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Don't Like The Government? Make Your Own, On International Waters

Dec 17, 2012
Originally published on December 17, 2012 10:19 pm

Almost all of us have complaints about the government, which probably range from high taxes to too much bureaucracy. Periodically, we get to take our frustrations out at the voting booth. But no matter how unhappy you may be, you probably never thought, "I'm going get out of here and go start my own country."

A group of rich techies in Northern California is planning on starting its own nation on artificial islands in the ocean. They call themselves "seasteaders" and are sort of a mix between geeks and hippies.

The visionary behind the group is Patri Friedman. The former Google software engineer also happens to be the grandson of the Nobel Prize-winning economist and free marketeer Milton Friedman.

It's his voice that opens a trailer for a documentary about the seasteaders. As his words float above visuals of rolling waves we hear what sounds like a vision of paradise at sea.

Friedman imagines that on these islands there will be "a lot of tourism from the world. The most cutting-edge hospital facilities on the planet. Probably the largest fish farms in the world."

And for foodies: "Best sushi you can imagine."

For-Profit Communities

The seasteaders have been meeting regularly at bars in Silicon Valley and San Francisco to discuss their plans for creating nations at sea.

One meeting at a bar in Millbrae, Calif., drew a mix of people with long hair, beards and wizened faces; casually dressed engineer types; and a few suits. It was mostly guys.

There was a lot of chatter about what's wrong with our country — everything from the school systems and the bickering in Washington to the rising price of health care and long lines at the department of motor vehicles.

"They just want to avoid taxes so they can own what they make," says filmmaker Adam Jones, who became part of the group because he shares their frustration. "So they can truly be free and that's the nature of true liberty and that's what the founders wanted in America."

There's revolution in the air here.

Michael Keenan, the former president of The Seasteading Institute, opens the meeting. The institute is a nonprofit that helps get backing for groups that want to start island nations.

Keenan leads the discussion, which is all about the practicalities of life at sea: everything from desalinating sea water, to using waves to create electricity, to figuring out how to build homes.

But it certainly doesn't sound like the rough and tumble lives of the Back-to-the-Land Movement in the 1960s. Keenan says seasteaders will most likely begin life "with retrofitted cruise ships and barges" docked in international waters.

He says they are also working on ways to create artificial islands using technology from oil rigs.

But if hippies in the 1960s were talking about communities built on love, this group is talking about communities built around profit.

"That is the core of the future of seasteading: sustainable businesses," Keenan says. "And so our huge focus right now is on basically enabling more seasteading business."

Vote With Your Boat

The seasteaders do have some hefty backers. Among them is Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and PayPal, and of course Patri Friedman.

Like his grandfather, Friedman is a believer in free markets and would like to see a libertarian nation on the ocean. But the ocean is big, and Friedman sees room for plenty of different kinds of governments.

"If we can figure out how to let people create startup countries, they might start different laws and institutions and constitutions," he says.

Friedman says there can be competition between the nations over the best form of government the same way there is in business. People could pick their government the way they do computers and coffee.

"What if I got the same type of service from my government that I do from Apple and Starbucks?" he says. "What an awesome world that would be!"

But Friedman's comparison to businesses raises red flags for Holly Folk, an expert on alternative communities.

"It's difficult for me to respond positively to a movement that says, 'OK, let's create a carve out for people who have the resources to in some ways game the global system,' " she says.

Folk thinks if the seasteaders got in trouble on the high seas they'd probably need help from taxpayer-supported services like the Coast Guard.

A professor at Western Washington University, Folk has studied a lot of alternative communities within the U.S. She says the ones with shared religious beliefs, like the Pilgrims, last the longest.

Many alternative communities start out with lofty ideals, she says, but the challenges of sharing resources and living together are often greater than people imagine.

Folk says the seasteaders might find it even more challenging because of their "individualist, libertarian flavor."

"You're talking about a worldview that's going to be attractive to people who are in some ways probably not hard-wired to behave and take orders very well," she says.

Folk says the history of the U.S. is littered with intentional communities that fell apart. Some run out of money and then bicker over who gets the last piece of bacon; others don't last because the second generation doesn't want to keep the community going.

But, Friedman says, the beauty of his vision is choice. Just like you can pick what computer to buy, you can pick your government.

"I won't go there if it looks like it's going to be Lord of the Flies," he says.

Friedman says no one is being forced into this.

"So people aren't going to go there unless it looks like it's safe," he says.

The first community that calls itself a seastead doesn't really sound like a country or even a community. It wants to put a ship off the coast of San Francisco so that entrepreneurs who can't get a green card can start a business and still be close to Silicon Valley. The community expects to launch in 2014 — and expects to be profitable.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Plenty of people complain about taxes and government bureaucracy, but most of them don't get so fed up that they try to start a brand-new country of their own. But that is exactly what a group of wealthy techies say they plan to do. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, these "seasteaders" want to start their own nation at sea by creating artificial islands.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Patri Friedman's vision of seasteading sounds like paradise.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

PATRI FRIEDMAN: A lot of tourism from the world; the most cutting-edge hospital facilities on the planet; probably the largest fish farms in the world - best sushi you can imagine.

SYDELL: In this documentary, Friedman's words float over a sparkling ocean. Then, computer-generated images of cities on platforms rise out of the water. Friedman's dream has caught on with certain types of tech professionals, particularly the strand of Silicon Valley that's always been a mix of tech and hippie culture - at least, superficially. At a meeting tonight at a bar in Millbrae, California, there are guys with long hair, beards and wizened faces; mixed in with casually dressed engineer types and a few suits. And it is mostly guys. There's a lot of chatter about what's wrong with our country - the school systems, the bickering in Washington, the rising price of health care, long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Filmmaker Adam Jones came to be part of the group because he shares their frustrations.

ADAM JONES: They just want to avoid taxes so they can own what they make; so they can be truly free. And that's the nature of true liberty, and that's what the founders wanted in America.

SYDELL: There's revolution in the air here. In the 1960s, hippies started communes on farms. But this group wants to build their own country in the ocean.

MICHAEL KEENAN: Hello, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Speech!

SYDELL: Michael Keenan is the former president of the Seasteading Institute. The discussion flows from stuff like desalinating seawater, to using waves to create electricity, to how to build homes at sea.

KEENAN: We'll most likely start with retrofitted cruise ships and barges. That is what the current seasteading ventures are looking at.

SYDELL: That's right - cruise ships docked out in international waters. The seasteaders are also working on artificial islands, designed using technology from oil rigs. But if hippies of the 1960s were talking about communities built on love, this group is talking about communities built around profit.

KEENAN: That is the core of the future of seasteading: sustainable businesses. And so our huge focus right now is on, basically, enabling more seasteading businesses.

SYDELL: The seasteaders do have some hefty backers; among them Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and PayPal. Founding visionary Patri Friedman is a former Google software engineer, and the grandson of the Nobel Prize-winning free market economist Milton Friedman. Friedman wants to create a libertarian nation. But the ocean is big, and he sees room for plenty of different kinds of governments.

FRIEDMAN: And so if we can figure out how to let people create start-up countries, they might try different laws and institutions and constitutions to achieve those. And we'll see what works and what doesn't, and kind of get progress and government from that.

SYDELL: Friedman imagines that if the people could pick governments the way they do computers and coffee, they'd find a better way to run a country.

FRIEDMAN: Well, what if I got the same type of service from my government that I do from Apple, or from Starbucks? Like, what an awesome world that would be.

SYDELL: Friedman's comparison to businesses raises red flags for Holly Folk, an expert on alternative communities.

HOLLY FOLK: It's difficult for me to respond positively to a movement that says OK, let's create a carve-out for people who have the resources to, in some ways, game the global system.

SYDELL: Folk thinks if the seasteaders got in trouble on the high seas, they'd probably need help from taxpayer-supported services like, say, the Coast Guard. Folk, a professor at Western Washington University, has studied a lot of alternative communities within the U.S. She says the ones with shared religious beliefs - say, like the Pilgrims - last the longest. Folk says many communities start out with lofty ideals. But the challenges of sharing resources, and living together, are often greater than people imagine.

FOLK: And when we think about something like seasteading - that has an individualist, libertarian flavor to it - you're talking about a worldview that's going to be attractive to people who, in some ways, are probably not hard-wired to behave and take orders very well.

SYDELL: Folk says the history of the U.S. is littered with intentional communities that fell apart. Some run out of money, and then bicker over who gets the last piece of bacon. Others don't last because the second generation doesn't want to keep the community going. But Patri Friedman says the beauty of his vision, is choice. Just like you can pick what computer to buy, you can pick your government.

FRIEDMAN: I won't go there, if it looks like it's going to be "Lord of the Flies" - right? So the great thing about this is that nobody is forced into it. You know, it's not like building a wall around East Berlin. So people aren't going to go there, unless it looks like it's safe.

SYDELL: The first community that calls itself a seastead doesn't really sound like a country - or even a community. They want to put a ship off the coast of San Francisco so that entrepreneurs who can't get a green card can start a business, and still be close to Silicon Valley. They expect to launch in 2014, and they expect to be profitable.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.