Homesteading on the High Seas

Floating Burning Man, "jurisdictional arbitrage," and other adventures in anarchism


If Peter Thiel funds something, it's bound to be cutting-edge awesome.

He is a supporter of the Methuselah Mouse Prize, which seeks to slow, stop, and eventually reverse aging. He was a producer of the film Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley's charmingly ambiguous novel about a pro-tobacco lobbyist. An early investor in social networking, he was involved with Linked In and was the first investor in Facebook. He's big at the Singularity Institute (reason's Ronald Bailey caught up with him at the Singularity Summit earlier this year, check out the interview in the May print edition), which ponders and pushes artificial intelligence in preparation for a Vernor Vingeian "intelligence explosion." His first success was PayPal, which he originally hoped "would grow to become an extra-governmental system of currency, something reminiscent of the world described in Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon, in which programmers use encryption to create an offshore data haven free from government control."

And last week, Thiel announced a $500,000 investment—the same amount he put into Facebook in June 2004—in the Seasteading Institute. Seasteading, or "homesteading on the high seas," is an idea that has long attracted libertarians and others who would like to see a little more competition between forms of government. The idea is to get out into international waters and set up a floating outpost (or 12, or 1,200) from which people can come and go, experimenting with different types of legal, social, and contractual arrangements.

Thiel's co-conspirator and resident big thinker is none other than the impeccably credentialed Patri Friedman, son of David "Machinery of Freedom" Friedman, grandson of Milton "Capitalism and Freedom" Friedman. Patri, 31, has been beating the drums for various floating autonomous entities for several years, whenever he can steal time from his work as a software engineer at Google and from his now 2-year-old son, Tovar.

Despite the seemingly radical idea he's championing, Patri sees himself as a practical guy: "Starting a new country is actually a much less hard problem than, say, a libertarian winning a U.S. election," he says. He says that most of his competitors in the libertarian/anarchist autonomous entity business have been too ambitious, citing efforts from Sealand (the abandoned offshore fort-turned-free-state "which sort of worked" until it was devastated by fire in 2006) to more dramatic failures like Freedom Ship (current estimated cost >$11 billion, construction not yet begun) and the Aquarius phase of the Millennial Project ("colonizing the galaxy in eight easy steps!") to Minerva Reef (an uninhabited dredged island "invaded" by neighboring Tonga and eventually more or less reclaimed by the sea).

Learning a valuable lesson from his predecessors, Friedman is an incrementalist. "I want to talk about what to do this year, not how to colonize the galaxy." One way to start small, he says, is to hold a kind of floating Burning Man, called Ephemerisle, an idea inspired by childhood pilgrimages with his father to Pennsic, a Society for Creative Anachronism medieval reenactment held outside Pittsburgh, and college stints at Burning Man.

"There aren't that many people who are wiling to drop their lives and move to the ocean." Instead, he says, "it could start as a one week vacation, but then unlike Burning Man it could grow and eventually become permanent." Friedman hopes to hold the first Ephemerisle next summer, inviting many types of floating vessels to join him in international waters. Even an ordinary cruise ship might be enough to get started, since the cruise industry has proven that "providing power, water, food, and internet on the ocean is not only possible but can be profitable." But some of Thiel's grant is going toward figuring out the best way to throw up some small, cheap seasteads to provide a little non-state infrastructure and get things rolling (or floating, as the case may be).

From the official website: "Think about all the hot air and argumentation about a whole host of different political issues—freedom vs. security, absolute wealth vs. inequality, strong family vs. tolerance, open vs. closed borders, whatever the topic du jour is. Instead of deciding them through rhetoric, or voting on a few representatives to decide them for tens or hundreds of millions of people at once, imagine if we could try them each on a small scale and see what happens."

Thiel and Friedman met at a dinner set up by a couple of guys who work for Thiel's investment firm, Clarium Capital, and happened to be fans of Friedman's blog. Ajay Royan, a principal at Clarion and now a board member at the Seasteading Institute, described how the meeting of minds between Friedman and Thiel came about a few months back: "Peter knows Patri's grandfather, so we were just tickled that somebody of that lineage was so close to us physically and was thinking about macro issues from that perspective," says Royan. "We'd been having a lot internal debate [at Clarium] about how we get a freer space for people to function in. What was intriguing to us was that here was somebody proposing to shift the canvas to a relatively neutral space by recreating a frontier."

Not content with revolutionizing technology and society, Thiel says he's looking to bring "innovation to the public sector, where it's vitally needed." As with PayPal, his aspirations for the project are far from modest: "We're at a fascinating juncture: the nature of government is about to change at a very fundamental level."

Having a low-cost, gradually ramping up cluster of choices to live on would lower the cost of "jurisdictional arbitrage," which is very high right now, says Friedman. If you don't like your government right now, the only way to get a new one is to sell your house, pack up, move to another country, deal with immigration, get a new job and a new house, make new friends, and learn a new culture. This is expensive. But hopping from boat to boat, platform to platform, or island to island is cheap.

In fact, Friedman sees seasteading as a real, viable version of a metaphor his dad once used to sell anarcho-capitalism, and demonstrate why Nozickian utopias with lots of free entry and exit will tend toward libertarianism rather than authoritarianism:

Consider our world as it would be if the cost of moving from one country to another were zero. Everyone lives in a housetrailer and speaks the same language. One day, the president of France announces that because of troubles with neighboring countries, new military taxes are being levied and conscription will begin shortly. The next morning the president of France finds himself ruling a peaceful but empty landscape, the population having been reduced to himself, three generals, and twenty-seven war correspondents.

The question is (to paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes): Will three generations of Friedmans be enough? Patri Friedman is optimistic. "I hope I can create a world where [my son] doesn't need to worry about how to increase freedom because we've already got it." he says. "But I suspect that I'll still be working on it by the time he's old enough to help."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reason associate editor