Must Libertarians Take to the Sea Rather Than All This Talk, Talk, Talk?


Over at Cato Unbound, an ongoing debate started by Patri Friedman, majordomo of the Seasteading Institute (the latest and best-thought-out iteration of the "build new island nations" path toward liberty), about whether merely talking and agitating through academia, journalism, and politics is enough to change the world in a libertarian direction. Friedman says no:

Argument has refined our principles, and academic research has enlarged our understanding, but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state. Our debating springs not from calculated strategy, but from an intuitive "folk activism": an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal. In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.

What might work, then? Take to the oceans, libertarians…

Seasteading is my proposal to open the oceans as a new frontier,[6] where we can build new city-states to experiment with new institutions. This dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for forming a new government, because expensive though ocean platforms are, they are still cheap compared to winning a war, an election, or a revolution. A lower barrier to entry means more small-scale experimentation. Also, the unique nature of the fluid ocean surface means that cities can be built in a modular fashion where entire buildings can be detached and floated away. This unprecedented physical mobility will give us the ability to leave a country without leaving our home, increasing competition between governments.

This plan is one of immediate action, not hope or debate. It makes use of the people we have now rather than trying to convert the masses, and avoids entrenched interests by moving to the frontier. Most importantly, it increases jurisdictional competition. It will not just create one new country, but rather an entire ecosystem of countries competing and innovating to attract citizens…

I join the debate with Friedman today at Cato Unbound, arguing that, while seasteading seems like a valuable thing to try, the "folk activism" he disdains has its good qualities as well:

"Folk activism" — talking, debating, and proselytizing, as he defines it — does indeed have the potential to see libertarians "changing system-wide incentives." Admittedly, it's a long, slow, so far largely failed slog — if changes in every libertarian direction already are what we need. The turnings of democracy have not yet gotten us zero taxes, a completely tort-based "regulatory" regime, complete drug legalization, and an end to tariffs. But they have gotten us lower taxes, an end to antiquated systems of trucking and airline regulations, medical marijuana in some states, lower tariffs in many areas, and a systematized regime that helps in some cases stymie protectionist reflexes.

I know it's not enough. For someone as activist and eager as Patri to live the way he wants to live, unquestionably it's unsatisfactory. But I'm not convinced, in the long view, that it's utterly impossible and futile.

I'll be writing at greater length about the Seasteading project in a forthcoming issue of Reason magazine, and Katherine Mangu-Ward reported on it in Reason Online back in April 2008.