Libertarians plan to build floating islands to house casinos, hospitals, hotels, offices—and even new societies. Will the “seasteading” movement sink or float?by Eamonn Fingleton / March 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
András Gyõrfi’s The Swimming City, winner of the Seasteading Institute’s first 3D design competition in 2009
The year is 2020 and I have just turned 72. Not far off the California coast, I and several other wobbly-looking people are on a boat, chugging towards a bizarre floating structure. From a distance, it looks like a luxury hotel, or something from a James Bond movie—but it’s an orthopaedic hospital. Beside fond memories of 1968, one thing most people of my generation now share is aching bones and, in the US at least, inadequate health insurance. Hence my decision, and that of my onboard companions, to visit the first purpose-built floating hospital. Its offshore location, and the tax and labour cost advantages that brings, means it can radically undercut its onshore US competitors.
It sounds far-fetched, but a small number of influential people are talking up a future in which the high seas will be increasingly commandeered for unconventional purposes. “Seasteading,” as it is called, seems to have been coined as a term by Ken Neumeyer, whose 1981 book Sailing the Farm pioneered the concept. Besides hospitals, there could be casinos, hotels, prisons, aquaculture businesses or simply new homes for communities who want to live in isolation. And new technologies could make seasteading a reality within a decade.
Why bother? For some enthusiasts the answer is pragmatic: certain types of business can be conducted more efficiently at sea. But others, such as Patri Friedman, view the idea in a political light. He is director of the Seasteading Institute, founded in Palo Alto in 2008. A personable former Google engineer, he was once named one of “the sexiest geeks alive” and is a grandson of the economist Milton Friedman.
Unsurprisingly, given his heritage, Patri Friedman is inspired by libertarian ideas—particularly those of the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand—and views the sea largely as a last refuge from taxes and regulations. So do others on the institute’s board, including Michael Strong, head of the non-profit organisation Freedom Lights Our World. Friedman believes seasteaders will establish independent nations—“micronations”—in international waters beyond the reach of governments. These could be peopled by economic migrants from developing countries, or ethnic minorities fleeing legal oppression in their homeland. A micronation could be a potential haven for religious sects such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a small pro-polygamy offshoot of the Mormon church. Or, perhaps, for gay people from the Muslim world fleeing sharia law.