Seasteading – The Folly of Start-Up Countries

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Haven’t you had just about enough of the stupid rules and habits of the country you live in? I mean, the politicians are all asshats, the electorate that put them in office are morons, and there isn’t any hope of this changing. It’s time to pack up and move, time for a fresh start. That is the premise of the seasteading movement, a utopianist effort to create largely self-sustaining water-bound cities of 1,000 residents or so.

Nice idea. So are pink unicorns and starships with warp drive, and they are both more likely than successful seasteading.

The Seasteading Institute makes the news every so often, dedicated to the idea that floating towns offer mankind a way forward. PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel has put up $1.2 million to help fund it. Economist Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri is its chairman.

Like all utopianist ideas, seasteading appeals to those of us dissatisfied with the world as it is rather than as it should be (and that includes me). Like all utopianist ideas, seasteading sounds plausible enough on the surface. And like all utopianist ideas, it collapses almost immediately when you start asking the basic questions.

Patri told Reuters just a few days ago, “We need startup countries. Today’s governments work so poorly that the feeling we could do better is pretty broad. An entrepreneur would say, ‘Here is an industry that’s doing a horrible job, so let’s disrupt it with new technology.’ Seasteading is that technology.” Patri is 37 and thus too young to remember hippie communes — same idea, but the hippies rejected technology and wanted to get back to nature. And we already know what kind of society we’d get if it were set up by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs … does anyone want to live in Microsoft-land? Google-ania? Facebookistan? Just what kind of privacy rights is Zuckerberg interested in protecting other than his own code?

Nevertheless, there are plans by DeltaSync, BV, to build a floating village. DeltaSync makes its money designing architectural projects that can deal with rising sealevels – a pretty big deal if your home country is the Netherlands, a country that has land below sea level. And apparently, there are 500 yahoos elbowing each other to get on-board the project. A chance for a libertarian oasis of sanity is what they are after.

And here’s why they can’t get it. It’s called international law, and specifically it is the body of international law that deals with territoriality and the sea. If you have a vessel of any kind, even a floating city, you have to fly the flag of some nation. Now, it doesn’t have to be the nation you are from. Liberia, for instance, has lots of ships under its flag because it’s laws are pretty friendly toward the cruise and freight shipping business. Panama and the Bahamas are the same – they are called flags of convenience because it is so easy to register your vessel with them.

Here’s the problem. Your ship is considered to be part of the flag-country’s territory. A Panamanian registered ship is, under international law, as much a part of Panama as the canal is. And Panamanian law applies from the engine room to the bridge, stem to stern. You want a floating city where drugs are legal and the age of consent is 12? You have to find a country where the laws permit that.

The alternative is not to fly a flag at all. There is a term in maritime law for those who go to sea without a national flag – “pirates.” There are international treaties that empower any nation in the world to go after pirates. And I am sure one of them would.

Even if the floating city were recognized as an independent territory, it would be doomed. Don’t believe me? Check out the Principality of Sealand. Owing to a fluke of policy and law, there was a British fort built at sea during World War II, that the family and associates of Paddy Roy Bates have claimed to be the smallest nation in the world since since the 1970s. Roy styled himself “Prince Roy,” and his son Michael succeeded to the title of Prince of Sealand when his father died.

In 1978, Prince Roy and his wife were in England, there was an armed attack on Sealand and Michael was taken prisoner. Eventually, the House of Bates retook Sealand and tried the leader of the rebellion for treason, a guy named Alexander G. Achenbach, who was fined DM75,000.

The whole thing is laughable, but it shows the huge, fundamental hole in the seasteading plan. Either you will have to rely on one of the governments you despise so much to protect you, or you will have to find a way to protect your utopia from attack, which means military training and obligations for residents (a great many of whom don’t want to do that kind of thing or they would have enlisted in the armed forces), or paying mercenaries to protect you. And can you really rely on them?

It seems to me it would be a lot easier to fix the society we’ve got rather than build a whole new one.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.

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