Is the Seasteading Dream Really Dead?

Wired argues that "Silicon Valley is Letting Go of Its Techie Island Fantasies" on insufficient evidence.


The concept of Seasteading had enough inherent cool, interesting cred that lots of publications took it seriously in its early days no matter how unlikely its quick or even ultimate success might seem. Very roughly, Seasteading is the process of creating competition for current governments via building new land/potential "new countries" out in the ocean that could experiment with new rules (including, yes, the possibility of far fewer ones).

Among the early deep looks at the idea and the Seasteading Institute established in 2008 to promote and actuate that idea were long features right here at Reason by me and, even before us, Wired.

This weekend, Wired tried to bury the Seasteading dream in an article titled "Silicon Valley is Letting Go of Its Techie Island Fantasies" by Kyle Denuccio.

So the headline said. What the article actually did, or tried to do, was more wide-ranging and inchoate, and hard to defend.

Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who co-founded the Seasteading Institute and whose Thiel Foundation has given over a million bucks to it since it launched in 2008, is the central link in media coverage between "Silicon Valley" and the Seasteading idea. The story wants you to think Thiel has decided it's a terrible idea.

In doing so, the story mischaracterizes and misdirects the reader on some quotes from Thiel. Examples:

Earlier this year, during a talk at George Mason University, Thiel said, "I'm not exactly sure that I'm going to succeed in building a libertarian utopia any time soon." Part of the problem: A truly self-sufficient society might exceed the range even of Thiel's fortune. "You need to have a version where you could get started with a budget of less than $50 billion," he said.

The "any time soon" part was a reaction to a questioner asking about "the libertarian utopia that you will build," not proof that he ever believed he was going to build such a utopia anywhere at any time and had backtracked.

While the quote about the money involved may, and likely does, represent a step back from possible heady optimism when he co-founded the Institute (though the Institute never believed that it, with its own resources solely, was going to be building Seasteads in a hurry so much as planning, advocating, coordinating ideas and practices for them), Thiel says elsewhere in the same George Mason University talk that:

If we could reopen the frontier in geopolitical terms and find a way to really innovate on society, I think this would be a terrific thing to do.

Then the question "How does one actually do this?" is very tricky. All the surface area on this planet is occupied. It seems very hard to get this to work. I know Romer had this experiment with these city-states in Africa. I think it was prohibitively expensive. It could never really quite get started.

So, "letting go" in the Wired headline seems not quite right. Thiel still loves the idea. Perhaps it's a sign of adjusting earlier senses of optimism, though even that is underproven in the piece itself. I have not (ever) been able to nab an interview with Thiel, so I cannot say that he has not decided Seasteading was worthless or a fantasy or something he's abandoned, but the evidence Denuccio presents does not support that assertion. 

Denuccio later writes something about Thiel and Seasteading that's straight-up misleading:

For all Thiel's open criticism of elected officials, he sounded remarkably like a politician recanting false promises on the stage at George Mason. Toward the end of the talk, he reflected for a moment on his early essay on seasteading. "Writing is always such a dangerous thing," he said. "It was late at night. I quickly typed it off."

Thiel was, as the context makes clear, talking about an essay he wrote for Cato Unbound which, while it mentioned Seasteading, was mostly about his controversial declaration that democracy and freedom are not compatible, not about Seasteading per se. A further quote from the Mason talk makes it clear it was that point, not Seasteading, that he was poo-pooing as ill-thought-out: 

My updated version on it would be that?—?I made the case that I thought democracy and capitalism weren't quite compatible?—?the updated version I would give is it's not at all clear that we're living in anything resembling a democracy.

We're living in a representative republic, but then that's modified through a judicial system. Of course, that's been largely superseded by these very unelected agencies of one sort or another, which really drive most of the decision-making.

It is curious Thiel's discussion of the expense of the Seasteading idea during the George Mason talk doesn't mention that he ever had been a funder of the idea. He talked like someone who found it a very valuable idea that was likely too expensive to actuate, without mentioning he'd ever tried. Given that the Institute never believed it was going to be launching seasteds within six years itself, it's hard to say how much any of this represents a shift in Thiel, much less Silicon Valley as a whole, in terms of interest in Seasteading, or "techie island fantasies" as Wired's headline would have it.

Denuccio goes on to say the Institute itself is in retreat on its ambitions:

For its part, The Seasteading Institute has also come to appreciate that the middle of the ocean is less inviting than early renderings suggest. It now hopes to find shelter in calmer, government-regulated waters. According to its most recent vision statement, "The high cost of open ocean engineering serves as a large barrier to entry and hinders entrepreneurship in international waters. This has led us to look for cost-reducing solutions within the territorial waters of a host nation."

The Seasteading Institute, at its beginning and now, was more about proselytizing for an idea and gathering and coordinating people to tackle problems, than it was about itself actually building Seasteads. It also acknowledged that progress could likely be very slow and would likely need to start with building closer to shore. Joe Quirk of the Institute said in an email to me today (after noting that Denuccio did not seek comment from the Seasteading Institute for the story) regarding the "starting in territorial waters" part:

Before the moon shot comes the test launch. If this pilot project demonstrates that a floating community with substantial political autonomy can be prosperous, environmentally benign, and provide blue jobs for local people, the economic, political, and moral incentives will be aligned to attract the best minds to tackle the high seas.

In fiction they taught me: "Show, don't tell." I'd encourage liberty-lovers stop debating and start demonstrating. In our office we work wearing tee-shirts that say, "Stop arguing. Start seasteading." It really has a way of keeping you focused.

Quirk also had this to say on the larger question of whether air has gone out of the sails of the concept:

Randy [Hencken, executive director of the Institute] and I do nothing all day except make arrangements for our free floating city. Randy works with our volunteer legal team when he's not traveling to meet government officials.  He escorts the Dutch engineers to scout the floating city site, visits the experiments in the wave tank. I facilitate meetings between seaweed farmers and a big agriculture businessman. I connect medical researchers interested in ocean research to each other. Our new Managing Director uses his maritime experience to labor over the business models all day. So far I've only described this week. We are all floating city, all the time. I never take a day off. We plan to make this happen, and we've got a large global seasteading community behind us—credentialed, qualified professionals of high caliber volunteering, donating, offering counsel.

The rest of the Wired piece is jumbled mix. It seems to want to be a wider intellectual trend piece about Silicon Valley allegedly getting more comfortable with government or less interested in new forms of governance, as well as being specifically about the Seasteading its headline and lead would lead you to expect.

But declaring, as the story does, that a company hiring someone to deal with regulations proves they (or much less the entire Silicon Valley intellectual economy) understands that limiting them or changing them much is a fantasy or undesirable, is to say too much. And that Denuccio can find, as always, talking heads to point out hey, Silicon Valley is fully enmeshed, and in the current state of the world could be seen as "dependent" on, government again is no reflection of anything either bigger or smaller in "Silicon Valley's" yen for floating techie paradises, or smaller or smarter government, or anything.

That many of the most widely publicized and effective innovations and innovators, from Musk to Thiel to e-hailing to highly publicized tech disruptions that aren't necessarily about Silicon Valley as a business, from cryptocoins to Wikileaks, have a libertarian core likely underlies why someone would want to write a trend piece pitting Silicon Valley against libertarian thinking.

But it doesn't work on any level. The piece wobbles between being a big intellectual trend piece for which it has far too little in the way of wide-ranging interviewing or specific data, and one specifically about the death of Seasteading, for which it lacks specific proof, and fudges some of the supposed proof it gives. and Thiel

I talked to Patri Friedman, co-founder of the Seasteading Institute and currently with Google (as he was before he co-founded the Institute as well) yesterday, and emailed with him, about the Wired article. He was not misquoted—he knows he was somewhat naive about what it would take at the start, and how long it might take, to actuate new ocean lands with new rules—but had more to say to contextualize the article's larger point.

"Contrasting 'good regulation' with the desire to 'escape regulation,'" isn't he best way to interpret the Seasteading instinct, Friedman wrote. "It's more like: good regulations & institutions are really important, we really want to live under a better legal system, so we want to experiment with new legal systems that might be better."

"If we applied that thinking to Apple computer, we'd say that Jobs and Wozniak were naive technology haters trying to 'escape from the computer' because they built their own Apple instead of using the other computers at the time," he points out, which would be silly. "Experimenting with your own version of an important technology is what people who truly care about performance will do" and that's what Seasteading tries to do with rules and governance.

Friedman also wrote today (and he said it to me in 2009 as well) that "sovereign open ocean seasteads are at least decades off. To get to such a big, ambitious goal, you need to find smaller steps that each produce value….It's good news, not bad news, that TSI is making substantial progress towards the first such development.

"And from the competitive government lens, the goal is not sovereignty, the goal is increased variety, entry, and competition in the government industry. If government start allowing Special Legal Zones the way they have Special Economic Zones today; even if those zones only have 10 percent or 30 percent of laws different from the host country, that's a *huge* step towards legal diversity and competitive governance."

When it comes to the larger intellectual and business culture of the tech industry he's worked in and with for many years, Friedman says, "a sense that it is necessary and inevitable to get a government that works much better [than it does now], that is not changing at all."

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  1. What the hell am I supposed to do with the giant pineapple house I built now?

    1. Sell it to the anthropomorphic squirrel?

    2. Get it on “Incredible Homes” on HGTV?

    3. Underwater House Salesman: Excuse me. I gotta go change a lightbulb.

  2. In our office we work wearing tee-shirts that say, “Stop arguing. Start seasteading.” It really has a way of keeping you focused.

    That made me laugh.

    1. In a book on Bechtel Engineering, the author mentions one of the first big jobs Bechtel got in the bay area; the tunnel through the east bay hills. The starting digging and found springs. And started lawsuits.
      One of Bechtels appointed a new manager who called the staff together and said ‘Stop lawing, and start digging!’

      1. The Bechtel test: Can two engineers get together and discuss something other than digging tunnels, hot chicks, or which Star Trek series is best?

        1. The ones who are successful there can discuss how to get government contracts.
          That book was “Friends in High Places” and dealt with the cronyism as much as the engineering efforts. It does need a re-do; the Bechtels were (are?) solidly rethug in the dem bastion of the Bay Area, but Nancy gets her way when pitted against some real D powers…

      2. In the war of 2061 Bechtel and Kiewit Pacific will make an alliance, along with the son of Fredo Bush, biker gangs, and ex-millitary drone hobbyists to attack Manhattan Island. The attack will be spearheaded by a rolling stock of earthmovers and bulldozers the likes of which God has never seen.

        This is why the NYT editorial page is the way it is.

        1. AC, is that you?

  3. If government start allowing Special Legal Zones the way they have Special Economic Zones today; even if those zones only have 10 percent or 30 percent of laws different from the host country, that’s a *huge* step towards legal diversity and competitive governance.”

    That’s what the ZEDE is. Thiel refers to Romer’s ‘African city-states’ in a remark that is not thoughtful. They aren’t in Africa anymore, they are in Honduras, they are not prohibitively expensive, and they are happening.

    1. Gurgaon is an interesting example of a semi-private city.

  4. Let me know when we can build an actual island, a la Superman Returns. But with less…everything about Superman Returns.

    1. So, no tights for the men? I concur.

      1. On Libertopia Island, forcing people to wear clothes of any kind violates the NAP

  5. I read this stupid hit piece yesterday. It’s not even worth posting about here. There was a commenter by the name of Michael Strong though who complained the SI was all about producing pretty pictures.

  6. Hitler? I was told that the answer to these questions is always “Hitler”….

  7. Fuck seasteading!! Lets get BLIMPS back!!! WOOOHOOOOOO!!
    (Just sayin’ – I saw a blimp in that picture…)

    1. Jesus! You want to blow us all to shit, Sherlock?

      1. Dammit! It’s HELIUM, you idiots, not Hydrogen!

    2. If it’s a good year we may get our blimps back.

      1. OK, SOMEBODY’s got to give you a nod:

  8. These guys should be building their initial seasteads or pre-steads with the goal of serving open-ocean industries that already exist. Live delivering food or other supplies to oil rigs and, if all goes well, deep sea mining.

  9. There is that flimsy-sourced story of the time maybe Ron Paul and the Canadian KKK tried to “seastead” the island of Dominica..

  10. I think seasteading is a non-starter. I think the best libertarian idea (that I just came up with) is to buy one of those Island chains that the people want off of due to global warming.

    It serves two purposes:

    1. They get paid for their island, and we don’t get a dodgy floating garbage barge as home, we get real land.

    2. It lets us put our monies where our mouths are by living in a place supposedly imminently threatened by Global Warming. If the effects of the worst-case scenario global warming predictions come true, we’ll pay the price. If they don’t, we’ll stand as a monument to the models’ failures.

    1. nice.

    2. But Paul, aren’t you already a monument to failure? At least, that’s what your mom tells me. She’s very critical of you, you know.

      1. I’m more of a cautionary tale. I was really never good enough to reach monument status.

        1. A failure at being a monumental failure? Oh Paul.

    3. That sounds like a good idea, Paul. I just think we need as many experiments as possible so that the bad ideas can get shot down, the good ideas can thrive, and we can learn from all of them along the way.

    4. How dare you, a white man, attempt to appropriate the native lands of a noble people, with your ill begotten money!

  11. Technically there still is one large frontier land available: Antartica…..aty_System

    So any successful homesteading of Antartica would require the new settlers to ulitimately renounce their citizenship. Therefore the initial development should be done at least partly covertly. The research bases, tourist attractions and services, offices, can be built out in the open, but staff and armed personnel all share this secret mission.

  12. I guess I’m not super sure why seasteading is considered *the* frontier for a political group that readily accedes to the reality of supply and demand. I mean, besides Wired reporters mischaracterizing it as such. It’s not an investment any conscientious investor entrepreneur could justify, it’s hardly cost-effective given the fairly business-friendly first-world markets available, and if the last capitalist country finally shuttered its capitalist class, some floating bunch of barges would not be the saving grace of libertarianism.

  13. We’re entering election season. Expect more articles, even from unlikely sources, that spread FUD about any libertarian or conservative solutions to anything.

  14. Zedes and the Free state project have much higher prospects

    1. I’m also concerned with the ‘jealous gods’ of the world’s governments and the responses:
      Let’s say the ting gets moving and, dog-my-cats!, turns out to be a spectacular success, attracts all sorts of wonderful people, their ideas and their businesses, and makes Qatar’s per-capita look like a beer budget!
      Wanna bet some ‘moves’ wouldn’t start happening? I mean, the powers that be wouldn’t just invade, but perhaps SS’s products would be hit with some very high tariffs since they aren’t really ‘green’, or shipments of fuel might get delayed, and so on.
      Extant powers do not like being dissed!

      1. This is exactly how the machine war started according to The Animatrix.

  15. I’ve never looked into this ‘seasteading’ thing.

    My first reaction was to remember the first time i was a few miles offshore, and a squall blew threw.

    Do they actually account for the weather in these schemes? I mean…. oil rigs manage to survive – but only because they’re exo-skeletons meant to do a job, and not be living-spaces.

    1. Gilmore,
      They’re not planing for that Boston Whaler you were in…
      Seriously, I’m sure that’s occupied a LOT of the planning, not only from harm-reduction engineering, but siting the damn thing.

      1. The first time I was actually in a zodiac that got blown about 5 miles out to sea. *( we had been tooling off the outer banks of NC, between Ocracoke bay and the ocean proper)

        I’d think from a realistic standpoint, they’d have a more likely chance of building lasting structures *under* the ocean, rather than trying to float anything on top of it.

        1. On ocracoke as I write

          1. Had to look it up.
            That’s the ‘outer banks’; no wonder Gilmore is concerned. It’s be hard to find an area more famous for bad weather.

          2. “On ocracoke as I write”


            i used to go down there every summer when i was a kid. completely isolated. I used to peel a buckets of shrimp, get paid $5, which i would then blow on like 1 donkey kong machine they had at the one bar.

        2. “I’d think from a realistic standpoint, they’d have a more likely chance of building lasting structures *under* the ocean, rather than trying to float anything on top of it.”

          To pick a number, I’m guessing undersea *installed* costs as 100X floating costs; imagine transporting industrial-quantities of anything in or out of an undersea bubble. Maersk lines won’t do it, and Sevo lines ain’t willing to invest in such vehicles for one location.
          Whole new infrastructure requirements; sorta what made Segway a REALLY, REALLY neat *toy*, and nothing more.

  16. A commonsense approach would be to get a thousand or so libertarians to form a group, and each promise to invest about a half-million dollars each to start a “Hong Kong” like area in some nice climate like Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, etc. Then present their offer to several govts, and see who accepts this wealthy offer.

    The area would be self-governing, full of businesses, hotels, factories, internet services, whatever, but immune to the host govt. rules and laws and taxes. The local citizens could come and go into the area to work, to vacation, to invest, but always under the minimal libertarian laws of the new zone.

    It would have to be a LONG-term deal, of course (50 years, a century?).

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