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.”