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In the wake of a depressed economy and septic political system many Americans are looking for alternatives – both for some solace in the stormy present, as well as for a vision of the future. An organization proposing one of the more radical alternatives is the Seasteading Institute. The Institute is not proposing reform nor revolution but, in essence, separation.

Seasteading would involve creating “floating cities” in international waters to experiment with new forms of government beyond the reach of state powers. Or should I say other state powers as seasteaders see themselves as creating new countries sovereign in their own right.

Beyond the legal and political aspects – which will be explored shortly – are the technical aspects of creating these seasteads. To that end, the Seasteading Institute has been studying the technological requirements of engineering seasteads and has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money in order to design the world’s first floating city.

Randolph Hencken, the Executive Director of the Seasteading Institute, agreed to answer some questions about seasteading for Firedoglake.

FDL: Basic technical question, how is a “seastead” different than a ship? Is there an objective criteria or is it in the eye of the beholder?

Randolph Hencken: We often cite cruise ships as an example of an existing technology that enables safe, comfortable habitation on the high seas. Indeed a cruise ship can be thought of as a sort of floating skyscraper. However, we also recognize the insufficiency of existing technologies when it comes to permanent habitation on the ocean. That’s why we are researching alternative configurations, such as the semi-submersible, and a new design we are commissioning from a Dutch aquatic architecture firm, DeltaSync. A seastead, by definition, also aims for some degree of autonomy from existing nations. It may choose to register under a particular “open-registry” country’s flag and retain vessel status in order to fit in with existing international law, or it may choose to forge a new form of autonomy through diplomacy and treaties with existing nations.

Many of the participants in the project – ­ Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman for example – ­ seem to come from a libertarian perspective. Is that the correct way to view the underlying philosophy of the project? Are you expecting those who seastead to be more interested in political freedom or economic opportunities? Who do you think would find the idea most appealing?

Support for seasteading comes from all around the world, and is not constrained by a single or even dominant ideology. The underlying philosophy is rooted in a belief that we can do better with technology and innovation rather than ideology, politics and argumentation. Voluntary entry and exit, i.e., choice and competition in government, is one of the founding principles, which tends to appeal most to libertarians. However, the idea of enabling greater choice and experimentation with government is intended to give rise to a number of competing systems of governance, many of which will not be based on typical libertarian policies. This has attracted progressives, traditionalists, technocrats, and environmentalists alike.

One of your founders, Patri Friedman, along with Paul Romer a leading academic on the concept of Charter cities, recently attempted to help institute a free city on land in Honduras as part of the Charter City movement. Why is the ocean a better bet than land?

Professor Tom W. Bell recently gave an excellent talk that explains the differences between Romer’s Charter City approach and Patri’s concept with Future Cities Development. In both cases, the biggest challenge of trying to establish alternative jurisdictions on land is working with an existing government and population, who perceive outsiders as encroaching on their precious territory. Seasteading avoids this by venturing out to the only truly unclaimed portion of the planet – the high seas. There are also benefits of the ocean for certain business models – both those that rely on the ocean’s natural and geographical features (i.e., aquaculture, renewable ocean energy, and anything that involves dynamic geographical positioning), and those that rely on the unique legal freedoms of international waters (i.e., medical tourism, and all forms of experimentation with governance). [cont’d.]

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In the wake of a depressed economy and septic political system many Americans are looking for alternatives – both for some solace in the stormy present, as well as for a vision of the future. An organization proposing one of the more radical alternatives is the Seasteading Institute. The Institute is not proposing reform nor revolution but, in essence, separation.

Seasteading would involve creating “floating cities” in international waters to experiment with new forms of government beyond the reach of state powers. Or should I say other state powers as seasteaders see themselves as creating new countries sovereign in their own right.

Beyond the legal and political aspects – which will be explored shortly – are the technical aspects of creating these seasteads. To that end, the Seasteading Institute has been studying the technological requirements of engineering seasteads and has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money in order to design the world’s first floating city.

Randolph Hencken, the Executive Director of the Seasteading Institute, agreed to answer some questions about seasteading for Firedoglake.

FDL: Basic technical question, how is a “seastead” different than a ship? Is there an objective criteria or is it in the eye of the beholder?

Randolph Hencken: We often cite cruise ships as an example of an existing technology that enables safe, comfortable habitation on the high seas. Indeed a cruise ship can be thought of as a sort of floating skyscraper. However, we also recognize the insufficiency of existing technologies when it comes to permanent habitation on the ocean. That’s why we are researching alternative configurations, such as the semi-submersible, and a new design we are commissioning from a Dutch aquatic architecture firm, DeltaSync. A seastead, by definition, also aims for some degree of autonomy from existing nations. It may choose to register under a particular “open-registry” country’s flag and retain vessel status in order to fit in with existing international law, or it may choose to forge a new form of autonomy through diplomacy and treaties with existing nations.

Many of the participants in the project – ­ Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman for example – ­ seem to come from a libertarian perspective. Is that the correct way to view the underlying philosophy of the project? Are you expecting those who seastead to be more interested in political freedom or economic opportunities? Who do you think would find the idea most appealing?

Support for seasteading comes from all around the world, and is not constrained by a single or even dominant ideology. The underlying philosophy is rooted in a belief that we can do better with technology and innovation rather than ideology, politics and argumentation. Voluntary entry and exit, i.e., choice and competition in government, is one of the founding principles, which tends to appeal most to libertarians. However, the idea of enabling greater choice and experimentation with government is intended to give rise to a number of competing systems of governance, many of which will not be based on typical libertarian policies. This has attracted progressives, traditionalists, technocrats, and environmentalists alike.

One of your founders, Patri Friedman, along with Paul Romer a leading academic on the concept of Charter cities, recently attempted to help institute a free city on land in Honduras as part of the Charter City movement. Why is the ocean a better bet than land?

Professor Tom W. Bell recently gave an excellent talk that explains the differences between Romer’s Charter City approach and Patri’s concept with Future Cities Development. In both cases, the biggest challenge of trying to establish alternative jurisdictions on land is working with an existing government and population, who perceive outsiders as encroaching on their precious territory. Seasteading avoids this by venturing out to the only truly unclaimed portion of the planet – the high seas. There are also benefits of the ocean for certain business models – both those that rely on the ocean’s natural and geographical features (i.e., aquaculture, renewable ocean energy, and anything that involves dynamic geographical positioning), and those that rely on the unique legal freedoms of international waters (i.e., medical tourism, and all forms of experimentation with governance).

Do you believe the environment of the oceans would be better or worse off if the oceans were entirely under private ownership? Would that be a possible consequence if seasteading was adopted en mass?

Regardless of whether human activity on the oceans increases, human activity on land will continue to be the driver of pollution (via runoff and debris) and ocean acidification (via increasing atmospheric CO2). The lack of defined property rights on the ocean has certainly contributed to overfishing, but we don’t advocate privatizing the oceans, per se, and in fact the Law of the Sea forbids any group or nation from purporting any area of the high seas to be under their control. We see hope for seasteads to engineer more sustainable forms of food and energy production, some of which may actually sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and reduce humanity’s overall harmful ecological footprint. If you are curious I can provide you more details on some of the entrepreneurs in our community working on these business models.

Will individual or grouped seasteads seek recognition as states under international law? If not, what would be their designation and how would you expect them to be treated by states recognized under international law?

In the long run, once seasteads have large enough populations and a reputation as responsible actors, they can try to achieve sovereign recognition through treaties and eventually the UN. In the near term, they will have to rely on treaties with specific countries who allow them to locate within their territorial waters, or they will have to utilize open registry flagging, and maintain vessel status. Both of these near-term arrangements allow for substantial autonomy, and constitute a form of free market competition among nations to offer the most attractive terms for the seastead owners and residents in exchange for the economic benefits the seastead can provide.

Other than medical research that has some legal restrictions, what constraints imposed by American society is seasteading meant to liberate participants from? What can you do on a seastead in international waters that you can’t do in America that is worth doing?

Great question. There is a for-profit seasteading venture called Blueseed, which aims to house foreign entrepreneurs on a live/work space that serves as a technology startup incubator, located on a cruise ship just 12 nautical miles off the coast of the United States. Immigration restrictions continue to limit opportunity and innovation around the world – by reducing the barriers of arbitrary borders, seasteads can facilitate new combinations of human and financial capital.

There is also a sense in which we have become passive subjects in a democracy that has grown too large and sclerotic to be held accountable, or to truly represent our individual values. Opening up a frontier for “startup governments” will allow for entrepreneurs to innovative more effective forms of representation, and make the “governance industry” generally more competitive.

As a final example, much of what’s holding renewable energy back has to do with regulatory hurdles and confusing overlapping jurisdictions. The entire sunny county of San Bernardino, for example, just put a moratorium on new solar installations. Wind power would be cost competitive with coal and natural gas in many parts of the midwest if it were possible to lay cable across multiple stakeholders’ properties without encountering mountains of red tape and hordes of NIMBYs. A new frontier will open up these possibilities, and many that we haven’t even thought of yet.

How is citizenship established for a seastead? Is it a right, a privilege, or a commodity?

Until seasteads begin to scale up and attempt to become actual sovereign nations, residents will likely retain their old citizenship and be governed by a combination of the rules of their country of origin, the flag state of the vessel/platform, and various forms of private law. A European Law professor, Jan Smits, has written some interesting papers on how private law is likely to evolve in ways that diminish the importance of national citizenship. If you have time, I would recommend this one.

In the event seasteading becomes lucrative, how will seasteaders protect themselves from both pirates and other countries? Won’t seasteads eventually be forced to accept international norms for protection and wouldn’t that make them just like every other country?

Again, great question. Flagging and the other arrangements I’ve mentioned will provide a baseline status and protection under international law, and we speculate that seasteads will additionally employ their own security – using technology wherever possible to save the expense of a standing army or police force. There have been no reported pirate attacks on ships with armed guards. Competition and innovation will once again hopefully be the drivers of improvements in the trade-offs between safety and liberty.

The Seasteading Institute has said that part of the impetus for seasteading is to create competition between states that you believe will lead to greater innovation. Contributions to your Indiegogo project are tax­ deductible for U.S. citizens. Should the U.S. government be funding its competition?

It is a misconception that competition has to be zero-sum, or that seasteads should be perceived as adversaries of existing governments. Land governments can’t try out certain policies on a large scale because the costs of failure are perceived as being too high. Seasteads will be able to test out new ideas on a smaller scale, and demonstrate what works and what doesn’t. Land governments will be able to learn the lessons without any of the cost or risk.

How do you measure your performance and progress? What would it take for you to consider seasteading successful?

Multiple metropolis-sized floating cities, each with millions of people, dynamically reconfiguring themselves according to the changing needs and desires of the citizens. We measure progress by the number of dedicated pioneers, entrepreneurs and experts who are applying their talents to making seasteading happen, through research, advocacy and business development. (more…)

Dan Wright

Dan Wright

Daniel Wright is a longtime blogger and currently writes for Shadowproof. He lives in New Jersey, by choice.