By Mason Carteri
In the last two decades the construction of autonomous communities floating on the open ocean, known as seasteading, has become increasingly popular among libertarians and other political theorists. With support from billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel, the idea has even garnered some mainstream attention. To seasteading advocates, it represents a chance to start fresh by building a new society and government, completely free from the tyranny, corruption, and inefficiency they see in many contemporary mainland states.
The idea of a completely fresh start, where the social and political orders are to be made from the ground up using all of mankind’s philosophical and historical knowledge, while leaving ineffective traditional practices or the status quo behind, has been extremely appealing to social and political thinkers, especially libertarians. To some libertarians like Thiel, seasteading and similar projects where the old state is left completely behind are the only way to break out from the continuum of overly intrusive or downright oppressive government. Understanding that a total overthrow of contemporary society is unfeasible, and would most likely produce significant suffering and chaos, these individuals opt instead for concepts like seasteading that, in theory at least, would allow them to start their own utopian society, free from the oppressions and biases of existing governments. The dream is often a nearly stateless floating community where government only exists to protect the basic rights of each citizen, and the people remain mainly free and autonomous.
Seasteading advocates believe that without an oppressive and cumbersome state to hold them down, the floating cities could become a haven for medical and scientific development, as well as medical tourism, banking, and gambling. Supporters argue that this would keep the platforms economically sound and self-sufficient, and that these speculative new technologies could provide necessary services to the rest of the world that might otherwise have been lost in layers of red tape.
Just a few years ago, the movement was at a peak when the Seasteading Institute, the project’s main advocacy group, reached an agreement with the government of French Polynesia and the organization Blue Frontiers to begin construction on the first “floating cities” off the coast of the small island nation. According to the New York Times, the Floating Island Project was projected to cost about $60 million for the construction of a dozen artificial habitats by 2020.
However, the seasteading movement suffered a recent setback when the French Polynesian government cancelled the agreement this year after significant public outcry. As Business Insider reports, many Polynesians feared that they would gain little to nothing from the project, while their country would be subject to “tech colonialism.” With the public pressure increasing and opposition parties planning to make the agreement an issue in the next election, the ruling Tapura Huiraatira party appears to have decided that the project was more trouble than it was worth.
While critics have been quick to name this the end of the seasteading interests and their dreams of a libertarian utopia, the Seasteading Institute and fervent supporters like Peter Thiel continue to argue that the idea is still feasible – to them, this is just a minor setback in their long quest for political paradise.
Critics have also leveled several broader claims of infeasibility, as well as immorality, at the seasteading project. Some, like those in French Polynesia opposed to the project, argue that the man made islands would be nothing more than tax-havens and miniature paradises for the ultra-rich, allowing them to live away from the common man and avoid paying out their “fair share.” Similarly, Professor Peter Newman at Curtin University argues that the high-cost nature of the project would likely raise the barrier to entry for each microstate so high that only the ultra-rich could even afford to move to a seastead.
Additionally, skeptics like Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute argue that the seasteads would be unable to resist external pressures from the established governments on Earth, and so they would likely succumb to the domination of the state regardless, either as puppet-states or annexed properties of traditional countries. Newman also describes the seastead idea as extremely undesirable because, by necessity, it commands distance from the amenities and culture of land-based life. To Newman, even a self-sustaining seastead would likely be cramped, boring, and lacking significantly in most goods and services it could not produce itself.
Could seasteading really be the future of human social and political advancement? Or will the movement burn out or burn down like other utopian visions in the past? With a sizeable base of both skeptics and loyal supporters, the future of seasteading remains to be seen. Considering current trends in technological and economic development in the US and around the world, it appears that the question may be answered in the next few decades.