Seasteading: Constructed Sovereignty?

Seasteading: Constructed Sovereignty?

When international lawyers say that sovereignty is a social construction, I doubt any of us mean it as literally as does the Seasteading Institute, an organization founded by Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, and Wayne Gramlich. Their goal is to foster a seasteading movement, people building structures on the high seas that would become independent and sovereign… essentially floating city-states. According to Wired, the Seasteading Institute “plans to splash a prototype into the San FranciscoBay within the next two years, the first step toward establishing deep-water city-states…”  Can sovereignty be literally constructed? Is there a market for governance?

 The Seasteading Institute’s website explains that it is promoting seasteading

Because the world needs a new frontier, a place where those who are dissatisfied with our current civilization can go to build a different (and hopefully better) one.

Currently, it is very difficult to experiment with alternative social systems on a small scale. Countries are so enormous that no individual can make much difference in how they work, and the powers-that-be are deeply entrenched. Seasteaders believe that government shouldn’t be like the cellphone or operating system industries, with few choices and high customer-lock-in. Instead, they envision something more like web 2.0, where many small governments serve many niche markets, a dynamic system where small groups experiment, and everyone copies what works, discards what doesn’t, and remixes the remainder to try again.

[Emphasis added.]

This view of “many small governments serving niche markets” echoes with the ethos of networked economy.  And it also brings to mind an era of social experimentation:

If people could create societies with different priorities – the environment, civil liberties, economic freedom, religious values – we’d be able to see how well these ideas actually work in practice. In some cases, certain approaches will work so well (or terribly) that everyone (or no one) will use them too. In others, it will turn out to be a matter of preference, in which case we’ll be giving people the choice to choose to live in whatever small society is closest to their ideal.

Grand imagery aside, the writer (and international law scholar) China Mieville argues that the driving force may be a bit more pedantic: getting out of paying your taxes.
Be it to dodge taxes or to find the new frontier, note how the concept of sovereignty comes into play. A literally constructed sovereignty. Reading through a book on seasteading written by Friedman and Gramlich, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG mused:

What interests me here, aside from the architectural challenge of erecting a durable, ocean-going metropolis, is the fact that this act of construction – this act of building something – has constitutional implications. That is, architecture here proactively expands the political bounds of recognized sovereignty; architecture becomes declarative.

In a comment to Manaugh’s post, the Seasteading Institute’s Patri Friedman wrote:

Re: Architecture as sovereignty, construction as constitutionality

Yes! You’ve got it exactly. We honestly don’t know if the economics/engineering will work out (we’ll know a lot more by the end of the year). But the key to this idea is that we’re transforming a political problem into an engineering one. Just by solving an engineering problem (which humans are damn good at!), we can transform politics (and in a direction which moves power towards the individual).

Heady stuff, but have we reached an age where sovereignty can be literally built? I doubt it. And I think the seasteaders recognize that as well. For one thing, there are rules and/or norms as to how territory is acquired, as well as concerning the formation and recognition of states. I can’t just row a dinghy off the Jersey shore, drop an anchor, and declare my raft to be “Borgentopia.”  (Well, I can, it is just that it wouldn’t have any political or legal effect.)

Moreover, as Manaugh notes, the seasteaders:

touch on the political and economic circumstances involved in steading the high seas, including SOLAS, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and UNLOS, the United Nations Law of the Sea. They mention the process of buying a Flag of Convenience, in which hopeful microsovereigns can “shop around for a country that has the least objectionable laws and rates, and count on the seller’s apathy to minimize restrictions. A seastead is potentially high-profile, and if it proves a serious embarrassment to a registrar it may lose its flag.”

This idea of actually flagging yourself to a country that won’t care what you are doing seems crucial to the short-term (if not long-term viability of seasteading).  As Friedman put it in Wired: “If you’re not flying a flag … any country can do whatever they want to you.”  Microstates have one major problem: they are easy to take over because they are small and, usually, weak.  (However, they can be good fun: see Micronations: the Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations.)

 But relying on flags of convenience, ahem, blows the sovereignty talk out of the water.

Consider this scenario: You and some millionaire buddies set up a nice little seastead in the Caribbean. Great fishing, warm breezes, and so on. Let’s call it TaxFreeLand. It flies a Panamanian flag (of convenience). Then, let’s say the U.S. becomes suspicious that your little “sovereignty” is being used to trans-ship drugs (turns out some of your millionaire buddies have some shady business dealings in Medellin…. Ooops!). Is Panama going to save you?

OK, maybe bringing in the US makes this an unfair hypo.

 So let’s say it’s not the U.S. that’s angry at you, but Colombia.  No, even better, let’s say its Trinidad and Tobago.  Some Trinidadian helicopters are coming in to land.  Does TaxFreeLand think they can blow them out of the sky?  Does Panama want to have the worry of a bunch of millionaires flying the Panamanian flag and manning anti-aircraft guns?  And, if you actually put Panamanian troops on TaxFreeLand, to man those guns or just to deter other states from poking around, is it really an independent, libertarian sovereignty? Or is it just a free-trade zone in Panama? Because, if the international community views it as the latter, Panama has to worry about all the issues of state responsibility for what goes on in TaxFreeLand. Ouch. Not such a great deal for Panama, now.

The problem is a bad analogy. Vessels that fly flags of convenience are not the same as placing a county’s flag on an entity that itself claims to be sovereign, and acts as such. For one thing, the crews of seagoing vessels are usually primarily concerned with getting from point A to point B with their cargo.  The residents of seasteading havens are concerned with… well… whatever it is they thought they couldn’t do under the watchful eye of a government. Otherwise they would just be living in the Hamptons or something.

So what is a well-intentioned libertarian to do? For one thing, I would suggest ditching the sovereignty talk.  You are not going to found a new country. You will be within the regulatory sphere of an existing state. Live with it. Instead, negotiate an agreement that makes TaxFreeLand some type of free trade zone in whichever country’s whose flag you are flying.  You will have to accept that there are certain things you won’t be able to do. So drug running, money laundering, illicit data caches–all potentially lucrative enterprises for a would-be country that, face it, has no land and is just a glorified platform–are no longer good economic development opportunities. Also, keep in mind that your actions could affect the treaty obligations of the country whose flag you are flying. So, hello human rights reporting requirements! Hello, international intellectual property rules!  You, like the rest of your flag-country, are enmeshed in a web of international regulation. You can’t opt-out by setting-up a cross between an oil derrick and the Love Boat. That sound you are hearing? It’s just Ayn Rand spinning in her grave. (If she spins fast enough, maybe she can provide turbine power for TaxFreeLand.)

And remember the cautionary tale of SeaLand, the grandaddy of seasteading. After a huge fanfare (the cover of Wired! allusions in popular fiction!), their offshore data haven, appropriately called HavenCo, had a grand total of only six customers. They did draft an incredibly brief Internet Law, though. But then there was a fire that destroyed most of their platform/country so they are now a state of limbo.

All in all, it’s probably more effective to just get Swiss citizenship and split your time between the Alps and Monaco (with occasional jaunts to Amsterdam).

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M. Gross
M. Gross

You’ve covered most of the points I would have made on the issue.

Essentially: If you plan to build your own country, you’d better budget a military in there.

Diplomatic Gunboat
Diplomatic Gunboat

TaxFreeLand would hardly be a tax-free land, requiring funds for crew, maintenance and fuel even in its simplest form. To be fair to the proponents, their idea seems to be not tax-free but tax-limited, and as libertarian as possible.
Given the money, effort and hazards involved, they might consider whether they could instead buy out an actual small country entirely. (Mark Thatcher would likely recommend against trying a hostile takeover.)
Even in the U.S. there are creative compromise approaches: The Free State Wyoming movement (though Wyoming is a state and not a country); obtaining membership in the Republic of Lakota group that declared independence from the U.S.; or even buying a parcel of federal government land that still has exclusive federal jurisdiction attached (theoretically free of state and local property tax, but caveat emptor and put it in the deed.)
Manaugh captured it–the idea is ‘dear to the hearts of libertarian homesteaders everywhere’–there’s got to be some way . . . .

DensityDuck
DensityDuck

Libertopians always like to quote “Snow Crash”. They should pay more attention, because that book has The Republic Of Kodiak And Kenai as an example of what happens to ‘microstates’–someone big and bad moves in and declares themself Emperor.

Tom
Tom

Response…The United States within the original notion of federalism, with states, counties, and cities, each micro-governments was the to be the experiment explained here. That is until the New Deal came about and made national government IMPERIAL in its scope and nature. States rights and states power are not expletive in nature, but empowering of small experiments in governing. If people don’t like their government, and can’t change it, maybe they should move to the government of their choice.

J.C.
J.C.

Essentially: If you plan to build your own country, you’d better budget a military in there. Exactly right. Although the overall concept is, of course, politically neutral, it’s funny to envision many of my liberal friends coming up with scenarios like this to escape the fascist claws of HalliBushCo. The same liberals that decry all use of force as Evil and think the military should be de-funded to pay for free health care and, um, 30 hour work-weeks. It’d only be fitting if their new utopia gets invaded and seized by pirates (or random Country X) because they didn’t want to guarantee the right to bear arms and thought militaries were passe. That being said, I think it would be awesome… and I don’t believe there *would* be any legitimate issues if you put your mind to it. Just start building your mega-structure at least 200 miles off the coast of any other country (especially your own), make sure you can survive, and then declare your independence. And be prepared to defend yourself. If you succeed, congrats! If you don’t, well… you get annexed. Join the club. All in all, before anyone is going to invest the billions of dollars… Read more »

captain bill
captain bill

That Sealand site is sort of funny, albiet unintentionally. If the fire hadn’t done it, the sea would have eventually. It seems that those promoting this notion must have no knowledge of the sea, must not have ridden out a hurricane in the Bahamas or Caribbean. Nothing will stand up to the sea over time. A Cat 5 hurricane will wipe out everything, and a hurricane of that magnitude is inevitable, eventually. So much libertarian navel gazing.

Kenneth Anderson

Chris, fascinating post … could you or someone tell me whether the Law of the Sea Convention would have any applicability to seasteading?

Ed Minchau

Let’s extend this idea a little bit further. It’s a big solar system out there, and there are over one quadrillion (1 000 000 000 000 000) bodies over 1km in size orbiting the sun… that’s a lot of real estate that hasn’t been claimed yet.

Al Fin

Seriously, though, if Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is considered a legal state by the international community, how much moral standing does the international community have? What that tells us is that legality is whatever you can get away with.

Which is what everyone suspected about the law all along.

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[…] and self-defense Chris Borgen has an interesting post about “seasteading,” the idea of forming micronations at sea.  […]

Michael A. Innes

Apologies for my ignorance, but I have a couple of questions:

1. Do issues of sovereignty and law that potentially govern seasteading need to be fundamentally distinct from those governing a sea-going vessel?

2. I understand the concept of a seastead is that it’s meant to be, in its own maritime way, something more fixed in place, more static, than something as mobile as a flagged vessel with engines…. but is it really?

Tom Perkins
Tom Perkins

The explicitly libertarian Minerva Reef effort predates the UNCLOS, a sovereignty based there and reversing the illegal and obviously acquisitively warlike action of the Kingdom of Tonga, might well fly from a strict interpretation of the current international law.

You just have to be perfectly willing to kill the several hundred Tongans the King would plausibly invest towards stopping you.

Having a good blimp or seaplane would also be a good idea.

Also a charter that reassured the rest of the world that you wouldn’t be a thorn in their side, followed by enforcement of the same.

TANSTAAFL, etc.

Earl B.
Earl B.

Here’s an idea for establishing your own sovereign nation. 1. Find a small, relatively useless speck of an island in the middle of nowhere that is part of a pre-existing sovereign nation (say, for example, something in the Maldives or the Seychelles). 2. Enter into negotiations to buy the island from the sovereign nation, under terms which will allow residents of the heretofore uninhabited island to hold a referendum on secession after one year, the results of which will be honored by the government (Of course, a secession fee will also be part of the deal). 3. The residents of the island (our intrepid utopians) vote to secede, the government ratifies the secession vote and demands payment of a hefty secession fee, whereupon the inhabitants of New Anarchia declare their independence and their existence as a new sovereign nation. Their former government immediately recognizes the legitimacy of the government of New Anarchia. 4. The Government of New Anarchia immediately petitions for admission to the United Nations. Their petition is supported by their former country (included in the terms of the secession fee). 5. Membership in the U.N. will legitimize the new nation, and provide some measure of protection from hostile… Read more »

JBD
JBD

So these guys want to create Waterworld?

Didn’t work out so hot for Kevin Costner.

And it will take more than Dennis Hopper on a JetSki to defend anything worth living on.

Patri Friedman

Thanks for writing one of the rare responses to our project that involves research and critical thought, I greatly appreciate it. I personally don’t like the term “sovereignty”, because I don’t think it is achievable easily or within a short time-span. I like “autonomy”, because it represents our practical goal: to get left alone – not to get recognized by the UN. We certainly don’t plan to ignore international law. Rather, we will try to carve out as much freedom as we can get within international law. This probably means being outside EEZs (> 200nm from any land). This means UNCLOS 60 doesn’t apply, nor does UNCLOS 89 (we aren’t claiming sovereignty, we are just a ship with a flag). Since the flagging nation is unlikely to protect us, it behooves any seastead to avoid doing things which will piss off existing countries. Producing drugs for export and allowing money laundering are great examples of things I don’t think should be allowed on a seastead. I want just as much freedom as we can get away with – and pissing off existing countries means not getting away with it. That said, I think considerable freedom is possible. I doubt existing… Read more »

Patri Friedman

I think the story of seasteading will be the story of the interplay of security prerogatives and the bargains that can be made within established regulatory frameworks. You may well be right, but I think that substantial freedom can be found within those frameworks. If we can only get the union of all freedoms in current nations (the social freedoms of the Netherlands, economic freedoms of the US, tax laws of the Caymans), that would be a big win. And in practice, I think we can get a lot more. I’m a pragmatist, and I don’t need libertopia. A substantial increase in freedom would be good enough for me. Also, your argument is missing the whole “dynamic geography” aspect, the reason why I think that whatever government seasteads have will work much better. We are going to lower the barrier to entry to making new governments, and lower the cost of moving between them. That has to make the industry more competitive and do a better job of serving its customers. This is totally aside from any one philosophy like libertarianism. My claim is that a socialist or ecotopian seastead will also work better than such societies on land. At… Read more »

Don

Response…Why go to all the expense…Ya’ll just move to TEXAS, help us vote our own REPUBLIC back and we will again be our own country. We can do our own border control and export all the carpetbabbers back to NY. We got oil and refineries plus our new solar energy plans. Don’t forget our own coastline in order to EXPORT and inport. Also the most important factor. We still have some COMMON SENSE left.

Jon Sandor
Jon Sandor

“If we can only get the union of all freedoms in current nations (the social freedoms of the Netherlands, economic freedoms of the US, tax laws of the Caymans), that would be a big win.”

Those freedoms are not compatible with each other. You’re never going to get hedonistic Puritans, or “social liberals, fiscal conservatives”.  The set of people who are interested in getting high and getting laid does not intersect with the set of people who are interested in money.

The fundamental problem with libertarianism is the same as that with communism – it assumes that human nature is other than what it is.

Chris Borgen
Chris Borgen

Patri: Thanks for your responses and clarifications. Here are some thoughts from my end. You wrote: At its heart, this idea is not about “drugs & guns & pirating music” or whatever you see the standard libertarian goals as. It’s about enabling a wide variety of people with a wide variety of visions of a good society to actually go try those visions out (within the framework of international law). I do understand that that is the goal. However, I am interested in the mechanics of getting there and in some of the possible unintended consequences.  For example, for a seastead to be (largely) free of tax laws and have broad economic freedoms, it will need to either generate significant wealth by its operations or receive significant financial transfers (probably from the wealth of its inhabitants). Unless the seastead is able to generate significant income, the likely inhabitants of such a seastead would thus be significantly wealthy people who can pay for the construction and upkeep of the platform (not to mention the amenities that would make it a desirable place to live, as opposed to just visit). As described in my previous comment, this plays a part in turning the seastead… Read more »

Chris Borgen
Chris Borgen

Regarding my previous comment, I should also note that even if the seasteaders themselves do not need to be wealthy because the seastead itself is able to generate significant income, then the seastead itself becomes an attractive prize and still attracts pirates or hostile states, absent a significant security umbrella.

Chris

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[…] and Technology. trackback I’ve been reading up on seasteading, and I have to agree with Opinio Juris: declaring your independance and sovereignty doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. […]