Seasteading and Other Technologies for Liberty

I’ve been following Patri Friedman’s work on seasteading for a number of years, so I was excited to see him contribute the lead essay in this month’s Cato Unbound. I think he makes some good points about the difficulty of achieving a free society through ordinary electoral politics. As he points out, libertarians are a minority of the electorate and the political game is stacked against politicians who aren’t willing to use their power to reward special interests. So smart libertarians should be looking at options outside of campaigns and elections to make the world a freer place.

But I think it’s a huge and unwarranted leap to go from this observation about the limits of electoral politics to claim that “the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time” and that “academic research has enlarged our understanding but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state.” It’s not difficult to find examples of academic research that changed the world. One of the most important trends toward liberty in the United States during the last century, the deregulation of transportation and communication markets in the 1970s, came about because a small group of academics persuaded Washington policymakers that deregulation would benefit consumers (and, in the process, their own political prospects). It surely mattered that Margaret Thatcher was a devotee of Friedrich Hayek. And if Friedman will forgive me for personalizing the debate a little bit, he must be familiar with the role his own grandfather had in ending the draft, achieving (relatively) stable money, and inspiring the modern school choice movement.

Now, Friedman says he’s interested in living in an “actual free society.” He probably regards the above examples as merely “small incremental gains in freedom.” But if that’s his critique, he bears the burden of showing that his preferred approach, seasteading, will itself achieve an “actual free society” rather then mere “incremental gains.” I’m not so sure.

Friedman makes much of the distinction between “technology” on the one hand and “advocacy” on the other. He thinks technological approaches are better because they provide superior leverage: a group as small as a few hundred people may be able to permanently lower the barrier to entry to statehood and fundamentally transform the nation-state game.

It’s an appealing vision, but I don’t think the distinction between technology and advocacy is so stark. As my colleague Will Wilkinson has pointed out, ideology is a kind of infrastructure. The tools of persuasion — magazine columns and television specials, for example — are means of improving this infrastructure by spreading new and better ideas. Modern communications technologies offer a kind of leverage not so dissimilar to the leverage Friedman hopes to achieve through seasteading. A small group of talented people can permanently change public attitudes, thereby shifting the Overton Window and changing the constraints politicians face.

Indeed, it’s obvious that Friedman himself understands this on some level. You’ll notice that right now, he’s not spending his time at a dry dock constructing an actual seastead. Instead, he’s using the same technologies he derides in other contexts — giving talks, writing essays, giving media interviews — to spread a set of ideas that he thinks will change the world. Getting seasteading to actually happen is a collective action problem. The tools he needs to overcome that collective action problem are precisely the “folk activism” tactics that he derides in other contexts. I think he’s largely right that national elections are not an arena in which “folk activism” has much impact, but there are clearly circumstances in which those tactics do work, and blanket dismissal of those tactics is therefore misguided.

I think Friedman overestimates the extent to which successful seasteads would achieve revolutionary, rather than merely incremental, changes in the amount of freedom in the world. Friedman’s vision for the future is a floating Hong Kong surrounded by a billion-dollar breakwater. He’s not going to be satisfied with a bunch of glorified houseboats. So the society he hopes to build would be a complex system with many of the anti-libertarian tendencies that afflict today’s cities. He’s right, of course, that the power of that city’s leaders will be limited by the greater ease of exit. But a large fraction of the inhabitants of a floating Hong Kong would still be tied down by professional, family, and social ties. And as a consequence, the political leaders of such a society would still have considerable political power.

Therefore, large, permanent floating cities will only remain free if they’re built with good ideological infrastructure: with institutions and public attitudes conducive to liberty. That means that the efforts of libertarian public policy scholars is complementary to Friedman’s own organizational and engineering efforts. Their efforts can help in two ways. First, they can help to guide the founders of new seastead cities in making institutional design decisions that will maximize the likelihood that the society will remain free over the long run. Second and more importantly, the continued growth of the libertarian movement provides the seasteading movement with its most important input: “customers” who will instinctively understand the appeal of the seasteading project. Self-identified libertarians are likely to not only be the first people willing to join seasteads, but also the strongest advocates of preserving liberty within floating cities once they become firmly established.

It seems counterproductive for Friedman to spend his intellectual energies denigrating the efforts of those of us who have chosen to use communications technologies, rather than maritime technologies, to advance liberty. I predict that the technologies of persuasion we use at the Cato Institute will prove to be more important for the long-run success of liberty than the maritime technologies Friedman hopes to develop. But I’m glad that Friedman is experimenting with a different approach, and I would be thrilled to be proven wrong. If the seasteading movement does prove successful, I think it’s success will have been greatly accelerated by the existence of a large and enthusiastic audience that has been created and nurtured by the “folk activism” of the broader libertarian movement.