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.)

Other libertarians, largely in the 1970s, actually attempted to create free nations on the open ocean, sometimes using existing islands and reefs, sometimes using boats or artificial islands. The history of these attempts is equally comic and terrible. The one that most resembles the Seasteading Institute's efforts was Operation Atlantis, in which Werner Stiefel, an upstate New York pharmaceutical manufacturer, convinced a small gang of eager young libertarians to help him build a ferro-cement boat called "Atlantis II" in 1969. This vessel was supposed to sail down to the Caribbean, where the crew might grab some land in disputed territories such as Anguilla or the Silver Shoals near Haiti, or just use the ship as a staging ground to build some artificial concrete land.

The schemers had their own silver coin, dubbed the "deca"; they got some press in Esquire; and they had their own homemade boat. But the ship sank in a hurricane, attention from the Haitian government forced the project into quiet mode (canceling the highly entertaining newsletter Atlantis News), and no new libertarian Atlantis ever arose in the Caribbean.

The king of the "take over existing land" plan was Mike Oliver, a Nevada-based real estate developer and coin dealer who had published a book called A New Constitution for a New Country in 1968. Oliver had a winning never-say-die approach to his dream. In 1972 he attempted to claim space for a Republic of Minerva on a series of reefs in the southwest Pacific, 260 miles from the tiny kingdom of Tonga. Perhaps create is a better verb than claim: Oliver had to pay dredging boats to build up usable land between a couple of sturdy reefs. Shortly afterward, the king of Tonga conquered the colony with one boat. The land Oliver paid to build eventually was reclaimed by the ocean.

For the rest of the 1970s, Oliver concentrated instead on islands that had the advantage of already existing but the disadvantage of already being governed. He made common cause with separatist groups on the Bahamian island of Abaco and the New Hebrides island of Espiritu Santo. Such conspiring failed to instigate any independent libertarian nations; it just resulted in the arrests of some rebellious natives.

I called Oliver to ask for an interview while researching my 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism. A weight of angry regret and failure seemed to block his throat as he testily informed me he had nothing to say about any past attempts to start a new libertarian nation.

So Why Expect Seasteading to Work?

Patri Friedman, who has been sailing around some of the very reefs on which earlier utopias capsized, is well aware of these past failures and says he has learned from them. The Seasteading Institute's website is as thorough and thoughtful a guide as you'll find to the foibles and follies of previous attempts to create new and/or floating nations. And there are some important points of departure that Friedman says will make the difference this time around.

First, seasteading does not require anyone to take over existing terrain. That was hopeless; the land's all claimed by some government or another, even the parts barely above water. And an open rebellion against an existing regime is unlikely to succeed. Seasteaders therefore will make their own "land."

Second, seasteading is modular. Unlike various floating nations that never got off the drawing board—the "Freedom Ship," the "Aquarius Project," and other pipe dreams—the institute's plan doesn't require an upfront multimillion-dollar buy-in. Seasteading can start small, and in fact Friedman is sure 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. Friedman figures the cost of such starter sea homes won't be too out of line with housing costs on land, especially if people are buying in a communal or time-share fashion. In fact, most recent cost estimates for a particular hotel/resort seasteading design came out to roughly $258 per square foot (without factoring in some assembly and deployment costs), which is quite a bit cheaper than the current price of many single family homes in the San Francisco Bay area.

Third, seasteading isn't just based in libertarian theorizing and hopes. Friedman knows that seasteads will need to have some business hook, and he's busy working those angles. There's SurgiCruise, a nascent floating medical tourism company that is seeking venture funding. If Americans will fly to Mexico, India, or Thailand for cheaper medical care free of U.S. regulatory costs, the idea goes, why wouldn't they sail 12 miles for it? Among the other first-tier business ideas being bruited about with varying levels of intensity are vacation resorts, sin industries, aquaculture, deep-sea marina services, and universal data libraries free of national copyright laws.

Fourth, because the open ocean plus "dynamic geography" allows for experimentation with governance in any form, seasteading shouldn't appeal only to libertarians. Sure, any seastead that Friedman would want to live in would get as close to anarchism as can be managed. But he thinks a variety of ideologues should be willing to leap on board, from sustainability-oriented environmentalists to members of various intentional communities, religious or philosophical or whatever, that want to shape their own lives in peace without government interference. Such communities might not be individualist in their internal policies, but they fit within the libertarian framework of seasteading itself, which allows for a wide variety of freely chosen social structures.

In April 2008, Friedman's vision received a tangible and encouraging business reward: a half-million-dollar stake from Peter Thiel, the libertarian co-founder of PayPal. Friedman's high profile on the Internet, particularly on his always engaging and interesting LiveJournal blog, coupled with his personal history in the Silicon Valley, had won his project the attention of local programmers and money people. A job interview with Thiel's venture capital management firm Clarium soon morphed into a meeting with Thiel himself.

Thiel supports many endeavors to create a future filled with wonderful science-fictional ideas, including the Methuselah Mouse Prize for life extension research and the Singularity Institute, which focuses on wild futuristic accomplishments of all sorts. He was a natural audience for Friedman's vision, and he was sold. As Thiel's colleague Joe Lonsdale tells me, "To Thiel and others involved in lots ofdifferent innovations in Silicon Valley, this seems like the coolest new thing you could create: a new government. That sounds really neat."

Seasteading, Friedman insists, should be of interest to any philanthropist who wants to preserve and protect a wider and more secure human future. As he writes in his book-in-progress on seasteading, "The ability to experiment with a new system will produce both internal benefits to the pioneering seasteaders and external benefits to the world. Seasteaders will be able to choose a society which is in harmony with their values. And each society will serve as an experiment, to see how its system works in practice."

A Seasteaders' Convention

The First Annual Seasteading Conference, held in October 2008, draws about 50 people to an Embassy Suites meeting room in Burlingame, California. Most but not all of the attendees are male libertarian Americans in the computer industry. Friedman and Gramlich do a lot of the talking, selling the reasons why you should, and the ways that you could, seastead. Representatives of Marine Innovation and Technology, a reputable ocean engineering firm, give detailed discussions of designs for small, relatively affordable, modular and movable seasteads. (The firm later supplied the Seasteading Institute with a design for a floating seven-story hotel-casino resort, patent pending.)

The conference attracts solid, serious people with lucrative occupations and (in at least a few cases) cash to invest. Friedman says he is "pleasantly surprised by the low wacko factor." He detects hardly any "people who were not competent, not practical, who have a crazy vision and don't think about how to make [it] a reality." This already puts the project ahead of most past new-country schemes.

I am struck by how few would-be seasteaders have actual nautical experience, as opposed to lots of clever ideas about flotation, breakwaters (to protect floating domiciles from waves, including the dreaded, superpowerful "rogue waves"), and transportation of seastead-sized objects. One attendee—Mikolaj Habryn, who works for Google—tells me he took a sailing course out of his interest in the topic, but for the most part these are not people with saltwater in their veins. They are computer types, social and physical engineers, and visionaries who for various reasons think experimenting with new social forms is an exciting challenge. Many of them tell me they are not likely to be early adapters living on small-scale experimental seasteads; instead they plan to wait until the business environment offshore has room for their careers, or until the comfort level for landlubbers rises a bit.

This lack of high-seas experience might be just fine. While ocean living creates unique challenges and costs—Friedman refers to these as the "ocean tax," recognizing that seasteaders must eventually make the cost lower than the "government tax" you suffer on land—most prospective seasteaders think the obstacles can be largely overcome through money and thought. Human beings already know how to generate power on isolated locations off the grid. Wind, solar, and diesel strike Friedman as the most obviously feasible, and the ocean will probably provide a particularly suitable environment for wind power. Although seasteads probably will try to grow their own food, it can be shipped in if needed; the ocean is all about moving big things cheaply.

What about that most time-tested vessel for living on the sea: the boat? Modularly connecting the vehicles into larger communities seems tricky. Friedman's ideal seasteading community can start small, grow marginally as the idea or the techniques improve enough to attract more people, and be able to both expand and contract as social experiments succeed or fizzle in the judgment of each individual seasteader. He fears boats don't provide much room for self-sufficiency in food and power, let alone comfortable long-term living, given their space limitations. Finally, he's leery of the "Just use boats!" line of thinking because ships are simply too old-fashioned to capture the visionary imagination in the way he thinks seasteading must if the movement is to thrive. Still, Friedman has been moved enough by the obvious immediate advantages in cost and proven legal status to think that living on retrofitted old ships might be a reasonable starting point for experimenting with his ideas.

Oil platforms, another existing model of ocean living and working, are cost-effective because they extract a valuable commodity. But seasteaders cannot, and don't expect to, begin with resource extraction. That would certainly run afoul of both the Law of the Sea Treaty and any number of existing government and corporate interests that claim to have a say over how ocean-based resources should be used and allocated. For the same reason that taking over existing land is a bad idea for nascent seasteaders, anything that suggests a challenge to existing wealth and authority could hobble the movement while it's still trying to find its sea legs.

Indeed, this aspirationally lawless bunch muses throughout the conference in Burlingame over the extent to which the world would view all seasteaders as a part of the same team, and thus whether seasteads would have to, gulp, police each other to prevent one bad apple from spoiling the bunch. They do not reach a conclusion.

Seasteaders do have a legal adviser: Jorge Schmidt, an attorney who has experience with the Law of the Sea Treaty. Schmidt is careful to tell me there are plenty of unknowns awaiting future floaters, although he approves of Friedman's basic framework: get your seastead out of the 12-mile range that countries claim full sovereignty over, don't mess with resources in the 200-mile exclusive economic zone that most nations also assert, and emulate existing ships in international waters by arranging with some nation to obtain a "flag of convenience" marking seasteads as under its protection. In open waters, only nations have rights. Individuals without a stable flag are considered pirates and outlaws.

The seasteading project benefits from the fact that many poorer countries are willing to sell their sovereignty to the highest bidder in a flag-of-convenience process that works to the buyer's advantage. "I definitely think at the start those countries will want a cut [of whatever economic benefit a seastead produces], but keep in mind we're in a good negotiating position," Friedman says. "We can talk to every country in the world and only need one to give us the deal we want, and we can have them bid against each other for how low the cut can be."

Schmidt speculates that full sovereignty might never happen for seasteads, but that it might not matter. "Maybe we'll get 95 percent of what we want just paying Tuvalo," he tells me. "If that's the case, why go the extra step?" Reality is nine-tenths of the law: "What's most important is to get things running, to have something concrete that works. Once we have that, the actual dynamics fuel themselves, rather than expectations and theory."

Getting lost in these worlds of expectation and theory while talking to seasteading enthusiasts and reading their message boards is delightfully bracing, even if it's difficult in sober moments to imagine their dreams materializing. Surely before it gets to the point of modular anarchy, some nation is going to say, "Screw existing international law; we're not letting this happen."

Friedman says something during our first interview in Palo Alto, something that sounds puckish at first but on second and third thought seems more and more true. Libertarians, he says, expend precious time and energy on truly and self-evidently impossible paths toward political change. "Like the Ron Paul movement," he says. "Lots of libertarians' effort and millions and millions directed in a way that's hopeless! 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." By which he means seasteading. And you have to admit: When you compare it to the likelihood of creating a libertarian world through American politics, seasteading starts to look more and more sensible.

'We Can't Build Libertopia'

I have talked to a lot of people about the seasteading concept, normal human beings not particularly familiar with libertarianism or new-country schemes. Everyone offers at least some objections. Friedman and his team have heard them all, and they've got answers—or at least suggestive approximations that indicate the various critiques ought not to be deal killers.

Pirates, for example, are far more likely to attack wealthy ships than humble residential platforms. Seasteaders are very likely to have arms and can raise the cost of attacks higher than most pirates will be willing to pay. Storms? You can keep seasteads safe through breakwaters and a spar-and-buoy design in which most of the wave energy hits just a pillar or two while the city sits cozily on a top platform. And yes, tight communal living can be stressful, but residents of places such as Antarctica stations already find a way to muddle through.

Unlike most new-country dreamers, Friedman and his team are winningly scientific, as opposed to scientistic. They are scrupulous about avoiding claims that such-and-such technical solution must work. They are wary of oceandreamer concepts such as "seament" or "ocean thermal energy conversion," which are based on the premise that both building materials and energy are easily gleanable from the open seas themselves.

And although he remains a happy anarchovisionary, Friedman knows that he and his confederates must take baby steps. He just wants to see marginal improvements in governance, and he is sure "dynamic geography" is the key. Thus, while the goal is to be totally free-floating, he is willing to let seasteads be encased in breakwaters if that's the cheapest way to keep them safe from the ocean's ravages.

"We can't build libertopia," he says. "Whatever we build will have to have security forces who will bust in your door if they think you're designing nuclear weapons or funding terrorism."

This concession is based not on principle but on the pragmatic concern that nukes and terrorism would make seasteads sitting ducks for nation-states. "It will be a bummer," Friedman adds, "and not what I want ultimately, but with that constraint we can get a lot of freedom, a lot more than we have now."

Friedman comes across as a consistently calm and reasonable man. So reasonable, in fact, that dealing with the rest of the world's passions and irrationalities have come to bore and annoy him.
That's why he embraced seasteading to begin with.

As Milton's grandson says at the conference, the best thing about seasteading is that it doesn't require any proselytizing to the masses. "Niche social and political movements [try to] argue with everyone they run across and convince the whole country," he notes, but that's "stressful and hopeless." Why not just do it: build a version of the world you want to live in. Then you get to live in it, regardless of whether anyone else is convinced it's proper or makes sense.

'We Just Want to Create a Laboratory'

In his introductory talk at the seasteading conference, Friedman calmly tells a series of maddening stories: of men dying of cancer in prison because of stupid immigration restrictions, of tens of millions murdered by states in the 20th century, of people imprisoned and impoverished because of their choice of recreation. The context and political intent are clear: We have to figure out a way to escape governments.

As of this writing, seasteading is still mostly talk and dreams. Raising more money is in abeyance, as the Seasteading Institute doesn't even have official nonprofit status yet. (The Internal Revenue Service is processing the paperwork.) The patent on the first hotel-casino design is still pending. The publicity generated by the article in Wired, seasteading's first extensive major print media hit, more than doubled Friedman's volunteer base within a few weeks.

The current economic crisis, everyone involved notes, makes the institute's prospects both better and worse in the short term. It's easier to sell the notion that the world desperately needs some new political and economic systems, but it's harder to convince people to be charitable, especially toward experimental long shots.

The first real, physical thing the seasteaders plan is a fall 2009 event in the San Francisco Bay called Ephemerisle, a sort of aquatic Burning Man (the annual desert art festival in which Friedman is an enthusiastic participant). They plan to experiment with some flotation designs and begin to feel what a free life at sea might be like.

"You can read all the books you want that say freedom is a better system, but if people in their daily lives are surrounded by cops with guns, where government supplies emergency services, where every product has been regulated and tested by government, it's hard to wrap your head around the crazy idea that all these things can be provided by a free market," Friedman tells me. "So let's do it. Let's live it. It could be a disaster. People might die. But living it makes it so much more powerful than talking about it." Through Burning Man, he adds, he's "seen the power of experience to shape people's perceptions about what's possible."

What will the experience of living on a seastead be like? What social structures will arise on a liberated ocean? Friedman recognizes that it is neither possible nor necessary for him to know. In his words, it's "an enormous relief to realize that we can just throw up our hands and safely leave some of the questions philosophers have been discussing for millennia unresolved. 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."

Senior Editor Brian Doherty (bdoherty@reason.com) is the author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs), and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).