I’m Not Seaing It

Imagine you run a small business in an area where a criminal organization runs a protection racket. “Nice shop here, shame if something were to happen to it.” So you pay.

Someone tells you that they’ve never seen payment demanded from the homeless guy who sells pencils on the corner. Nor the shady guy who sells watches in the alley. And maybe not even from food trucks.

So this person suggests that you relocate your small business to a truck. Or at least a trailer park. Because then criminals might not bother you. And if they do you can more easily move to another town. You should also move your home to an RV, or a trailer park, for the same reason.

Enough of you together might even create whole mobile towns that better evade both local criminals and local governments. If locals don’t treat you right, you’ll be outta there. Your group could then govern itself more, instead of having to do what locals say. And that would create more experiments in governance, which would help the world to innovate and improve our mechanisms of governance.

This isn’t fantasy because trucks, RVs, and trailer parks already exist. Oh and have you heard of all the great ideas for improving trucks? There are ideas for how trucks could be used to make energy, food, and potable water, and how they could clean up pollution and pull CO2 from the air. Anything you think is expensive on a truck might soon be cheap. What are you waiting for!?

Not persuaded? That’s how I feel about Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman’s new book Seasteading: How Floating Nations will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians.

They argue that cruise ships and oil rig platforms prove that we already know how to live on the ocean. And we have so many great new related ideas — there are ways to make ocean houses, things ocean machines could do, and products and services that ocean living people could sell. The book is mostly about all those great ocean ideas, for food, energy, clean water, CO2, etc.

Presumably, in time the usual profit motives would get all that ocean tech developed without your help. The reason Quirk and Freidman say they wrote this book, to entice you to help, is because they think sea-living folks could create more experiments in governance, because nations don’t officially claim control over people far from shore. And offshore mobility would enable a different better set of experiments. They are hoping you care enough about that to go live on the ocean.

In 366 pages the authors are careful to never say which particular governance variations they are so eager to try, variations that are today blocked by all land governments everywhere. Somewhat suspiciously like blockchain folks eager for “commerce” without government interference. (They just want to trade “stuff,” okay?)

The book talks about seeking approval from governments for early experiments, and wanting to keep good relations with neighboring nations. Seasteads won’t be used to evade taxes, they say. And whatever products and services they sell to land-based customers must meet regulations that those customers must live by.

Long ago people who didn’t like local governments tended to head for mountains and jungles, where they were harder to find and tax. That doesn’t work as well today, as governments can now find people much more easily, even on the ocean.

The book suggests that seastead mobility would make governance different and better for them. But one must pay a big added cost for mobility, both on land and sea. And the cost of moving large seasteads seems to me comparable to the cost to move a home or business located in a trailer on land. Yet the existence of trailer parks hasn’t obviously unleashed much great land governance.

The book claims that nations won’t interfere w/ seasteads because “China has not invaded Hong Kong. Malaysia has not invaded Singapore .. The Cayman Islands .. adopts a spiteful stance toward US and EU regulator policies” (p.270). Yet as recently as 1982 an international treaty UNCLOS extended national powers out to 200+ miles, within which nations “reserve the right to regulate `artificial islands, installations, and structures.’” (p.13) It seems to me that when there is enough economic activity in the oceans, nations would get around to trying to control it.

Yeah nations can be slow to act, so maybe there’d be some interim period when seasteads could experiment. But even then I find it hard to imagine that seasteads would substantially increase the total governance experimentation on Earth, even for an interim.

The world is full of families, firms, clubs, churches, group homes able to try many governance variations. Apparently, “there are close to 600,000 cities, towns, villages, hamlets etc. in the world.” Some of these are “intentional communities” that experiment with many social variations, in far easier environments than the ocean.

Yes, many governance variations do not seem to have been tried much, but that seems mostly due to a lack of interest. I can’t get people to do futarchy experiments, even though it could be tried in organizations of most any size. Scholars have proposed many as-yet-untried governance mechanisms, such as voting rules, that could also be tried in organizations of any size. US libertarians can’t even get enough of them to move to New Hampshire to make a big governance difference there.

Yes, there are far fewer such polities in the world that could try experiments on governance issues that only apply to polities containing at least a million people. But I find it hard to imagine a million people all going to live on the sea just so they can do experiments at that scale. And even if they did, it would only create a small percentage change in the number of such polities.

Maybe if ocean tech advances as fast as some hope, many will eventually live on the ocean, just for the economic benefits. But in that case I expect the usual nations to extend control over this new activity. And any new governance units that do form would only add a small fraction to Earth entities able to experiment with governance variations.

My guess is that the real appeal here is related to why people find pirate stories “romantic.” They just like the abstract idea that pirates are “free”, even if they don’t have any particular forbidden action in mind to do as a pirate. And just as most who enjoy reading pirates stories would never actually choose to be a pirate, most seastead supporters like the idea of supporting sea “freedom”, even if no way they’d go live on the ocean, and even if they have no particular usually-forbidden thing they want “free” sea folks to try.

Seasteading, I’m just not seaing it.

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  • Monsoonking

    There have also been many “intentional communities” spawned over the last century that have sought to build “utopias” based on new governance paradigms. These have a pretty abysmal track record, even without the challenges of living on an oil rig hundreds of miles from land.


    I also wonder if these kind of projects naturally attract eccentrics who aren’t well suited to community building. I.e. you end up with a ton of out of the box thinkers and not a lot of seaweed farmers.

    • Weaver

      Probably because most people’s Utopias are blatantly unstable to human psychology. Quelle surpris.

      But they would still be valuable. All the irritating socialists could ‘eff off to one of their utopias and stop bothering me. At the very least we could point to the wreckage of their latest attempt at universal brotherhood….

  • I really like “everyone moving to New Hampshire is much easier than the ocean” as a compact Hanson argument against the feasibility of seasteading, analagous to “everyone living in Antarctica is much easier than Mars” as an argument against the feasibility of interplanetary colonization

    • Monsoonking

      I think the mission in each case is a bit different. The former is to experiment with a different form of governance while the latter is to ensure the long term survival of humans through planetary diversification. Refusing to move to Antarctica doesn’t really mean anything since it doesn’t achieve the same aim as moving to Mars. However, rthe refusal to move to New Hampshire might say something about the feasibility of getting people to move to an oil rig.

      • I think that difference is a red herring because the analogies are mostly about illuminating economic constraints rather than proving anything about human motivation. But if you want to perfect the analogy you can use, say, underground bunkers in Antarctica with strict quarantine rules, which would likely yield greater x-risk protections. The distance between Earth and Mars is just not that valuable, and is easily outweighed by the higher likelihood of human refugees rebuilding civilization post-disaster from Antarctica than from Mars.

      • Monsoonking

        I more or less agree.

        I guess I view the intent of the seasteading models as, ideally, being immediately beneficial to those who adopt them. That is, you’d move to an oil rig to live under a preferred administrative system and have a better life. A refusal to move to New Hampshire or an oil rig throws into question those supposed net benefits.

        The Mars/Antartica move is more about self-sacrifice to propagate the species. An individual’s refusal to move to either doesn’t really invalidate the benefit of species insurance, as it does with seasteading, since it’s not supposed to be a desirable alternative to current norms (at least from the perspective of the individual).

        Perhaps there’s more of a “self-sacrifice for the greater good” element to seasteading than I give it credit for.

        Whether Antartica is as good as Mars or New Hampshire is as good as an oil rig is a separate question. But yes, I get your point. If we’re unwilling to build species survival bunkers in Antartica, it throws into question the movement to build species survival bunkers on Mars, just as a refusal to move to NH throws into question the real potential attraction of seasteading.

    • ESRogs

      And the same objection applies to both. Moving to the sea or to Mars would be exciting!

      (Moreso than New Hampshire or Antarctica.)

      • ESRogs

        Whether demand from said excitement is enough to overcome the increased cost is less clear.

      • The excitement would also go away quickly, after spending a good bit of boring time on Mars or the sea.

    • Does a similar argument also work against colonizing the New World?

      • Yes, it works very well against colonizing the new world when the possibility first appeared, i.e., in 1000 AD when Leif Erikson and the Vikings made it to Newfoundland. It took a half millennium before the technology and economic incentives developed to make permenant settlement feasible.

      • Weaver

        The Amerindians found it profitable to colonise the new world.

        Seriously, the Vikings would probably have stayed and (slowly) prospered if the land wasn’t already occupied by hunter-gatherer competition.

      • “Degree of indigenous occupation” is just another factor, like weather, to consider when deciding if it’s feasible for outsiders to colonize a place that transportation tech has just made accessible.

    • crasch

      Many of the most onerous taxes and regulations happen at the Federal level. Since those still apply if you move to New Hampshire, there’s as much incentive to move there as there would be to a seastead.

  • Sidenote, but the US government (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) actually tracks “populated places” in the world. I worked with their data and there around 4 million. Here is a map of them: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bddb3de67f3c96baa3ae80ab3d065e346871d859bb1fcc3c09acec0742696bc1.png

    • Mexico is vastly more densely populated than the eastern seaboard of the US? That seems unlikely. I must not be understanding your graph.

      • The points correspond to place names, they aren’t a measure of population. It’s hard to make cross-country (or sometimes even cross state/province) comparisons because different governments define “places” differently. My broader point was that the world has a lot of rural places/villages.

  • Tim Tyler

    Perhaps look into ocean reclamation and aquaculture instead. The oceans are currently like deserts and our descendants will cultivate and farm them.

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  • Dave Lindbergh

    “They just like the abstract idea that pirates are “free”, even if they don’t have any particular forbidden action in mind to do as a pirate.”

    Not a joke – SDS for water:


    I’d like to live in a world where preparing stuff like that wasn’t required.

    • WalterFuques

      I know you said “not a joke”, but it sure reads like one. Unbelievable, but there it is.

      Which, of course, was your point.

    • Weaver

      People like you trivialise the very real hazards of dihydrogen monoxide.

  • Robert Koslover

    Not sea-living, space-living. Eventually it will happen, if we can avoid destroying ourselves first.

    • An interesting facet of space living is that, while it’s expensive to get to, it’s comparatively inexpensive to use what you find there already. So people who live in space won’t be able to trade efficiently with people who live on earth, forcing them to develop a self contained economy (information excepted, since that is cheap). This is assuming the pessimists are right and we never develop cheap transit of material goods to orbit a la space elevators, orbital rings, or launch loops. For those who worry that earth is becoming a kludge of overspecialised interdependent machines that could collapse at any time, this ability to enforce a separation of physical economies is a powerful argument for colonizing space.

      • Weaver

        Earth has fantastic tourism resources, once you overcome your crippling agrophobia of being outside without a suit. Will trade for your belt resources.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    “no particular usually-forbidden thing”

    Robin, I’m surprised that someone of your quasi-libertarian background doesn’t understand that what chafes is not that which is forbidden, but that which is required.

    Get out of the university and talk to some entrepreneurs – esp. anyone making something physical (not software or services). Ask about how they deal with regulation, with compliance, with the risk of getting sued – not for any real tort but for failure to comply with some senseless rule they’d never heard of.

    I think you have an awakening waiting for you.

    • Philon

      And besides burdensome regulation there is burdensome taxation: surely seasteaders are expecting, or at least hoping for, a much smaller tax burden.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Given the very large expenditures that seasteaders will need to put into defense, I suspect their taxes won’t be low.

        But taxation is not high enough (IMHO) in Western countries today to make exodus worthwhile.

        In 1971 marginal income tax rates reached 98% in the UK. At that rate moving to a country with 10% marginal taxes represents a potential increase of 45x in post-tax income. At 90% the factor is 9. Those seem worth moving for.

        But at 45% or so, you’re looking at a factor of only 1.6 (0.9/0.55).

        It’s the maddening, soul-destroying, bottomless pit of unfathomable rules upon rules, hundreds of thousands of pages of them, constantly changing, and expanding, and being reinterpreted, uncomprehendible by any hundred people, endlessly hanging like a sword of Damocles over ones’ life work, constantly threatening ignominy, prison time, and the loss of all that one has built, that chafes.

        Not the taxes.

      • Entrepreneurs widely fear imprisonment for innocent business acts? That would be serious indeed! But you’d think there would be journalistic exposes, etc.

      • Weaver

        But most taxes don’t go on defence! A 10% defence budget, even a 5% one, goes a LONG way for a state….

  • The Free State project actually looks pretty successful to me, all things considered.

    >This February, though, at a Manchester Radisson packed with political journalists in town for the key presidential primary, the project’s leaders announced they’d hit their target and officially “triggered the move.” Since then, according to early movers, new Free Staters have arrived at an unprecedented rate—six times the usual number of move-ins.


    If they get 20K people to move to a state of 1.3M, that’s 1.5% of the population. Less than half of those 1.3M are voters. So 3% of the voting population. That’s nontrivial. They’ve already put a double-digit number of people in the state legislature.

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  • Robert Koslover

    Oh yes, I forgot to mention this… the movie wasn’t especially seaworthy either (i.e., a poor return on the investment): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterworld

  • actinide meta

    Perhaps the “steelman” version of the seasteading idea is that there is one particular set of regulations — migration restrictions — that

    (1) some people think is reducing world GDP by ~50%
    (2) can’t be relaxed by communities within a nation, and
    (3) nations don’t seem motivated to enforce on third parties

    So just maybe there is a trillion dollar bill lying on the sidewalk for someone who can find a sufficiently large industry that can be moved to the oceans and can benefit enough from a global hiring pool to make up for the extra costs of making it float. Medicine? Elder care? Something that looks like the current cruise ship business, but much, much bigger, that needs to bring cheap and high productivity labor together physically.

    Once “seasteaders” have a 13 digit GDP, they will have plenty of resources to defend themselves. Of course, they need to solve a coordination problem to do that, and maybe that’s where novel coordination mechanisms could come in. In solution space, where they belong, rather than as a goal in and of themselves.

    • Weaver

      No; I think this misses the point entirely. Seasteading is about lowering the cost of EXIT from a polity via the ability to form a novel one under free association. It has nothing – nothing – to do with specific policies (oh, yeah, immigration, topic of the day, very clever…).

      The world has a massive undersupply of different polities.

      You have a few score of social democracies in various shades of taxation, a roughly equal number of functioning Asian autocracies, a smattering of traditional / pre-modern holdouts, and a hundred or so despotic messes. Big choice…not.

      Where are the Miniarchist states? The Syndicalists? The Communists? The pure anarchists? The neo-reactionaries? The green primitivists? Nowhere. Because land is finite and the frontier for state formation is closed. We have a dysfunctional polity market, with people trapped in states which don’t share their ideals or kin.

      I think the Steelman version is lowering the entry costs to the market for statehood.