest and upfront that they couldn't harm another human being, even as that person stands over them whilst swinging an axe overhead.

  • sarcasmic||

    If you're going to have an effective military, it's going to be filled with people who are willing to fire shots in anger.

    If you're going to have a government, it will eventually be filled with people who are happy to commit arbitrary acts of violence, because assholes seek positions of power.

    Human nature does not change.

  • Paul.||

    So you're saying we need to create a government that lacks human beings. Some sort of computer program to legislate. I think I'm sold.

  • MisterDamage||

    Just remember, the computer is your friend!

  • Tulpa the White||

    I think sarcasmic's point is that there is no lasting solution to the problem of govt running amok. Or maybe I'm just looking at it through my nihilist glasses.

  • sarcasmic||

    there is no lasting solution to the problem of govt running amok

    bingo

  • Tonio||

    Uh...Ghandi?

  • Paul.||

    I don't follow you. India has nuclear weapons because of Pakistan. And India kind of wants to defend their sovereignty. And stuff.

  • Tonio||

    Ghandi used nonviolent resistance to embarrass the brits to the point that they handed India back to the Indians. Non-violence rarely works for affecting change at that level, but this is the exception.

  • Paul.||

    Oh you bet it can work. But I believe it's the exception, not the rule. Plus, the Indians had the advantage of dealing with the British. They weren't dealing with the Assad regime, or Khadaffi.

  • Tonio||

    Non-violence rarely works for affecting change at that level, but this is the exception.

    Try reading for comprehension, not speed.

    And to make things perfectly clear "this" referred to Ghandi's liberation of India from the Brits through non-violence.

  • Paul.||

    I read and comprehended. I was agreeing with you. I apologize that I didn't state it in clear terms prefacing that "Tonio, I agree with the following statement about Exceptions vs rules".

    Perhaps I should have said, "I too believe it's the exception, not the rule".

    Try reading for meaning, not punctuation.

    I think you're arguing with someone in your head, and his name might be Tonio's mother.

    As for 'this', again, I know exactly what you were talking about.

    WTF?

  • Tonio||

    And stuff? LOL.

  • Tonio||

    And to try to wind down the pissing match, I didn't see your 2:59 when I posted my 3:10.

    Kiss and makeup?

  • Paul.||

    Kiss and makeup?

    Only if you wear a dress and a wig.

  • BakedPenguin||

    ...before anyone can emigrate to any of these floating utopias, somebody needs to figure out how to build them.
    Is this really so hard? Why not modify oil rigs?
  • Tonio||

    This has been done with both oil rigs and abandoned gun platforms in the North Sea - by operators of "pirate" radio stations and the data haven/micronation of Sealandia. The problem is that these were in the territorial waters of the UK, and HM government didn't take kindly to that. Outside territorial waters, any pipsqueak with a boatload of soldiers can ruin your day.

  • Paul.||

    Didn't Sealandia burn down?

  • Paul.||

    Hmm, guess not. Don't know what I was thinking of.

  • Tonio||

    Oops, "Sealand". Yes there was a fire, and other problems.

  • Tulpa the White||

    They weren't in the territorial waters of the UK when the platform was first converted into a seastead. The UK extended its water boundaries after the fact.

  • np||

    I've always wondered about establishing a private city in Antarctica, since nations agreed not to claim it (like space), although slices have been allocated for research.

    However, yeah, the whole idea of maintaining sovereignty is crucial. The moon would be perfect for defense, more so for offense.

  • Tonio||

    Signatories to the Antarctica treaties have agreed not to claim it. So if you're not a signatory, you're cool. Until that boatload of Tongan mercs shows up.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Until the armed forces of the signatory nations show up and say "No".

  • Tulpa the White||

    No new claims are allowed, but existing claims are not affected by the treaty.

    The only unclaimed region is Marie Byrd Land.

  • Tonio||

    Antarctica, but again anyone with a boatload of soldiers could ruin your plans.

  • ant1sthenes||

    I think once people figure out how to unlink government and territory, there will be a lot of innovation, with results that resemble Stephenson's FOQNEs and phyles.

  • Voros McCracken||

    The problem with these sorts of plan is when Tilda Swinton decides to rule with an iron fist.

  • Tejicano||

    One way to make it work is to provide some service which your sovereignty can enable which other nations won’t do or don’t do well. Something economic so that major corporations will be happy to have you around. Then you just have to be armed well enough to fend off pirates and organized criminals. Your value to the international system should be what keeps other nations from showing up with a gunboat.

    There are a number of things that only a sovereign nation can do - issue currency, passports, regulate trade - which could be useful if your population was in the low triple digits so you could agree to do stuff that larger nations can’t.

  • Colony Dan||

    All good points about the problem of seasteading. I wrote a novel about a potential seasteading operation that would pay for itself raising fish on the open ocean. See what you think:
    www.flotillaonline.com

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