This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Why Can’t Seasteading Get Off The Ground?

For years now, slow-news days have brought us the breaking news that the world’s richest people — and hence the world’s best — fed up with taxation, government regulation, and having to co-exist with the unwashed masses without hunting them for sport, are about to go off to live on a modified oil rig, a “project” known as ”seasteading”. Alternatively, they may inhabit a giant cruise ship.

On the surface, it looks like a perfect futuristic Galt’s Gulch, a cluster of manicured, pastel-colored apartment buildings separated from the world of “parasites” by the forbidding ocean, but yet within a safe distance of some friendly country, one that does not mind having billionaire excrement, broken champagne bottles, and an occasional dead body washing up on its beaches. There are no taxes to pay, no building codes, no labor laws, no zoning regulations, no legal protections for non-residents (you know, the cleaning staff) — a paradise.

And yet, although the technology that allows seasteads and residential ships to be created and maintained has existed for decades, “the best people” (a nod to William M. Thackeray) are in no big hurry to make seasteading a reality. Sure, they occasionally throw a little money at such projects, paltry contributions indeed — relative not only to the probable cost of such a project, but most importantly, relative to the wealth of the donors. Nonetheless, everything about their approach to this venture tells me it exists primarily as a political talking point, not as an actual, physical undertaking. It sure seems they don’t really want to live on a seastead as much as they want to talk about the evils of government. So what’s the problem?

If you’ve clicked on the links above, you probably know at this point that artists’ conceptions of what Galt’s seabases will look like is probably the most definite thing about the endeavor. Everything else is … blurry. The ideas about how seasteads will make money, how they will interact with land-based nation-states, how they will maintain law and order, and how they will defend against inevitable attacks are all over the place.

Still, out of this primordial soup of embryonic ideas, a certain picture of what a seastead would be like emerges. And that picture does little to support the enthusiasts’ avowed commitment to liberty and small government.

Economically, the best of circumstances would make a seastead similar to Dubai, all glittery Space Age on the surface, but built and sustained by huge armies of workers brought in from the Third World. In Dubai, such people are basically imprisoned by their employers and treated like slaves: enticed under false premises; made to work 14-hour days in hellish heat; fed in amounts barely adequate to sustain life; paid pennies, and sometimes not at all; housed in conditions eerily reminiscent of World War II-era concentration camps; not allowed to leave for years. Would seasteading masters be deterred by a risk of revolt? I think not. Worker revolts may be violent and spectacular, but that only masks the reality of how rarely they happen. There is a variety of relatively easy ways to make people tolerate slave-like conditions: bring together workers from disparate regions, so that cultural barriers impede cooperation; shuffle them around, constantly bring in new faces, keep the work force fluid, so that it is never stable enough for people to develop trust and cultivate the bonds necessary to enable them to stand up to those in charge.

The consensus among seasteading enthusiasts seems to be that such communities will make money in restricted commodities: pharmaceuticals that do not have to satisfy safety standards or get government approval before being allowed on the market; illegal drugs; surgeries that may or may not be performed by people skilled in medicine; or simply brilliant scientific and technological ideas (although those who float that last one do not seem to realize that formulating such ideas in a marketable form requires research facilities and the cooperation of large numbers of highly educated specialists who aren’t likely to be as gullible as the Himalayan farmers who get lured to Dubai).

Politically, it is certain that the management of a seastead will not be democratic — Patri Friedman, the creator of Seasteading Institute, expressly rejects democracy for the fact that it gives political power to too many people who disagree with Libertarianism. Consequently, the system will be kind of like the Soviet Union — a system that bills itself as “free”, but permits only one party access to power and bans any deviation from that party’s ideology as an act of treason and sabotage. As noted in China Mieville’s piece on the “Freedom Ship”, the creators of that community expressly intend it to be a dictatorship. Unlike was the case in the Soviet Union, however — or today’s North Korea, for that matter — women will be completely disenfranchised in seasteading communities if Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and one of the major backers of Seasteading Institute, has his way. (I am not convinced by the counter-arguments that others in the seasteading movement do not “necessarily” share Thiel’s view of women’s suffrage. Friedman’s complaint that democracy allows the “wrong” people to have influence over the political process suggests otherwise.) In other words, it will be like some of the worst totalitarian states in modern history — except that for women, it will be even worse. All in the name of “freedom”.

The attitude of prominent seasteaders towards women’s role in public life suggests that were this project to come to fruition, few women would move there willingly if they can afford to stay away — especially since being in the middle of a goddamned ocean means you can’t leave unless the men in charge let you. Thus, most female residents of seasteads will probably be prostitutes and mail-order brides, both categories trafficked from the Third World.

And with all that, a picture of a seastead emerges — an isolated box filled to the brim with luxury goods, drugs, trafficable women and billionaires’ precious children, very marketable commodities all. Which, of course, will make the seastead extremely attractive to pirates.

This brings me to the next thorny issue: defense. Since the sale of weapons other than small firearms is highly restricted, and countries like the United States or Great Britain are unlikely to sell cruise missiles and such to a seastead, it goes without saying that these freedom-loving communities will immediately get in bed with rogue states and terrorist groups. In addition, since any pirate group with even an ounce of common sense will try to seize a seastead by infiltrating the work force — and perhaps even the resident community — this government-free paradise will have to run pretty extensive background investigations and operate an extremely intrusive web of police surveillance and espionage. Welcome to 1984. Think of how much freedom you are willing to sacrifice in the name of freedom — and that, without even considering the monetary cost, and how it will be accomplished without levying taxes (no cheating now, kids; a tax is still a tax, even if you call it a “maintenance fee”).

I don’t know, all this sounds pretty miserable and dystopian to me — even for one of the “haves” aboard such a community. This may explain why seasteading enthusiasts do not take this project past the brie-and-champagne conference stage. But more than the probability of a publicity nightmare were such a community to exist, more than the cost and the danger at pirates’ hands, it is the philosophies and the personalities involved that make such a project unrealistic. To put it simply, you cannot succeed at a cooperative venture founded on the spirit of freedom from having to cooperate, manned by people whose philosophy equates cooperation with vice. And to put it more bluntly, there isn’t a seaworthy vessel big enough to contain the combined egos of several hundred super-rich assholes, whose participation in the project is inspired by a sense of entitlement to never have to compromise, other people’s interests be damned. The fact that even the most luxurious seastead or ship will still force residents to occupy a much smaller space and live much more tightly bound to each other than they would have been on land, will only exacerbate the tensions.

On this, the example of one floating residential community is instructive. MS The World is a cruise ship owned by its residents, and it’s been ploughing the waves for nearly a decade now. Note, The World is not a Galt’s Gulch. Members are not permitted to claim the ship as their primary residence, so it is not a tax haven; and most residents spend only a few months onboard at a time. It is merely an ultra-luxury retirement community for those few who can afford it. Still, even here, in a floating community whose residents did not sign up for tax-dodging or ideological reasons, the reality of entitled behavior cannot be avoided. The resident who spoke to the New York Times, put it in the gentlest terms possible, but you still get the idea:

”We have to get along,” said Geoffrey Thompson, 59, a retired advertising executive from Monterey, Calif., when asked about his neighbors on The World. ”We share the same backyard.” His backyard tilted from side to side in the horizon of his two-bedroom apartment’s windows as he spoke, seated on a sedan-sized sofa. ”There’s more type A personalities on board per capita than anywhere else in the world,” Mr. Thompson said. ”No passive bones in the body.”

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30 thoughts on “Why Can’t Seasteading Get Off The Ground?

  1. WOW. I forgot you. How did that happen? I got lost in blogs about kittens and bowl-me-over-photographs, I suppose. What a refreshing change … to have read a thoughtful blog. ;-) I read Ruthless World before I wrote a blog myself. Hmmm… I’m back. Thank you.

  2. *blush* Thanks for your praise, George Weaver.

    :)

  3. Reblogged this on The NEW Work In Progress and commented:
    “Seasteading” is a long, amazing post that is very much worth reading.

  4. Very interesting, yet chilling post. I would like to see all these people space-steaded. That should help them out with their “undesirables” issue. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  5. I thank you for the entire piece, but especially the link to the Slate article re: Peter Thiel, who seems like the sort of fellow who would love to be King Douche of Baglandia.

  6. Wow what a great article!

  7. A. S. Ellis on said:

    I plan to be obscenely wealthy in 20 years. At that time, in spite of whatever incendiary vitriol is produced by the growing, impetuous mobs of Smeagle-like “99 percenters,” I intend to operate from here: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The seething hatred of the wealthy in this post, however well-written, reminds of an eloquently impetuous adolescent. Honestly, I could hardly finish the first paragraph.

    FYI: the wealthy don’t despise or disparage the poor. They despise specifically those greedy enough to think that they deserve what others have earned for themselves or for thier families.

    By all means, fuel class warfare.

    • Yeah. I like it. First reply that makes sense. Tell them A.S Ellis, that after you become obscenely wealthy you’ll teach others how to fish, then you’ll show them that they can only fish in your pre-selected ponds during X to Y time, only using equipment supplied by you, and that for every fish caught to keep, two must be caught for you as payment for your gratitude in teaching them to fish.

      To top it all, a small fee to enter each pond will be collected, after all, they are your ponds. Then you and I will sit back and wonder why no one else is living as well as us… they all know how to fish! and, if one doesn’t know how to fish, too bad. No one is to share their keep with anyone else, let them starve, their kids too. Don’t complain about the ponds having fish either, because the other few million people fighting for a spot in the cesspool seem to think this is a good spot. Nah, i’m not giving either, I got a nice pond only for me.

      • A. S. Ellis on said:

        I’m not sure how enabling and empowering a person to become self-sufficient precludes one from providing that person’s immediate needs while they learn. Nor how being wealthy translates unequivocally into capitalizing on other people’s state of being. I have always viewed wealth as an opportunity to help others. I don’t understand why people hold it in contempt, unless they believe they are entitled to it themselves, which would nullify the very concept of charitable generosity – of which I have been, on more than one occasion, a grateful beneficiary.

      • Unsure that any on this post hold it in contempt, rather protesting against those who do have, yet reject the idea that others really aren’t “parasites”. Everyone is entitled to safety, health care, and a life sustainable wage.

    • Here is the thing about my posts, A.S. Ellis: If the post is not about you, then the post is not about you. If it is about you, then you really should read beyond the first paragraph before exploding into that cliche’d tantrum about “class warfare”. You know, that phrase only makes sense if you feel a loyalty to other rich people simply because they are rich, and regardless of the fact that some of them have been using their riches to do horrible things to lots of people (and please don’t deny that they do) ; if that is the case, then again, you should ask yourself how such class-based loyalty should be received. Just because someone doesn’t have an eight-figure bank account doesn’t mean that person is stupid, gullible or morally obligated to defer to those better economically situated.

      That said, I don’t care how rich you are as long as you follow the same three rules that are applicable to everyone in the world:

      1. That you contribute — monetarily by paying taxes and socially by not being a fraud or breaking the law — to sustaining and improving the society from which you draw your workers and your consumers, the society that sustains and protects your wealth.

      2. That you respect the intelligence of other people and stop characterizing yourself in a manner that would be more suitable to a feudal lord. Like, for example, stop saying how being rich means teaching others how to fish, when in reality, what most of you try to do is get other people to fish for you for as little compensation as possible, while doing your damndest to create legal impediments for anyone who may want to try to go into fishing for him or herself.

      3. That you don’t use your wealth and social standing to make the world a shittier place for people outside of your class. And as a corollary, don’t lie to yourself and others that throwing the plebes a bone every now and then compensates ruining countless lives in the service of your bottom line. Like for example, don’t sponsor an organization whose purpose is to force women to die by carrying ectopic or molar pregnancies, like you are doing now.

      As long as you observe those three rules, I couldn’t care less how swell your life is. I don’t care if you bathe in Crystal, decorate your tool shed with Rembrands or fly around the world in a jet carved out of a solid diamond — I really don’t care. But alas, many of your peers have made quite clear in the past several months and years that even the three things above are entirely too much to ask.

      • A. S. Ellis on said:

        I am terribly sorry that your view of humanity is so deplorable. I really am.
        I am, however, content to leave your conversation to its own self-fulfilling misery and move on with contributing my best to the world around me.
        Good day to you.

      • That stuff I just said about not assuming the person you are talking to is an idiot flew right by you, didn’t it? You respond with condescending platitudes and generalities that do not substantively address in any way, shape or form anything that I’ve said, making you sound like a passive-aggressive insult generator, you know, a bot. Why is that?

        There are only two possibilities that I see here. One is that you are stupid and lack basic reading comprehension. I have to reject that, however, for as much as I find what you say objectionable, you don’t strike me as an idiot. So I’m left with the second possibility: that you attack your hostess without even deigning to read what I’ve written to you specifically. And that, Andrew, is just goddamned rude. Which earns you a ban. I am perfectly receptive to criticism, even harsh criticism. You may have noticed, I don’t pre-screen comments or edit them, and I don’t delete anything that isn’t spam. Still, you seem to forget that you came to my blog, my space, and so I hope you’ll understand my tolerance (as your hostess) does not extend to the kind of rudeness you’ve shown me — twice. May I suggest that you contribute to the world by learning some manners.

        Adios.

  8. Great thoughts, although I miss the sustainability issue with all that helicopter flights!

  9. Flashcom Indonesia on said:

    Wow… Please Like my blog too ;)

  10. Wow, how interesting. Great post, congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  11. “…to put it more bluntly, there isn’t a seaworthy vessel big enough to contain the combined egos of several hundred super-rich assholes, whose participation in the project is inspired by a sense of entitlement to never have to compromise, other people’s interests be damned.”

    Hilariously brilliant! Never heard of seasteading. Thanks for the education! :-)

  12. I have been day-dreaming about buying an oil-rig lately, this really brought it into perspective for me… thank you!

  13. I’m very surprised that Bioshock has not been mentioned in this post or its replies because the plot of that game pretty much sums up all the Randian/dystopian ideas that you brought up in this post, including the pharmaceutical angle.

    • Was also amongst my first thoughts too, but TBF Bioshock is derivative rather than inspiring in this case, and so of questionable value in a addition to such an extensive document. That said, for a long post it was very cogent.

      I think there is a secondary issue in the uptake of seasteading: While the rich may idealise it for it’s lifestyle etc. logistically there are some pretty difficult issues to overcome even with Xbazillion dollars.

      1) Requirement for highly specialised engineering knowledge to keep such a location habitable, let alone pleasant, which has to my knowledge never been impletmented IRL (e.g. Oil Rigs have been established for years, but there is a reason that people don’t go there on holiday: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_platform#Drawbacks)
      2) There has yet to be the ‘Branson’ style entrepreneur that has had the forsight, power, and ability to gather specialists around him to turn it into a self sufficient entity. Therefore, I believe, it has always seemed a step too far to remove yourself from the world, but also maintain the ‘level of living’ these kind of people would need, due to the relatively tenuous link but massive dependence you have on the mainland.

      That said, it will only be a matter of time. The sea is a resource which is relatively untapped, increasingly better understood and considering the increasing population, a ‘space’ which will have to be expanded into in the coming generations, baring significant loss of global population. One day soon a tycoon will team up with marine scientists and engineers and establish a self reliant seasteading operation, at which point the politics will become even more insular.

      TL;DR a very inspiring post, I hope you don’t mind if I use this as a jumping off point for the Biomimicron (http://biomimicron.wordpress.com/) in the next few weeks!

  14. oh my, that Sealand, I wonder where the “land” part :)

  15. sparksmcgee on said:

    I am jumping on the Like button. I love this so much.

  16. Sooo interesting…thanks for sharing and congrats on being Freshly Pressed! :D

  17. “you cannot succeed at a cooperative venture founded on the spirit of freedom from having to cooperate…” Words to live by! Well spoken.

  18. So much to consider! I always looked at seasteading with one sentenced arguments as my brain never fully wraps around any topic enough to form a good debate.

    MS The World seems ethereal. I also just found out it was the largest passenger ship to sail the Northwest Passage. I wonder how mail is handled!

  19. do you think these communities would function like the hierarchical authority on a ship? Admiral, captain, sailor etc.

  20. Pingback: Here we come a wassail-link | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  21. Barbara Backer-Gray on said:

    I can’t stop reading your blog, but I must. get. some. sleep.

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