Libertarians always seem to want to run away to sea. Most recently, Paypal founder Peter Thiel made news by promoting and financially backing the Seasteading Institute, which wants to build floating oil-platform-like independent countries anchored in international waters and free from all that pesky government regulation. The most famous of these attempts is Sealand, which is actually quasi-occupied, but many other seagoing libertarian paradises have been planned, such as the Freedom Ship and Atlantis Project.
Logistical issues aside, I don’t think it would have been very nice to have Ayn Rand as a shipmate – dramatic personal issues make a small space even smaller. A pleasant life at sea is difficult and requires a lot of teamwork to keep danger and chaos at bay. Still, I have no problem with these people taking themselves off to sea, so long as I don’t have to go with them. (Though China Mieville has an eloquent deconstruction of the entire idea.)
However, as a seagoing scientist, I can’t help but feel they have an extremely naive idea of what life at sea is like. Here’s a short list of some of the technical problems they will no doubt face when living in their tax-free utopia.
- Constant maintenance. The battle against rust is continuous, and requires considerable organization. On the science ships I’ve sailed on, the ABs needlegun the deck almost every single day – a unpleasant, noisy, dirty job. All the important moving parts must be regularly inspected, maintained, and replaced. Even with constant maintenance, everything breaks at sea, and it always seems to be the part that is least expected. The heads seem to be particularly sensitive (and nothing else ruins your quality of life so much), but there’s plenty of examples of fires, propellers falling off, and watermakers breaking. Who will have the expertise to deal with this on board a libertarian paradise? Are there enough libertarians with shipboard experience, or will they have to compete with oil platforms and cargo ships for skilled engineers and mariners?
- Severe weather. According to the Seasteading Institute FAQ, they have a pretty minimal plan for dealing with severe weather. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with moving out of the way, but storms and associated wind and waves are not always avoidable or predictable. Size alone is no refuge. Here’s a video of an aircraft carrier hitting some serious waves – and think of how huge an aircraft carrier is!
- Sewage and trash. Apparently the seasteaders intend to abide by the same maritime laws as large ships, while simultaneously staying relatively close to shore. Well, that’s nice – but where are they going to put their sewage and garbage? Presumably this libertarian paradise would not be located in any country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, so it would have to be more than 200 miles off the coast, which would make discharging raw sewage legal, if not pleasant. (Hope they’re not doing it in enclosed seas. That didn’t work well in the Baltic.) However, discharging plastic is illegal at any time, so they would need to hold their trash until they could ship it back to the mainland, where they will have to find a facility that can take it. (This is a matter of some contention in the Caribbean, where small island nations are inundated in cruise ship trash.) Assuming your trash barge can go 10 knots, which is pretty fast for a barge, that’s a minimum two-day round trip just to get to the mainland and back, with all the diesel costs that entails. It’s almost like you’d want some kind of a goverment to manage all that waste management, infrastructure, and disposal.
What else? I’d especially love to get a mariner’s take on this.