Arnold Kling  

Patri Friedman on Seasteading

Israel, Palestine, and the Enl... The Chess Game of Financial Re...

He writes,

When we read in the evening paper that we're footing the bill for another bailout, we react by complaining to our friends, suggesting alternatives, and trying to build coalitions for reform. This primal behavior is as good a guide for how to effectively reform modern political systems as our instinctive taste for sugar and fat is for how to eat nutritiously.

...Politicians are demonstrably, consistently, and ubiquitously expert at entrenching the power of the political class. To most libertarians this is morally illegitimate, but morality has sadly little influence over the realities of power.

He argues that the solution is to make government a more competitive industry (I agree), and he says that seasteading (setting up political entities on the ocean) is the way to achieve this. I have my doubts on that score. I think there is a fundamental problem that once a political entity achieves a scale that makes it economically and socially viable, it is difficult to keep government from breaking out. If you can solve that problem at sea, then I would think you could solve it on land. And if you cannot solve it on land, I am not convinced that you can solve it at sea.

I will be making that argument on Tuesday, April 7, at noon at Cato.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (18 to date)
PaulG writes:

Question: Do you know if this event will be podcast or if you can only watch it live?

Also, about the topic at hand, I think this talk: would probably have some relevance. Given that seasteading is essentially a form of regulatory "haven" in the same way that the Cayman Islands are tax havens, you can imagine that there would be a lot of the same backlash against seasteads from on-land governments.

Niccolo writes:

I disagree.

Patri's argument is such that your argument against seasteading only works if sea platforms and pieces of sea platforms possess no mobility.

Patri's argument is that mobility is essential to this end. I see no reason to doubt him on that.

Also, I think it's a bit more than just competition. I think that's a piece of it, but not all.

Isak writes:

For anyone in the area - Patri Friedman is giving a talk about Seasteading at San Jose State University on Monday, April 13th, 4:30 PM, in the Engineering building, room 189. Open to anyone.

RL writes:

I think the essential difference is that on land you can't make politicians walk the plank... :-)

darjen writes:

It may be difficult to keep government from breaking out, but only because of today's political climate. Most everyone believes that government is a good thing, so that's what would happen. I don't see why that couldn't change in the future, just like how people now believe in democracy rather than the divine right of kings. If enough of us get screwed by the government, things might begin to change, and people could wake up and prevent government from gaining power.

jebs writes:

What happens if seasteading becomes a success?

I'm not optimistic that existing governments will tolerate competitors who siphon off their best and brightest with the promise of more economic freedom (or maybe just better institutions, period.)

I foresee a major movement by governments to prevent what they will call "unfair tax competition" or some variant on that phrase.

Maybe they will attempt to annex seasteads and prevent them from moving around. Maybe they will use trade sanctions or even military threats to force them to change their policies. Maybe they will simply restrict travel and immigration so severely that people who want to move to seasteads can't get there.

Today's transportation and communication technology will make it a lot easier for existing governments to control the sea than it ever was for colonial powers to control their frontiers.

I'm optimistic that competition could produce better policy, but I can't see it being allowed to develop.

Matt C writes:

There's always more freedom on the frontier. Patri is proposing to open a new one.

It won't stay a frontier forever, of course. I think Patri believes there are structural incentives that will keep seasteads at least free-er than terrestrial governments.

He might be wrong. Even if he is, the experiment might do a lot of good in the meantime. Could be a new frontier open by the time Our Benevolent Leaders figure out how to game the seastead social order.

Heyo writes:

You should listen to Russ Robert's podcast discussion with Patri on this issue.

Patri is not opposed to government breaking out. In fact, he expects government to break out.

The key to seasteading is that people can leave their government if they no longer like it. They merely untie their platform and join another platform, go on their own, or found their own coalition of platforms.

Patri explicitly states that there might be Marxist/Communist governments out there, libertarian governments, and anything in between.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

This very thought occurred to me recently, and it seemed an improvement on the "Libertarian County" in New Hampshire or wherever.

It would be a tremendously interesting experiment, one that existing governments would have a very difficult time managing if they let the platforms get afloat and established. Travel restrictions would not mean much to the genuinely rich, and meanwhile there would be competition among jurisdictions to have the rich people spend their money nearby.

So, I would predict legal attacks on the vessel and its owners while under construction, as a manifest tax evasion scheme.

Ralph writes:

I see no hope for seasteading as a means to foster liberty. Apply Douglas' North theory that a governing power extends power to the extend that it's technology of violence permits. In 1776, a homegrown force armed with muskets and small canon could defeat the mightiest army in the world--also armed with muskets and small canon. Run the technology of violence forward 50 or so years, and the ragtag force of men armed with muskets and small canon get trounced at the Alamo by Santa Ana's modern army.

The Alamo signaled the death nell to liberty. No longer could a homegrown force of volunteers armed with homegrown weapons defeat a professional army. Hence, the marginal of competion was no longer with the liberty of free men. The margin of competition was only between government. Yes, Texas created its own army and defeated Santa Ana a short time after the Alamo, but then look what happened to Texas. It was absorbed into the U.S. along with California and every other nascent state in the West.

Seasteads may work for a while, until seasteads prove either failures or successes. If they fail, that will be the end. If they succeed, they'll be absorbed into some greater governing realm.

The only hope for liberty is the United States. Liberty has taken its lumps, but it may be possible to reestablish liberty in the minds and hearts of Americans. We didn't lose it quickly and the roots are still there. It will take a long time to recover. The process of liberation is the hard one that takes place by winning the battle of ideas. We need be idea-steading, not putting ourselves adrift at sea.

cm writes:
Seasteads may work for a while, until seasteads prove either failures or successes. If they fail, that will be the end. If they succeed, they'll be absorbed into some greater governing realm.
And so it'll evolve: Space steading!
Mike Gibson writes:

All interesting comments. Please feel free to carry the debate on over to a blog I've started with Patri and Jonathan Wilde called "Let a Thousand Nations Bloom."

We hope to develop the idea of competitive government further and we'd love to have your input.


Zachary Skaggs writes:

Just a note--
You can no longer register for the event at Cato but if you click on the link below at 12noon you can watch the event live. Thanks! Zach

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Francis Boyle writes:

For anyone in the Philadelphia area, Patri will also be giving a talk on seasteading at Temple University this Thursday, 6PM in Tuttleman Hall Room 301A+B. See the link in my name for the Facebook event page.

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Niccolo writes:


That's really a pretty dumb statement, that volunteers cannot defeat professional militaries because the only ones that did could only do it with the exact same technology.

First of all, you obviously don't know much about military technology in the 18th century.

Second, it has been done many times in between then and now. It's currently happening in Mexico, in fact, where Los Zetas are much more skilled and moderately better armed than their government counterparts.

Third, no, the US never had liberty; mainly because a nation-state cannot possess liberty - it isnt a person and so cannot possess anything. Only certain people - who probably look like you - had freedom at any time in the US, and even that's a stretch.

Dirtyrottenvarmint writes:

"Seasteading" may or may not be a good idea, but it is a very bad way to try to protect individual liberties.

Arnold is correct when, elsewhere, he suggests that government is a Mafia charity. Government is a protection racket: the government takes your money but ensures that nobody else can do so. This is called "sovereignty". Whether you are an island off the coast of China, a city in Pennsylvania, or a collection of rafts floating on the Atlantic, if you do not have sovereignty someone will give it to you. Anarchy is not a sustainable political structure; eventually someone bigger and stronger than everyone else will come along and use their power to run a protection racket. The best outcome is to ensure that the strongest remains the strongest. At least then you know that they will be reasonably predictable.

Competition with government is the absolute last thing we need. Competition with government is what is commonly known as warfare. When two gangs compete over which is sovereign over a specific territory, nobody wins. The Founders understood this and formed the U.S. "in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity".

The best way to ensure the blessings of liberty is to ensure that the government is unlimited in sovereignty, but limited in scope. The Mafia will collect a fee from you every month, or they will break your legs. End of story. However, the Mafia does not care what books you read, whom you marry, or whether you run a convenience store or a cleaning service, so long as you pay the fee. Furthermore, the Mafia will make reasonably certain that you do not have to worry about anyone else breaking your legs or taking your money. Such distractions are bad for business.

Instead we have a government severely limited in sovereignty but increasingly expansive in scope. The government cares about whom you marry, what kind of work you do, how much money you make, who you work for, who they hire, what kind of television programs you watch, whether or not you own a home, what you pay in insurance, and what kind of fat your food contains. However, in many jurisdictions the government cannot ensure that you can walk down the street at night without being beaten and having your wallet stolen.

Patri Friedman writes:

Dirtyrottenvarmint - if you know a better way than competition to limit the scope of government, I'd like to hear it. I've never heard a better way. Competition works.

War is a very costly form of competition. Governments compete for corporations and factories right now with no war involved - just competing to offer the nicest jurisdictions and lowest taxes. That is the competition I want.

Thomas Aquinum writes:

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