From the Sea, Freedom!

For as long as governments have overreached, people have sought escape.

Indeed, some have dreamed of exiting the state completely. From the defunct Republic of Minerva (perhaps the only nation ever to fall prey to Tongan imperialism) to the short-lived Oceania project, a number of individualist mavericks have tried to create societies outside the bonds of established states. Most have failed.

Yet if any of these ventures can be called a success, it’s the Principality of Sealand. Sealand’s founder, Roy Bates—also known as Prince Roy of Sealand—ruled for 45 years. He died October 9.

Bates first took to the seas in the 1960s to establish Radio Essex. He set up his radio station outside of the United Kingdom’s territorial waters, where he could broadcast free from the heavy-handed regulation and censorship that made British broadcasting a dull affair in those days. Whereas most pirate radio jockeys worked from boats, Bates found an abandoned World War II-era platform fort located seven miles off England’s east coast.

Bates’s station was one of many such “pirate” stations. When the British government moved to shut down unlicensed broadcasters operating off its coastline, officials fined Bates the princely sum of £100. Bates declared his independence from the UK. In 1967, his platform became the Principality of Sealand—and Bates named himself the head of state. His wife Joan would be his princess.

Bates went further than other offshore, unlicensed broadcasters to escape state control. What distinguished the British radio pirates from other efforts to escape state jurisdiction was their distinctly commercial motivation. The radio pirates didn’t go out to sea because they wanted simply to be there. Rather, it gave them a competitive advantage over regulated rivals on shore. (This type of voting with your boat is known as jurisdictional arbitrage.)

If future extraterritorial pioneers are to succeed, they should seek a similar competitive advantage over their more governed rivals. One of the latest and most ambitious efforts in this movement is that of the Seasteading Institute, which “work[s] to enable ‘seasteads’—floating cities—which will give people the opportunity to peacefully test new ideas about how to live together.” At a recent conference in San Francisco, much of the discussion focused on the commercial viability of seasteads.

To encourage such enterprise, the Seasteading Institute created the “Poseidon Award,” which it hopes to bestow by 2015. It is to be given to “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,” according to Josh Harkinson, who covered the conference for Mother Jones magazine.

That’s quite a challenge. But the good news is it doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, thanks to the precedent set by Bates and his fellow unlicensed broadcasters. They saw an unmet demand for variety in radio programming and discovered a novel way to meet it. Finding similar niches is the big challenge for modern-day seasteaders, in addition to the technical, engineering, and legal challenges. Modern communication technologies provide new opportunities for entrepreneurs to free themselves from state interventions now so prevalent throughout the developed world.

The radio pirates’ story is chronicled in University of Chicago historian Adrian John’s book, Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age. Interestingly, Johns notes, the link between the unlicensed British broadcasters is more than casual. One leading unlicensed radio entrepreneur was an ardent free-marketer. Oliver Smedley, the founder of Radio Atlanta, was a fan of F. A. Hayek, who was intent on breaking the BBC’s monopoly and helped Antony Fisher establish the influential Institute of Economic Affairs, Britain’s leading free-market think tank.

The political left has long sold romanticized versions of its story—from Alberto Korda’s iconic image of Che Guevara to the self-important narratives that arose from Paris 1968. To that distorted history, Bates and his fellow radio pirates offer a welcome antidote. Their story is now seen by most of the public as a valiant struggle against overreaching government bureaucrats—as the 2009 film Pirate Radio shows.

In the 1977 song “Capital Radio,” punk pioneers The Clash celebrated the fact that, “Long ago there were pirates, beaming waves from the sea.” Roy Bates went further, as he proclaimed in Sealand’s motto: “From the Sea, Freedom!”