Is Seasteading the Future?

We need all the alternatives to big arthritic government we can get.


Here's a novel idea: Escape the suffocating chains of intrusive government by starting your own country!

That's Patri Friedman's idea. He comes from an impressive line of libertarian thinkers. Milton Friedman, the Nobel-prize-winning free-market economist, was his grandfather. His father is David Friedman, author of the libertarian classic The Machinery of Freedom. Milton Friedman advocated severely limited government. David Friedman thinks we need no government at all. And now Patri, who will be on my Fox Business show tonight, believes he has an effective solution to bad government: communities on the ocean surface, or seasteading.

As a fan of the free market, Friedman understands the benefits of competition. The competitive process teaches us ways to do things we otherwise never would learn. This is important because resources are scarce and we want the most from them. In the crucible of entrepreneurial rivalry, where consumers are free to say yea or nay, competitors are pushed to do better, and under this pressure they come up with things no monopolistic bureaucrat would ever think of. That's why F.A. Hayek called competition a "discovery procedure."

Governments provide various services, but they do so monopolistically. This makes them inept, even when performing valuable functions. You can move to a different city or state to escape government burdens, but it doesn't seem possible to start a whole new country. Governments claim every square mile of the earth.

What is someone looking for better governance to do? In 2008, Friedman set up The Seasteading Institute. His website states: "(W)e believe that experiments are the source of all progress: To find something better, you have to try something new. But right now, there is no open space for experimenting with new societies. That's why we work to enable seasteading communities—floating cities—which will allow the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government. The most successful can then inspire change in governments around the world."

In Friedman's view, there is no time to lose. Skyrocketing spending and crushing debt push governments toward crisis. Political incentives being what they are, there is little will for the needed overhaul. The retirement benefits promised by governments are totally unsustainable, and yet proposing significant cuts in benefits has been political suicide. While there is at least serious talk about cuts now, powerful constituencies will mobilize to try to portray any cutter as a monster.

Friedman is convinced that only competition can produce the way to extricate us from the mess the politicians have created. "Seasteaders believe that government shouldn't be like the cell phone carrier industry, with few choices and high customer lock-in. Instead, we envision a vibrant startup sector for government, with many small groups experimenting with innovative ideas as they compete to serve their citizens. … The world needs a place where those who wish to experiment with building new societies can go to test out their ideas. All land is already claimed—which makes the oceans humanity's next frontier."

To promote actual experiments in seasteading, Friedman's institute seeks to launch a "Seasteading Evangelist" program, with local chapters for enthusiasts. By 2015, the institute hopes to present its Poseidon Award, "our prize for the establishment of the first independent seasteading community." To win, a community will need at least 50 full-time residents, financial self-sufficiency, seastead real estate for sale on the open market, and de-facto political autonomy.

Friedman doesn't expect lots of people to drop everything and start living on the ocean immediately. He writes in the upcoming issue of The Freeman: "Technology, though, has the potential to make the ocean a feasible alternative for more people. Early pioneers will learn lessons that will make life on the ocean easier, thus prompting previously unwilling pioneers to make the move. Over time, the costs in comfort, safety and access to civilization will fall and the ocean will be just another place to live. This is the path we see on any frontier."

I will not be among the first to move to a seastead. But I wish Patri well. We need all the alternatives to big arthritic government that we can get.

John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com.