Go Wet, Young Man
Dec 7, 2016 | By Tyler Cowen
Following the election of Donald Trump, some Americans are asking whether they should move to Canada. Yet a more radical idea is re-emerging as a vehicle for political liberty, namely seasteading. That's the founding of new and separate governance units on previously unoccupied territory, possibly on the open seas.
Imagine, for instance, autonomously governed sea platforms, with a limited number of citizens selling health and financial services to the rest of the world. Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence might make the construction and settlement of such institutions more practical than it seemed 15 years ago.
Although seasteading is sometimes viewed as an extension of self-indulgent Silicon Valley utopianism, we should not dismiss the idea too quickly. Variants on seasteading led to the founding of the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with the caveat that conquest was involved, as these territories were not unsettled at the time. Circa 2016, there is a potential seasteading experiment due in French Polynesia (more information here). The melting of the Arctic ice may open up new areas for human settlement. Chinese construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea raises the prospect that the private sector, or a more liberty-oriented government, might someday do the same. Along more speculative lines, there is talk about someday colonizing Mars or even Titan, a moon of Saturn. On the intellectual front, a book about seasteading, by Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman, is due out in March of 2017.
Seasteading obviously faces significant obstacles. The eventual constraint is probably not technology in the absolute sense, but whether there is enough economic motive to forsake the benefits of densely populated human settlements and the protection of traditional nation-states. Many nations have effective corporate tax rates in the 10- to 20-percent range, which doesn’t seem confiscatory enough to take to the high seas for economic motives alone. Furthermore, current outposts such as Dubai, Singapore and the Cayman Islands offer varied legal and regulatory environments for doing business, in addition to the comforts of landlubber society. More and more foreign businesses are incorporating in Delaware to enjoy the benefits of American law. So, for all the inefficiencies and petty tyrannies of the modern world, seasteading faces pretty stiff competition.
Counterintuitively, I see the greatest promise for seasteading as a path toward more rather than less human companionship.
It is sometimes forgotten there is a good deal of de facto seasteading today, in the form of cruise ships. They sail in international waters, are owned by private corporations and the law on board is generated by contract and governed by private arbitration. Plenty of cruise lines and ships compete for business in a relatively unregulated environment, with global business approaching $40 billion a year, in the range of the gross domestic product of countries such as Ghana, Serbia or Turkmenistan.
One lesson of current seasteading is that it is not much of a vehicle for political liberty. To be sure, customers choose their cruise lines freely. (You might opt for the forthcoming Donald Trump Victory Cruise.) Still, the actual substance of most cruise contracts brings little democratic participation or libertarian autonomy on the high seas. The cruise companies don’t hesitate to regulate passenger behavior for the good of the broader enterprise.
The second and more important lesson is that some of the elderly have started living on cruise ships full-time. A good assisted-living facility might cost $80,000 a year in the U.S., more than many year-long cruises. (Cruising could also be cheaper than living in an expensive neighborhood.) Furthermore, the cruise offers regular contact with other passengers and also the crew, and the lower average age means that fewer of one’s friends and acquaintances are passing away. The weather may be better, and there is the option of going onshore to visit relatives and go shopping.
The cruise ship removes the elderly from full-service hospitals, but on the plus side, regular social contact is good for health, passengers are watched much of the time and there is a doctor minutes away. Better health and human companionship could be major motives for this form of seasteading. I could imagine many more of the elderly going this route in the future, and some cruise lines already are offering regular residences on board.
The goal of this seasteading enterprise is to pack people more tightly together rather than to open up broad new vistas for a Wild West kind of settlement. The proprietors make physical space more scarce, not less, to induce better clustering. So seasteading does have a future, but it is to join and build a new and crowded communitarian project, not to get away from one.