Seasteading is Making Progress

by on November 14, 2017 at 10:10 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

Seasteading, the once quixotic idea of Patri Friedman and early funder Peter Thiel, is now taking shape in French Polynesia writes David Gelles in the New York Times:

Long the stuff of science fiction, so-called “seasteading” has in recent years matured from pure fantasy into something approaching reality, and there are now companies, academics, architects and even a government working together on a prototype by 2020.

…Earlier this year, the government of French Polynesia agreed to let the Seasteading Institute begin testing in its waters. Construction could begin soon, and the first floating buildings — the nucleus of a city — might be inhabitable in just a few years.

“If you could have a floating city, it would essentially be a start-up country,” said Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute. “We can create a huge diversity of governments for a huge diversity of people.”

The future is hard to predict but I am eager to see greater experimentation in city governing rules.

Addendum: I have been a minor adviser.

1 The CM General November 14, 2017 at 10:13 am

HAHAHAHAHAHA

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2 John November 14, 2017 at 5:35 pm

Something as ridiculous as living in a condo in the middle of the ocean demands a major motivating factor, and I don’t see it. It’s a difficult solution in search of a problem. I read their vision statement it’s wholly uninspiring:
https://www.seasteading.org/about/vision-strategy/

I feel like all this talk of “governmental experimentation” is a euphemism for tax avoidance. You don’t need to live on an oil rig to experiment with other ways of living. Ask the Amish. Just buy 1000 acres in PA.

Also, is Alex planning to relocate? Or, like most “intentional communities”, is this more compelling as an idea than a reality.

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3 Zach November 14, 2017 at 6:06 pm

It’s not a euphemism for tax avoidance. I know Patri from college, and he was talking about the same things then.

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4 John November 15, 2017 at 7:52 am

I have no doubt there a lot of genuine, passionate people involved in this project. There’s just very little articulation (at least on their website) as to why a project like this is needed and why similar experiments can’t be executed on land. What is going to draw a meaningful number of people to live in a floating community, largely cut-off from the resources and the people of the world?

Maybe this project leads to interesting innovations in seaweed farming or city elevation. But those seem secondary to the primary mission, which is vague at best.

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5 Alex November 17, 2017 at 8:30 pm

It’s “tax avoidance” in the sense of trying to live your whole life without either the taxes or the services of a government. Plus, of course, the other non-tax impositions of government.

The phrase “tax avoidance” tends to evoke well-off people who live under governments but use complex tactics to avoid paying their taxes. This is more about going off and totally doing your own thing. Your Amish analogy is apropos. Due to a special exemption, self-employed people in Amish communities don’t pay Social Security or Medicare taxes, but you wouldn’t think of them as “tax avoiders.” They’re just off doing their own thing, neither paying for the government services nor partaking of them (at least wrt Social Security and Medicare). The Seasteading people just want to do it for *everything*, not just some specific programs. That’s something you can’t do on any country on Earth.

As to why they are bothering, I think it’s more because they want to be part of a movement toward a totally different way of living. On a financial/lifestyle level, it may be a loss, but it’s a form of activism to build toward a larger goal. You can think of it as a more extreme version of the Free State Project. Although they’ll probably never hit their goal of 20,000 people, 2000 have already moved. Most of those people probably would never have moved to New Hampshire if it weren’t for the project, so they’re incurring a cost. That cost probably won’t be offset solely by the more libertarian policies they’re able to achieve, but the more important motivation is being part of a community of like-minded people that’s fighting for a lifestyle that is (to them) radically better in the long run.

I do think they’re not doing an especially good job of explaining that, but claiming that there will be strong and immediate benefits makes for better PR copy than trying to explicitly admitting that they are making a sacrifice to build something bigger in the long run.

6 Borjigid November 14, 2017 at 10:15 am

Heh.

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7 Anonymous November 14, 2017 at 10:18 am

In a previous cycle, I asked why no one was doing cities of the future. Well,

http://money.cnn.com/2017/11/13/technology/future/bill-gates-smart-city-arizona/index.html

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8 WC Varones November 14, 2017 at 10:21 am

2020… good timing! That’s about when the Bolsheviks will be taking over in the US.

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9 Herb November 14, 2017 at 10:26 am

“I’m a minor adviser.”

Me too. My advice: bring weapons.

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10 The Anti-Gnostic November 14, 2017 at 10:27 am

Will there be borders? Barriers to entry?

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11 msgkings November 14, 2017 at 10:28 am

The ocean is a pretty big barrier.

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12 The Anti-Gnostic November 14, 2017 at 11:19 am

Like, prices discriminate so we don’t have to.

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13 msgkings November 14, 2017 at 2:01 pm

Or remoteness does. The Siberian tundra is a big barrier too, if you want to start a country in Yakutsk.

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14 The Anti-Gnostic November 14, 2017 at 2:22 pm

Tabarrok frequently lectures people in long-settled states about how they must have Open Borders (Tabarrok even hysterically calls it a moral imperative) while he consults with tech entrepeneurs on how to build Galt’s Gulch.

What is his objection to citizens of purported democratic republics erecting their own barriers to entry that don’t involve bribing foreign governments or finding places that only a private jet or yacht can get to?

15 JWatts November 14, 2017 at 11:18 am

If there’s no welfare state, you don’t necessarily need to worry about Barriers to entry. People who immigrate will support themselves and won’t be a drag on the public purse.

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16 dan1111 November 14, 2017 at 12:06 pm

My house doesn’t have a welfare state, but it still needs barriers to entry.

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17 Anonymous November 14, 2017 at 1:09 pm

+1

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18 JWatts November 14, 2017 at 2:34 pm

“My house doesn’t have a welfare state, but it still needs barriers to entry.”

I don’t think there’s much of an analogy between a private resident, where privacy, personal safety and protection of personal items are overwhelming concerns, and barriers to entry to a state.

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19 The Anti-Gnostic November 14, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Plenty of companies are as big as whole cities and they are awfully concerned about protecting corporate property and only allowing a carefully vetted few to gain entry to employment or vending.

Libertarians always founder on this. If the State is owned by the taxpayers, like a corporation is owned by the shareholders, then of course they have a collective interest in lowering net consumption, maintaining high-trust civil order, reducing burdens on the commons and environment, etc.

If the State can’t be owned by anybody, then it needs to be dissolved as an unjust, uneconomic tragedy of the commons. Let’s see how Open your Borders are when people get to draw their own.

20 chuck martel November 14, 2017 at 5:32 pm

In reality, the State owns the taxpayers and it is indeed an unjust, uneconomic tragedy.

21 Kris November 15, 2017 at 12:13 am

@The Anti-Gnostic:

If the State is owned by the taxpayers, like a corporation is owned by the shareholders, then of course they have a collective interest in lowering net consumption, maintaining high-trust civil order, reducing burdens on the commons and environment, etc.

Not exactly. Such a state is always going to need (or seek) more taxes, just as a corporation always seeks higher profits. More taxes require more taxpayers; so more immigration.

22 dan1111 November 15, 2017 at 1:50 am

@JWatts my point is precisely that immigration isn’t the only concern. A state also needs to secure its borders against invasion, looting, theft, kidnapping, etc.–risks which are analagous to those a homeowner faces.

23 byomtov November 14, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Depends on how exactly they support themselves, of course.

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24 catter November 15, 2017 at 4:26 am
25 A Truth Seeker November 14, 2017 at 10:37 am

Oppose Thiel, criticize Confucius, rehabilitate Lin Biao and stand up to Trump.

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26 WC Varones November 14, 2017 at 10:52 am

These days sarcasm is difficult to discern.

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27 MattW November 14, 2017 at 10:52 am

If it works out it’ll be because the only people admitted to the “country” are extremely high human capital individuals. In other words it’ll work well because of the people, not because of the seasteading.

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28 Just Another MR Commentor November 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

Which is weird because the people who promote this ALSO insist on completely open borders.

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29 WC Varones November 14, 2017 at 11:07 am

Everyone is welcome so long as they are contributors. Eliminating the welfare state makes open borders feasible.

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30 NPW November 14, 2017 at 11:19 am

But the ‘extremely high human capital individuals’ already have the money to create a moat around themselves on land through control of government.
Why? What’s really the difference? People on the seastead will likely have to interact with the rrest of us just as much as they do now.

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31 NPW November 14, 2017 at 11:21 am

^Why chose to go through the effort of a floating home, when the net involvement with the others will likely be about the same?

32 OldCurmudgeon November 15, 2017 at 11:58 am

>But the ‘extremely high human capital individuals’ already have the money to create a moat around
>themselves on land through control of government.

It depends on how risk-adverse they are. Democratic majorities can and do change, and dictators can and do die.

It might also be cheaper than purchasing/maintaining “control of government.”

33 Kris November 15, 2017 at 12:22 am

Which is weird because the people who promote this ALSO insist on completely open borders.

No, it’s two groups of people talking past each other.

I think, in reality, people who advocate for open borders don’t envision an abandonment of standards. What they seek is that ANYONE be able to migrate, not that EVERYONE be able to migrate. Implicit in their worldview is that there is some stated or unstated standard that will only result in some people actually being able to migrate. What they definitely don’t want is people who meet a particular standard prevented from migration on account of “traditional” filters like race and ethnicity. (The US tech companies seeking more “best-and-brightest” foreign workers fall in this group.)

The people who dislike immigration, on the other hand, assume that any abandonment of the traditional filters of race and ethnicity is automatically a license for anyone and everyone (the riff-raff of the world) to migrate to wherever they choose.

The distrust between these two sets of people is too high for any terminology clarification to result in a compromise.

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34 Careless November 15, 2017 at 12:43 am

I think, in reality, people who advocate for open borders don’t envision an abandonment of standards.

Ok. You’re a fool.

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35 A Truth Seeker November 14, 2017 at 11:24 am

“In other words it’ll work well because of the people, not because of the seasteading.”
Supposedly, seasteading will give themmgood governance, freedom and protect themmfrom being looted by low human capital people. I wouldn’t exchange my country for the mess of pottage of seasteading, but for people who worship the Almighty Dollar, it may make sense.

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36 CG November 14, 2017 at 11:04 am

So essentially it’s just a novelty resort/hotel subject to French Polynesian taxes and law, although probably more susceptible to weather related damage.

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37 Albert November 14, 2017 at 11:40 am

French Polynesia is still a part of France — and is likely to eventually transition to a full-fledged departement. So they’re ultimately subject to French law, and soon will be just plain immigrants living in France. (Yes, I get they’re going to have special legal rules, but those will apply only as long as the Republic of France allows it)

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38 Dave November 14, 2017 at 11:54 am

This. I had to go back and re-read the part where “…the government of _______ agreed to let…” this happen.

So, still the stuff of science fiction, it seems.

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39 dan1111 November 14, 2017 at 12:14 pm

Developing and proving the technology would be a significant step. If they can show that it works at scale, then they could make a community large enough to function as an independent nation. And since it’s all mobile, converting a community under the protection of French Polynesia to an independent community would be relatively trivial.

I’m pretty skeptical about the whole concept, too, but I don’t think the fact that a pilot phase is taking place under the jurisdiction of a nation really means much.

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40 Becky Hargrove November 14, 2017 at 11:19 am

Yes, but in this decentralized context, the participants still have to follow the dictates of centralized knowledge use for time based product. Are the (local) providers of time based product, willing to extend services to those locals whose employment income is not sufficient to directly reciprocate? I’m not sure why they would be.

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41 John November 14, 2017 at 11:25 am

With enormous tracts of unused land, creating “floating cities” seems like it introduces enormous complexities with little practical upside. Most “intentional communities” on land fail with many fewer impediments to their success. And their “independence” seems like a chimera since they could be subdued and co-opted by the first country with a navy that takes an interest in doing so. Why doesn’t French Polynesia just give these guys an island and save them a lot of trouble?

And where is this “huge diversity of people” going to come from? Is there really a body of people willing to populate these “cities” in numbers that matter? “Who want’s to go live on an oil rig?! It’s gonna be awesome! Like Waterworld except with Libertarian cosplayers!”

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42 JWatts November 14, 2017 at 11:30 am

“And their “independence” seems like a chimera since they could be subdued and co-opted by the first country with a navy that takes an interest in doing so. ”

Certainly pirates would target them if they don’t have a sufficient defense force that’s willing to use lethal measures. Regarding attacks by a foreign power, the historical defense is being flagged to a specific nationality. With no flagging, you don’t have taxes, but you don’t have protection.

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43 John November 14, 2017 at 11:42 am

Right. I can’t see much of an incentive for a country to mobilize a military defense of a bunch of tax dodgers. If anything, most extant nation-states would probably prefer that upstart competitors fail.

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44 Borjigid November 14, 2017 at 11:52 am

Sometimes I wonder if seasteading is a ploy by anti-libertarians: get everybody you don’t like on a boat in the middle of nowhere and all it takes is one accident/torpedo/storm to rid the world of your ideological enemies.

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45 Careless November 15, 2017 at 12:59 am

I cannot imagine a pirate traveling thousands of miles from the nearest pirate haven (Indonesia?) to attack a bunch of people with uncertain wealth where guns are probably legal.

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46 Art Deco November 14, 2017 at 11:44 am

Waste of time and money.

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47 dan1111 November 14, 2017 at 12:19 pm

Very true, but if you are going to waste time and money on something, a floating city is a pretty cool thing to spend it on.

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48 Borjigid November 14, 2017 at 12:24 pm

Rockets are way cooler.

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49 dan1111 November 14, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Why do you have to choose? Launch rockets from a floating city.

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50 Anonguy November 15, 2017 at 12:08 am

Launch rockets at the floating city. Watch libertarians sink to the bottom of the sea.

51 Watch Movies Online November 14, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Yes, but in this decentralized context, the participants still have to follow the dictates of centralized knowledge use for time based product.

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52 john November 14, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Diversity is not terrible and if movement is inexpensive then perhaps the experiments add value — to others rather than those wanting those options and self-producing. But diversity also creates more “us versus them” situations so could add to conflict as much as it reduces it. One might also wonder about both scale and something of a “structure or production” type view in terms of governance. Most government and almost all (or is it all?) city government is part of some larger governance structure — the USA federal government is not isolated from either the State and local governments or from external governments. Where would the seasteading governments fitting in to the existing structure of governance? How much is disruptive versus innovative niches that complement and improve what is in place.

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53 Bob November 14, 2017 at 1:58 pm

So what’s the policy if a navy, or just some guy with a ship and large caliber guns, sails by and decides to level the seastead? Is French Polynesia or France supposed to defend the seastead? If so, will the seastead pay taxes to French Polynesia or France for protection? Or will the French Polynesians or French have to pay the taxes and risk their lives defending the seastead for the seasteaders? Or will the seasteaders tax and conscript themselves into a Seastead Navy Reserve and Marine Corps to defend their seastead, in which case I imagine the prospects of living on the seastead will be much less attractive to prospective seasteaders?

The Non-Aggression Principle is not a law of nature, so it would seem that these are fundamental questions that have to be addressed.

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54 John November 14, 2017 at 3:48 pm

“You may take our lives, but you’ll never take our bitcoin!”

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55 chuck martel November 14, 2017 at 5:36 pm

It’s already been done. See Malta.

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56 Bob November 14, 2017 at 7:25 pm

So the seasteads are going to be owned by the modern equivalents of the Knights of Malta?

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57 TSB November 14, 2017 at 8:01 pm

With sufficient taxation, there’s no need for conscription. Security can be hired, provided the incentives for the mercenaries are to continue working rather than usurping.

But I can’t imagine there would be much relocatable material wealth on a seastead anyway. Maybe hostages, but the seasteaders would be no more vulnerable than cruise ship passengers in international waters.

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58 Ricardo November 14, 2017 at 8:17 pm

Yes, hostage taking and the seizing of supply ships, just like what was happening off the Horn of Africa several years ago.

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59 Bob November 14, 2017 at 8:58 pm

The piracy in the Horn of Africa declined due to beefed up patrols by the US Navy and other major navies.

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60 Bob November 14, 2017 at 8:56 pm

So which group of mercenaries has a navy comparable to that of a nation state?

There was a war in the Pacific 70 years ago where millions died fighting over tiny atolls with absolutely no material or strategic significance. The non-aggression principle is not a law of nature.

Cruise ship passengers in international waters are protected by the US Navy and other national navies, whose budgets are in the billions annually. Is that the plan of the seasteads, to parasitize on other states for basic functions like defense?

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61 TSB November 14, 2017 at 10:22 pm

“There was a war in the Pacific 70 years ago where millions died fighting over tiny atolls with absolutely no material or strategic significance.”

“There was a war in the Pacific” is the only true claim I can find in that sentence. But a port and an airstrip could render an isolated seastead slightly valuable strategically, albeit significantly less than a single aircraft carrier. I wonder if this proposal is designed to enable deterrant scuttling?

Regarding piracy, small nations have always relied on empires to police the high seas. But the cost of protecting a single seastead in a fixed location from piracy of course bears no resemblance to the billions spent on national navies to patrol and compete globally. Few small Pacific states have significant navies, and none are particularly troubled by pirates.

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62 Bob November 14, 2017 at 11:53 pm

So we’re back to my original questions. Are the seasteads going to pay taxes to France of the US for protection, in which case they’ll cease to be independent polities? We’re not just talking about piracy here, but rather invasion or destruction. Imperial Japan sought to invade French Polynesia during the Pacific War.

63 TSB November 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

>Bob, 11:53pm

Small Pacific nations neither pay other nations for protection nor suffer unbearable risks of invasion and destruction. If small nations had to match large nations’ military spending for national defense, a political map of the world would look very different to our empirical result.

I just can’t see a defense problem for seasteading that isn’t being satisfactorily managed by Vanuatu.

64 Bob November 15, 2017 at 1:24 am

Do you agree that the US Navy polices the Pacific? Are you saying that since small Pacific states don’t pay the US Navy, seasteads in the Pacific won’t have to either? Do you think seasteads should not have to pay for this protection? If so, why not? Do you agree that without the US Navy’s protection, they would be under threat of invasion or destruction by other powers?

65 John November 15, 2017 at 9:45 am

“Small Pacific nations neither pay other nations for protection nor suffer unbearable risks of invasion and destruction. If small nations had to match large nations’ military spending for national defense, a political map of the world would look very different to our empirical result.”

But these nations have both strategic importance and non-negligible populations which offers protection from larger nation states and pirates. Australia might like to see Vanuatu protected from an invasion by China because they don’t want China on their door-step. Vanuatu is large enough to deal with rogue pirates on its own. That’s a happy medium. Seasteads will likely have little strategic importance and very small populations. That makes them vulnerable both to pirates AND nation states.

In any event, the question is probably moot because no one is going to riase billions of dollars to create a floating city in order to conduct a governance experiment.

66 john November 15, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Following TSB’s comment I wonder just what the history of Maldives might say on the sub topic here.

67 Viking November 14, 2017 at 2:12 pm

Proper manly seasteading would stay in international waters, anchored or under propulsion, and be protected by nukes.

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68 msgkings November 14, 2017 at 2:27 pm

That would be a sausage fest though. Manly indeed.

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69 Viking November 14, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Good point, can’t disagree!

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70 Bob November 14, 2017 at 4:13 pm

Just like all frontier environments are. That’s one of the main issues that isn’t being addressed by the promoters. Is the seastead supposed to be a genuine frontier, or is it just some tax haven that’s going to parasitize on other established polities for the most basic functions of a community like defense?

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71 The Cuckmeister-General November 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm

Oh it’ll be a manly frontier full of manly man-on-man action just like all the posters here fantasize about.

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72 Joshua November 15, 2017 at 8:40 am

You don’t think “prostitution” is one of the first “diversity” planks they will institute?

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73 Axa November 14, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Any serious person would be allergic to post while “construction will be begin soon” stage. Libertarians are not serious =)

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74 Warren November 14, 2017 at 3:38 pm

I’m not a fan of the ocean, do these have to be built on water?

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75 The Anti-Gnostic November 15, 2017 at 9:41 am

Yes, because otherwise any schlep could just walk there. So they’d have to build a Wall, and walls are not Cool.

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76 cw November 14, 2017 at 6:56 pm

Why would it necessarily be a new country. WOuldn’t they have to be outside territorial waters?

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77 Tom Hynes November 14, 2017 at 9:27 pm

No new technology is needed. Anchor a cruise ship offshore and run a fiber optic cable out to it. Bribe he host country to leave you alone.

Provide daily shuttles to the host country for supplies and access.

It would make a great retirement home – no estate taxes.

Just anchor more ships as you grow.

There is no homeless problem – the day you can’t pay your room bill, you are on the shuttle.
Crime is pretty small with 100% video cameras.

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78 Bob November 14, 2017 at 11:55 pm

What if Kim Jong Un decides to use those anchored cruise ships for target practice?

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79 Joshua November 15, 2017 at 8:43 am

Read Snow Crash. You’ll see how it will most likely turn out.

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80 The Anti-Gnostic November 15, 2017 at 9:37 am

Never been on a cruise. The thought of being cooped up in a floating hotel with limited privacy is not appealing to me.

People generate sewage and trash. The logistics of keeping the ships clean and disease-free and the surrounding harbor from slowly turning into the Ganges seem pretty daunting. There are a lot of reasons humans tend to settle near each other on land.

These ventures strike me as the libertarian-intellectual version of white flight.

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81 Ricardo November 15, 2017 at 11:28 am

Leave you alone from what, exactly? If you have money of the sort where you start worrying about estate taxes, there are any number of land-based countries that will allow you to stay more or less hassle free. Look at John McAfee — he had to associate with low-life street thugs and be accused of murder before the cops in Belize did anything about him. And even if you don’t have estate-tax-worthy money, you’ll be fine in a lot of places as long as you stay away from hard drugs, guns and local politics.

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82 Paavo Ojala November 16, 2017 at 10:43 am

Why bother with a cruise ship? Bribe Guyana and establish a libertarian Jonestown.

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