Seasteading for Enterprise on the High Seas

Complete exit from the state has long been a dream of many libertarians. From the defunct Republic of Minerva (perhaps the only nation every to fall prey to Tongan imperialism) to the still-existing Principality of Sealand, the history of individualist mavericks setting out to create new societies outside the bonds of established states is long — and, unfortunately, short on successes.

One of the latest and most ambitious iterations of this movement is the Seasteading Institute, which recently held a conference in San Francisco — with dinner on a yacht, fittingly — where participants aired all ideas, no matter how radical, on how to make new floating societies function. As Mother Jones‘s Josh Harkinson reports:

During the morning sessions, naval architecture professor George Petrie, the institute’s director of engineering, offers a condensed history of seasteading concepts, among them a “floatel” design dubbed ClubStead—a seasteaders’ ClubMed. There was also Oceania, a putative libertarian paradise off the Panama coast. Proposed in the early-’90s by web-hosting entrepreneur Eric Klein, the idea was ultimately abandoned. “The Libertarian party is small in number and too few members have the financial resources to bankroll their beliefs,” Klein explained in a letter on “The poor performance of Libertarian candidates throughout the nation is reflective of these sad facts.”

Petrie is of the opinion that investors could create a seastead in international waters off the West Coast—perhaps using a repurposed offshore oil-drilling platform—for roughly $300 per square foot, about what housing costs in San Francisco. He favors a modular approach, “basically an at-sea trailer park,” though an anonymous donor recently gave the institute an $8 million, 275-foot gambling boat anchored in Florida.

Technical questions are important indeed. Yet equally crucial is the question of economic viability. Seasteaders have given thought to this. As Harkinson notes:

The institute has created the Poseidon Award, which it hopes, by 2015, to bestow upon the founder of the world’s first seastead that hosts at least 50 full-time residents, is financially self-sufficient and politically autonomous, and is willing to offer its real estate on the open market.

That’s a laudable goal. And the good part about how to make a new society function economically, is that in some cases you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. One example of entrepreneurs succeeding for long periods of time outside of state control is decades-old: the British pirate radio broadcasters who challenged the BBC’s monopoly in the middle of the 20th century.

University of Chicago historian Adrian Johns tells their story in Death of  a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age. The radio pirates didn’t seek to go out to sea because they wanted to be there. They went out to sea because it gave them a competitive advantage in that it allowed them to escape the dead hand of regulation that made British broadcasting such a dull affair back then.

Interestingly, one leading unlicensed radio entrepreneur was an ardent free marketer. As Reason‘s Jesse Walker notes in his capsule review of the book:

[W]hen Oliver Smedley helped launch the offshore radio revolution, he didn’t have music on his mind. A classical liberal—he preferred the word radical—influenced by F.A. Hayek and Ronald Coase, Smedley was on a mission to break up the British Broadcasting Corporation’s monopoly of the airwaves.

Smedley also helped Antony Fisher establish the influential Institute of Economic Affairs, Britain’s leading free market think tank.

The fact that Semdley’s radio ventures proved profitable didn’t hurt. Semdley and his competitors saw an unmet demand for variety in broadcasting and sought novel ways to fill it. Finding a similar niche today is a challenge modern-day seasteaders need to solve, in addition to the technical ones.

For more on unlicensed broadcasting, see Jesse Walker’s CEI OnPoint, “But now all the stations are silenced, ’cause they ain’t got a government license.”