Logistical challenges of floating libertarian paradises

Via Wired. Illustration: Valdemar Duran

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.

H/t Michael Robinson for the tip!

20 Replies to “Logistical challenges of floating libertarian paradises”

  1. I think we should be optimistic — at the very least, Sea Captain Date has the dating service niche filled for any libertarian paradise barges!

  2. I’m always baffled by the idea of libertarian utopias, since living at sea or living in a self-sufficient, self-supporting enclave is essentially a commune, where you always have to put the needs of the group ahead of your personal needs. And of course, the chain of command neutralizes any illusions of personal freedom. The captain is your king.

  3. Defence was one thing that came to mind. Who’s going to protect them from Somali pirates/drug lords/al Qaeda/…? Hired guns? OK…and who’s going to protect them from the hired guns when they want more money, or when they demand the access codes to your Swiss bank accounts.

    Economies of scale was another issue. Sure, if they’re meant to be playgrounds for the ultra-rich, that doesn’t matter as much. Except that the ultra-rich can go wherever they want. So why floating islands? Anyway, if they are meant to have any sort of a ‘normal’ population – plebs who work, who manufacture something – not only would you have to pay them higher wages to work on an oil platform in the middle of the sea, you’d also have to figure out how to ship whatever thing in and out. A container ship isn’t going to dock on a floating platform, so you need to unload the ships in a real harbour, then repackage the stuff into smaller ships and ship it 200+ miles out to sea. Which means a big increase in the cost of living. Since one of the reasons cited for these things is avoiding minimum wage laws, what you’re probably going to have is virtual slavery. Which, of course, leads to further complications, including slave revolts (especially if they join forces with the hired guns guarding the place).

  4. Admittedly, I see seasteading as not being a viable alternative for several years to come. However, I find the idea of living “off the grid” to be fascinating, whether at land or sea; a “new frontier”, so to speak. Power from the wind, waves, and sun, food from the sea, hydroponic gardens and the like, and ready access to the world of the sea to study. I’d set up shop over a seamount, for the chance to study the diversity of life there.

    I do not sea seasteads as floating palaces for the rich. I see them as floating research stations.

    As for political views, I do not see it so much as wanting to establish a new government as wanting to get away from the current one. Granted, there are others who hold more radical views. I consider myself to be a Libertarian, but I do not want to stop paying taxes. I simply want all income brackets to be taxed equally. I want a small government that leaves me, my money, and my opinions alone.

  5. I have always liked the idea of Seasteading as well just to see if it might actually be viable in some form, (I suspect it never will be) but with regard to the the opinion part of your apparent dissatisfaction yours obviously remain intact so WTF is your problem? As for the rest it sounds reasonable until you try to put it into practice and find out it simply doesn’t work. As for being dissatisfied with the tax bracket structure in the US if you are wealthy the ultra rich have never been taxed less, it is destroying our country but it is as close as we are ever going to get to what you say you want so WTF is your problem? You should be jumping for joy not whining.

  6. Whining is easier, and it it is my right as an American. ;)

    I suppose it boils down to wanting smaller government. I do not want the government to have their hands in everything from banks to auto manufacturing to the food we eat. If someone wants out of that environment and they want to try it with seasteading, more power to them.

    However, I agree with you and Miriam. There are more obstacles to overcome than anyone can know. One cannot manufacture everything, on a seastead, even with the dawn of 3D printers and in vitro meat. Which means there has to be a steady supply of parts coming in and waste going out… which defeats the whole purpose of seasteading.

    Personally, I think we need a “Survivor: Seastead” reality show, to test these things out on some guinea pigs…errr… volunteers.

  7. Great fun as a libertarian dream! Reminds one of the movie “Waterworld” or Heinlein’s novel “Farnham’s Freehold”. Lots of problems to solve, but the notion of trying out something like this is a worthwhile diversion. With technology, sewage “disposal” becomes instead a digester biogas plant system that can generate energy AND reduce waste to a trickle of harmless elements. Defence for libertarians who can use automatic small arms and RPGs might be possible.

  8. Didn’t the inventor of the Segway also invent a generator that produced fresh water and electricity and ran on manure?

    As for defense… sonic cannons… remote-controlled mines… trained dolphins (Day of the Dolphin, anyone?)

  9. YES. I couldn’t quite put this into words, and you have said it most eloquently.

  10. While this would not necessarily have to be true for a seastead in international waters, in the United States the government (Coast Guard) is HEAVILY involved in regulating vessels. This is both to protect individuals and the commons (e.g., preventing oil discharges). For example, the Coast Guard regulates how much safety equipment must be on board, and how often the vessel’s company needs to have practice drills in how to use it. Personally I am quite happy that the government is ensuring my safety in this way – safety equipment/drills is an easy thing to skimp on when you’re occupied with other things, and I like that a minimum standard is required.

    Of course, I’m sure seasteaders would be willing to sign a release agreeing to pay for any costly Coast Guard rescue operations that they require. :)

  11. There’s some dystopian version of these seagoing colonies too – try the Raft in Neil Stephenson’s “Snowcrash” or the Armada in China Mieville’s “The Scar.”

  12. This would only be true in a libertarian-socialist community. In an anarco-capitalist libertarian community, you wouldn’t have to do anything. There would only be economic incentives that promote certain behaviors.

    The difference is property rights. The first type, everyone agrees that there is no private property allowed, only public property. In the latter, there is no public property allowed, only private property.

    Of course, there are a whole slew of “flavors” of libertarianism, this is just the main two.

  13. You bring up some very good points. One of the reasons for these floating communities is to allow for experimentation in all aspects of life. Protection, supplies, wages, are all going to be tough problems to solve. However, with enough communities trying enough different strategies, the chances that one of them gets it right will be almost assured. Then the hope is that those strategies are replicated in other floating communities as well.

    So realistically, no one is going into these communities expecting to have it perfect from the very start. There are going to be disastrous mistakes on many of them. But that’s true of anything new and risky. You have to blow up a few rockets if you want to get to the moon.

  14. Just want to say this post reminded me of why I love this site. Keep up the great work! xoxox from the midwest

  15. Dead on. Those who want to live aboard already are doing so. You don’t need a billion dollar artificial island to do that. Mostly, just the desire. The libertarians imagining some faux paradise have no desire to live at sea. And no knowledge of it. Their sea isn’t the real sea, but the border to their imaginary world.

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