Another Day in a Floating Libertarian Paradise

So there's been a bit of discussion about libertarians who want to establish a bunch of off-shore countries on floating oil-rig type platforms that would be lil' loonitarian paradises:

Thiel has been a big backer of the Seasteading Institute, which seeks to build sovereign nations on oil rig-like platforms to occupy waters beyond the reach of law-of-the-sea treaties. The idea is for these countries to start from scratch--free from the laws, regulations, and moral codes of any existing place. Details says the experiment would be "a kind of floating petri dish for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons."

"There are quite a lot of people who think it's not possible," Thiel said at a Seasteading Institute Conference in 2009, according to Details. (His first donation was in 2008, for $500,000.) "That's a good thing. We don't need to really worry about those people very much, because since they don't think it's possible they won't take us very seriously. And they will not actually try to stop us until it's too late."

The Seasteading Institute's Patri Friedman says the group plans to launch an office park off the San Francisco coast next year, with the first full-time settlements following seven years later.

My first thought was "If a bunch of pompous rich libertarians want to go Galt and leave the U.S., well, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out." And I'm sure there's some entrepreneurial Somalian pirate who sees a glorious opportunity here. I think Atrios' take on the whole undertaking is exactly right:

In practice, of course, even libertarian paradises would have laws. And means for changing and enforcing those laws. And an evolving concept of just what the community wants. Ultimately I suppose some hybrid of Lord of the Flies and Gated Community in Irvine, CA, would emerge and then, you know, collapse. Maybe it's what happened to the "lost colony" of Roanoke.

Consider this conception of what one of the communities collectives paradises might look like:

(from here)

First, they live in apartment buildings. Like it or not, they'll need housing codes. For instance, can you smoke in the building? Smoke in apartment buildings, even nice ones, tends to enter other apartments. What constitutes a disturbance? One person's annoying racket is someone else's late night beautiful tuba serenade. Keep in mind, this will be a self-selected community of people who hate being told what to do. Then look at the park in the front left corner. Will dogs be allowed in it? Will owners have to clean up after the dogs? Will dogs be kept on leashes? What if people damage the grass? And let's think about the swimming pool. Will people be allowed to listen to radios while sitting next to it? Kinda annoying for the people who live surrounding the pool. Will late night cannonballs be allowed?

Then let's look at this figure:


Look at that freighter. When will it be allowed to dock? What if the business owners want early morning deliveries, but the residents don't like being woken up at 5am? (a problem familiar to any urban dweller).

While this might be nitpicky, this is exactly the kind of stuff that needs to be resolved. How will it be resolved? If there's a list of rules imposed by the founder/owner, what happens if the rules need to be changed (or added to) as will inevitably happen? Will these rules be adopted democratically?

The real question is what happens to rule breakers, or, even those who simply are on the 'losing side' of a decision. You will need some kind of enforcement mechanism to expel lawbreakers anti-Galtian personalities.

This all sounds kinda like gummint. AAAIIIEEE!!!

Frankly, I think they're just trying to avoid taxes.

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Not to mention the fact that these things wouldn't survive the first good gale that hit them. . . It's hard enough to set up a drilling rig in deep water, let alone a permanent island that's supposed to house dozens if not hundreds of people. Plus, where are they going to get their supplies? Most oil rigs have supply boats running to them daily or weekly, but these libertarians probably won't want to trade with the oppressive US.

By captainahags (not verified) on 20 Aug 2011 #permalink

Are you kidding? This is the best idea ever! Taking hundreds of petty, selfish, isolationist, arrogant, entitled, maladjusted, Galt wanna-be's and trapping them together on a fragile and precarious structure hundreds of miles from any help? It's reality TV gold! It'll be like Jersey Shore, but for engineers!

And, how are they going to finance this venture? I propose a block-buster Reality Show, complete with High (or Low) Drama, and Clashing Egos. Heck, I'd watch it, and I hate reality shows!

By JoeBuddha (not verified) on 20 Aug 2011 #permalink

Someone got the wrong idea from "Bioshock."

By albanaeon (not verified) on 20 Aug 2011 #permalink


Plus, where are they going to get their supplies?

Perhaps more importantly, where are they going to put their supplies? Food, fuel and other consumables for hundreds of people for a week must take up an impressive volume of space -- space that just isn't there on an oil rig inhabited by hundreds of people.

"The engineers, scientists, mechanics, skilled craftsmen? Oh, they'll be established on the THIRD island. Which we just started building. Will have it finished any year now."

The first thing these people are going to learn is that government is an emergent form. Two, perhaps three people, can live without operating principles and some established mechanism for compromise, and force if need be, in a word: government.

It could be entertaining. Stuff a couple hundred heavily armed Galts on an artificial island with limited resources and a failing infrastructure and you have a drama. An interesting twist is that there will be an inherent conflict between the true believers who felt the call, sold everything, and moved out to the platform; and the independently wealthy people who maintain a fallback position in an established nation.

What happens when a hurricane comes along and the rig starts breaking up. Do they call in the Coast Guard? Or do they go down with their illusions.

I think that their biggest problem will come from limited space. It seems to me that many of the people who want to live a libertarian lifestyle are exurban types living on a few acres all to themselves and that they don't like neighbors poking into their business. This kind of situation would not be appealing to most of them, so it would mostly be inhabited with urban geeks. "Don't fence me in" will not go over well.
Another problem might be a male dominated sex ratio. But then, polyandry and prostitution would be OK so that might take care of some problems but introduce the need for some regulation [shudder].
And who is going to do the scutwork? And where will the necessary servants live?

By natural cynic (not verified) on 20 Aug 2011 #permalink

You know, these guys aren't going to take a boat to get there. Too slow. They'll take a helicopter, or at least some of them will. Those things are real noisy. You want to live near a helicopter landing pad (ask the folks in James Bay, Victoria, BC, who live near the Canadian Coast Guard's helicopter pad).

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 20 Aug 2011 #permalink

It would be interesting to come back in fifty years if this went big. I suppose the result would be a mix of the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong and Hashima Island.

There is a nice overview, along with other abandoned places, here:

There are big differences. Both are on land, and both had strong economic reasons for existing. Kowloon Walled City filled gap left by international relations and was, for a good time, a functioning society and economic entity. Hashima is a tiny island that has coal and it functioned as long as the need for coal justified the maintenance of the society to mine it.

A libertarian platform stobbed into an ocean far from national boundaries has few economic or political reasons to exist and it would be primarily driven by ideology and a series of tragically misapprehended understandings of how societies function.

That said there is a lot of randomness and haunting beauty in the pictures from the walled city and Hashima Island and it would be interesting to see what the remains of a Libertarian paradise might look like.

This is the contrast that amuses me the most

seeks to build sovereign nations on oil rig-like platforms to occupy waters beyond the reach of law-of-the-sea treaties

looser building codes

'cause looser building codes are exactly what you want when your very existence depends on solid construction, right?

By Lynxreign (not verified) on 20 Aug 2011 #permalink

This is all assuming that more than a fraction of the citizens actually live there. I'm going with the tax dodge angle, with timeshares and PO boxes for the majority of the "residents".

Jules Verne already described what's going to happen.


...a series of tragically misapprehended understandings of how societies function.

That is perhaps the best phrase I've seen to describe this sort of nonsense.

It's amazing how one can take basic and very sensible libertarian principles like, "People behave according to incentives," and, "Free markets usually produce better results than planned ones," to such an extreme that you end up crackpot proposals like this. It's almost as though these people have never actually seen a society operating.


Then look at the park in the front left corner. Will dogs be allowed in it? Will owners have to clean up after the dogs? Will dogs be kept on leashes?

This is a Libertarian paradise. This won't be a public park. It will be privately owned and the owner will set those rules in order to maximize his profit by attracting the most customers.

Somewhere down the line, he'll probably figure out that running a grassy park is a ridiculously inefficient and unprofitable use of precious square footage on a floating platform and shut it down in favor of other more sensible uses. So you see, the park won't be a major issue.

By Troublesome Frog (not verified) on 21 Aug 2011 #permalink

Let them do it. Also send some cameras and broadcast their idilic life, and we'll have a terrific new reality show to have fun at, much much better than any Big Brother season.

I would say tax dodge, but I think there are already lots of those that are much easier to do. This is a fantasy land for the "persecuted".
I think they should all go to Mexico and see how awesome it is to live without building codes and such rules. I love Mexico, and lived in Baja for years, but even in the best neighborhoods, buildings were sketchily built. And you can forget about reliable water and power. Oh, and no minimum wage! great for greedy foreigners, but awful for a nation. I almost forgot about being able to dump hazardous waster wherever you want, or put sewage int he streets or ocean- OH THE FREEDOM!

Don't they realize how dependent they would be on the rest of the world? Or do they think everyones going to play by their rules, and bring them food and such as they want it? What happens when they are invaded by some motivated thieves? I hope they don't expect our military to help them out. Talk about clueless when it comes to how society functions.

Is it wrong to hope for a massive wave or typhoon??????

( Sorry about the typos above comment. Should've previewed......)

Yeah, all people are born equal, but some are more equal than others.

Should be fun!

I don't see any wind turbines or solar panels, and you can bet there wouldn't be any because, y'know, libertarians hate the environment. So since they're far enough out to sea to be in international waters, we're talking about continuous docking of oil tankers.

Interesting to see a complete lack of any of the infrastructure required for this.

Interesting also to wonder just how many rich people are lining up to pay for the privilege of living in an oil refinery with all its attendant grime, hazards, and stinks. The "Jersey Shore" jokes were more on-point than most people probably realized.....

storage space for a few weeks' worth of supplies won't be a huge problem. aircraft carriers go to sea for longer periods of time between (at-sea) resupplies than that, with thousands of people aboard. granted that the Galt-wannabes wouldn't want to be crammed in like navy sailors, they'd also have more physical space than even a Nimitz class allows.

the huge problem will come in the impressive governmental infrastructure and support they'll need. think about their fire department, alone. most merchant navy sailors are trained in firefighting, because if a fire breaks out at sea, there's noone else to put it out. i'm assuming oil-rig workers probably are similarly trained, for all the obvious reasons. will these gazillionaires put up with regular hose-pulling practice and training? would they do any good in a real situation even if they did so train?

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 22 Aug 2011 #permalink

Don't build it like those pictures, 1st of all. 2nd, don't skimp on materials, make sound-proof walls and that's half the battle right there. In smaller communities people know their neighbors and aren't as careless and selfish as they've become today. It would be unthinkable to allow your dog to bark 24/7 if you knew all your neighbors would come to your door and MAKE you take responsibility. It's all about people willing to be responsible adults. If that's the criteria then they will absolutely succeed.

Who's going to clean those pools? And tend to those gardens? And clean those apartments? Oh well, I guess with no laws, indentured servitude can come back into style...

I presume they ARE using their own money. I wish 'em luck. If they fail, as I presume most of the experiments will, perhaps we'll learn how society in general can take those lessons and apply them to our future cities, in particular coastal cities. We certainly could use some creativity when it comes to urban planning as it is practiced now. Cheers.

Libertarianism is not against rules or laws per se, just government-supported initiation of the use of force. Saying that things remain to be resolved is kind of like creationists pointing out unsolved problems in evolution. Sure, there is a lot left to be done in terms of the exact relationship between many taxa, but that is hardly a threat to conclusions like common descent.

A voluntary system of rules (such as free market contracts) can be accepted without issue under libertarianism. Here is how it could play itself out on such a libertarian island: if you want to live there, you voluntarily sign a contract with the owner saying you will abide to the rules and if you do not you accept that you will be kicked out. Notice how getting kicked out after breaking the rules is is not the initiation of force, but merely a form of self-defense. Presumably, the island will try to be self-reliant as much as possible and kinks will be attempted to be settled by negotiations and rational discussion.

Now, I fully admit that this system might have horrible end-results. I fully admit that libertarianism may be seriously flawed. However, using the rhetorical one-liner "who will decide the housing rules?" like it is a strong case against this libertarian project is a poor argument and has about the same low level of persuasiveness as "what use is half a wing?".

kinks will be attempted to be settled by negotiations and rational discussion.

The likelihood of that happening with a bunch of sociopathic ideologues is somewhere between slim and none.

If the owner sets the rules then what you have is simply a dictatorship.

Notice how getting kicked out after breaking the rules is is not the initiation of force, but merely a form of self-defense.

This would be initiation of of force by the owner who is the de-facto government. Also who decides when the rules have been broken?

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 22 Aug 2011 #permalink

Emil k -

So, basically, I'd assume that there would be some sort of 'holding company', in which everyone had a share, that had responsibility for the day to day upkeep of the infrastructure, setting the various rules, making sure that contracts are adhered to and, I presume, mediating in disputes.

Sounds a lot like a government to me, but there you go.

Interestingly, if someone 'breaks their contract' by stealing from their neighbors (and getting the proceeds off-island), is the only sanction eviction?

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 22 Aug 2011 #permalink

It's not a tax dodge, it's a flat-out scam. Nobody is putting up anything like the money needed to actually build anything - just enough to keep the Seasteading Institute ticking over (on unpaid labour), so Thiel and his buddies get to play dress-up and hold important-sounding conferences in expensive locations. That is all.

Shame, really... The potential for comedy is practically unlimited.

Libertarianism is not against rules or laws per se, just government-supported initiation of the use of force.

As a matter of fact, libertarianism is certainly against irrational laws which cannot be substantiated on the basis of Reason. Libertarianism is certainly against many laws which are meant to act violent against victims of victimless crimes. Libertarianism has a rational idea of legality or illegality and a libertarian suggests rational concept about laws, laws should be morally/rationally sound and they should not be based on emotional outbursts.

I tried to make a debate about such emotionally supported by rationally challenged laws Logic of Legal or Illegal