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.
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.
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).