by on April 25, 2008 at 7:36 am in Political Science | Permalink

A small but passionate minority is deeply dissatisfied
with current political systems.  These people seek the autonomy to live
under and experiment with different political, social, and economic systems
than currently exist. It is this search for sovereignty, for the freedom of
self-government, which is the fundamental motivation for seasteading.

That’s Patri Friedman (son of David, son of Milton) and Wayne Gramlich in their seasteading manifesto. In interesting news, The Seasteading Institute has secured funding of $500,000 from PayPal founder Peter Thiel to help make the idea a reality.

Long-term trends are somewhat favorable for seasteading because with a cell phone and internet access more and more people could live on a seastead and make a living.  Cruise ships are already floating cities with few regulations or taxes.  Harold Berman argues that the rise of the West was due to competitive lawHomeowner’s organizations, hotels and condos are private governments (for more see my edited book The Voluntary City.).

Competitive law appears to increase efficiency but it’s less clear that competition among governments gives rise to a libertarian world.  Homeowner associations, for example, often impose stricter zoning regulations than cities.  You could say that the system as a whole is more libertarian, but no one lives in the system as a whole.

Maybe liberty comes not from choice of government but from forcing people who are unlike to live together.  Isn’t the real reason the First Amendment has any force not that people agree on the value of freedom of speech but rather that they disagree on who they want to shut up?  Is religious freedom a product of agreement on the value of religious freedom or is it a product of disagreement on who is going to hell?      

Still I hope for the best and congratulate Patri.  Seasteading has come a long way.

sa April 25, 2008 at 8:17 am

but they will still have to pay
some kind of taxes to the man.
just sayin’…

Craig April 25, 2008 at 9:21 am

“Competitive law appears to increase efficiency but it’s less clear that competition among governments gives rise to a libertarian world. Homeowner associations, for example, often impose stricter zoning regulations than cities.”

Libertarianism isn’t about mandating unrestricted freedom at all times. It allows for consenting adults to enter into contracts that mutually restrict their freedoms. Libertarianism thus allows for Home Owner Associations that impose tight restrictions on those who wish to live in the association. When I moved into my townhouse, I agreed to abide by the neighborhood HOA agreement. I voluntarily restricted my freedom so that I could live in an area where others had the same restrictions.

Of course, I hope all who partake in seasteading are happy with their choice.

josh April 25, 2008 at 10:00 am

homeowners organizations are not libertarian because they use coercion to restrict entry into the group in order to protect rents.

David R. Henderson April 25, 2008 at 11:21 am

Two comments:

1. Bob Murphy said it well, as usual. If I tell people they are not allowed to smoke in my home (which I do, by the way), I am not being less libertarian or pro-freedom than someone who allows smoking. In fact, I’m exercising my freedom to use my property peacefully. That principle “scales.” If 500 people get together and set those rules, there is no loss of freedom.
2. As a “die-hard peacenik” I would not oppose anyone doing this. Indeed, my guess is that some of my leftist friends in the antiwar movement would applaud this. Having said that, I agree with Rex Rhino that to make this arrangement durable, you would have to have some pretty powerful weapons for self-defense.

Dan Tarrant April 25, 2008 at 11:55 am

Craig writes:

“It allows for consenting adults to enter into contracts that mutually restrict their freedoms.”

Sounds like government to me, as long as you’re free to leave whatever country you reside in.

Byrne April 25, 2008 at 12:08 pm


Perhaps there will be some sort of equilibrium between tax havens, governments, and terrorists, whereby at least some of the seasteaders persuade terrorists to do something awful to any country engaging in military action against the ‘steaders.

Mike April 25, 2008 at 12:16 pm

Libertarianism isn’t about mandating unrestricted freedom at all times. It allows for consenting adults to enter into contracts that mutually restrict their freedoms.

But clearly, there’s a similarity between government & a homeowner’s association: the majority gets to make rules that affect everyone. In both cases you can move to get away from them, but both will have The Man knocking on your door if you misbehave.

David R. Henderson April 25, 2008 at 12:26 pm

Dear Alex,

You ask a good question and I certainly didn’t mean to avoid it. I actually agree with your point that liberty is often a Schelling point for those who want to impose their rules on each other but give up because of the danger to their own freedom. But the reason I (and, I think, Bob) criticized your point in the above blog is that you went straight from private voluntary associations to government without passing “Go.” Our points were about voluntary associations. Remember that what led to this discussion is not Rhode Island seceding from USA but a group of people joining voluntarily to form a floating homeowners’ association. That’s not a government.

See John Thacker’s note above.



Ali Choudhury April 25, 2008 at 1:04 pm

Libertarians setting up their own water-based city-state? I think we saw how that ended in the game Bioshock.

Patri Friedman April 25, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Response to Alex’s substantive point here. I’m glad he cited cruise ships, they are my favorite counterexample to “but that’s impossible!”.

Some of the commenter’s points are addressed in our FAQ, others I will endeavor to add when I have the time. Thanks for all the discussion.

mikesdak April 25, 2008 at 2:22 pm

This isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, but it does show what’s already happening.

Dan Tarrant April 25, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Another thought: since it appears that at least at first only fairly affluent people are going to be able to Seastead, where are the community’ service class and manual laborers going to come from? Who is going to clean toilets, wait tables, etc? Would you ship in a supply of workers every morning and ship them out every afternoon?

Because if you’re going to create the ultimate gated neighborhood, you can’t just have a bunch of working-class people rummaging around.

Also, after reading Freidman’s comment above I took a quick look at the FAQs and didn’t see much of anything about security, protection from terrorists/pirates, etc. A big helpless island full of rich Americans has “target” written all over it, doesn’t it?

Seriously – it seems that people have put a lot of thought and effort into an idea that is pretty obviously a bad one.

Patri Friedman April 25, 2008 at 3:03 pm

Dan – “where will the manual laborers come from” is thoroughly empirically answered by the two words “cruise ship”. I mean, there are 10 million people a year taking cruises where they are served by people who can’t afford the cruises. They use the obvious solution of having smaller, cheaper quarters for the service staff, “staff” sections of the ship and “paying customer” sections of the ship, etc.

Piracy is addressed here. It is not a problem. The destructive forces we have to worry about are navies and the ocean itself, not pirates.

internety April 25, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Dan, see the piracy discussion here:

If defense was actually a big problem, one option would be to lease the navy of a neighboring country. You’d just need to find one country who was amenable to a deal like “we’ll give you X dollars per year if you promise to defend us against large scale attacks.”

Grant April 25, 2008 at 5:38 pm

Dan Tarrant,

Craig writes:

“It allows for consenting adults to enter into contracts that mutually restrict their freedoms.”

Sounds like government to me, as long as you’re free to leave whatever country you reside in.

The difference is that contracts expand via voluntary agreements, while governments almost always expand without voluntary agreements (i.e., by conquest). This makes governments far larger, more difficult to leave, and more static than voluntary organizations. The largest groups of people who voluntarily associate via explicit contract are much, much smaller than nations.

The libertarian distinction between a voluntary organization and a government is generally that the later is coercive. Of course, the former can always become coercive, just as the later can become voluntary.

Bob Murphy April 25, 2008 at 5:51 pm


Yeah, sorry about that–after I hit “Post” I realized I forgot to say that I agreed with your thoughts about the First Amendment etc. But as David Henderson followed up, again our point was that your segway into those interesting remarks was problematic (and a point that trips up libertarian critics).

Also, since I can’t seem to comment on an MR thread lately without plugging something I’ve written, I would encourage those who think small anarchist communities would get wiped out, to read the second essay in this booklet (pdf). It’s pretty short but lays out why I think a bunch of rich anarchists would be fine. Their defense would be even simpler if they could move (because located on a floating colony), rather than being on a tiny island, say.

nick April 25, 2008 at 7:01 pm

The libertarian distinction between a voluntary organization and a government is generally that the later is coercive.

No coercion? In these Seasteads, who does the law enforcement, and who or what gives them the right to commit law enforcement acts that are physically equivalent to torts and crimes? What distinguishes arrest from assault and battery, imprisonment from kidnapping, legal distraint of goods from theft, or a legal search from trespass? I think you will find that these societies will have to deal with the very same problems of coercion and procedure as our own governments. Calling a legal document that defines and allocates rights to commit these coercive acts a “contract” instead of a “constitution” may be the Rothbard-correct way to do things, but it doesn’t actually go very far towards solving the hard problems of living together in a world where people are often coercive.

Cyrus April 25, 2008 at 9:07 pm

In the West, clamoring for freedom of religion on moral/theoretical grounds (usually by those on the receiving end of oppression) had been ignored pretty much since the Roman Republic. On consequentialist grounds, however, it only took a couple centuries of demonstration that attempting to impose a given form of worship on people with guns was (a) expensive; and (b) of uncertain outcome; before it made the list of Demonstrably Bad Ideas.

meter April 26, 2008 at 1:31 am

I’m inclined to agree with Nick.

If this ever gets off the ground, I predict the ‘society’ will revert to pretty much a microcosm of what the US already is but without the poor to worry about. In other words, just a floating rich country club.

meter April 26, 2008 at 12:35 pm

I think you didn’t read my comment correctly.

This experiment = a rich country club = the US without the poor.

David R. Henderson April 26, 2008 at 2:25 pm

Dear Meter,

I think I did read your comment correctly. You said:

This experiment = a rich country club = the US without the poor.

Therefore, a rich country club plus the poor equals the US (according to you.) I just added the poor to both sides.

Bernard Yomtov April 27, 2008 at 10:49 am

Presumably, any individual moving into a Seastead would have explicitly agreed to the terms which allow for things like searches, seizers and arrests.

But this is far from adequate. We have, in the US, a set of rules governing searches and arrests. Yet there is a constant stream of legal disputes about how these rules apply in specific cases. Someone has to decide these disputes, and someone has to select the decision-makers, and someone has to enforce the decisions.

The notion that “everyone will agree to the rules beforehand” and that solves the problem is sheer fantasy. Let me note that there are probably not many people in the US who disagree that

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

But this hardly avoids problems with searches and seizures.

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Russ Nelson May 14, 2009 at 8:23 am

Jack Powelson laid out the theory positing that freedom is greatest in societies where the rich and the poor need to cooperate with each other. His book, formerly entitled Centuries of Economic Endeavour, is now titled A History of Wealth and Poverty
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John David Galt May 16, 2009 at 5:51 pm

I expect at least the first few seasteading attempts to end in the same ways most new-country schemes have ended: either they fall prey to pirates like the ones in Somalia, or they piss off some nearby government enough that its military raids them and shuts them down.

In short, defense remains the hardest problem, whether the seasteaders believe in some form of “anarchy” or not. And we know there are *big* economies of scale in the defense industry. So if I wanted to seastead, I would begin by getting some large country to agree to defend my ships (or let me do it myself, with military forces that the country would commission as theirs) in exchange for an ongoing tax.

Of course, once you’re dealing with an established national government, then the logistics of seasteading are probably a waste. I’d guess that if your goal is merely to have your own quasi-country with a high degree of self-determination, you could get it more effectively by paying some poor country to lease you a few square miles of its territory for 99 years and just building your own Hong Kong equivalent. This would be a good deal for just about any poor country on earth, and as a bonus you’d have access to lots of cheap labor to run it.

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