Seasteading and Dynamic Geography

Over at Ars Technica, I have an in-depth discussion of seasteading, an effort by a group of Silicon Valley libertarians to develop technology for living on the open oceans in a cost-effective manner. They argue that government is an industry with excessive barriers to entry, and they aim to change that by creating a turnkey solution for starting your own community.

History is littered with utopian projects, libertarian and otherwise, that fell far short of their lofty goals. At first glance, the Seasteading Institute looks like just another utopian scheme. But there are at least two reasons to think this one might accomplish more than its predecessors. First, recognizing that it would take many decades to develop a self-sufficient ocean metropolis, Friedman and his partners have chosen to focus largely on short-term engineering challenges. They want to build cheap, durable sea platforms that anyone can purchase. Second, they’ve raised half a million dollars from Peter Thiel, the libertarian entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal and is now a major investor in Facebook. Thiel’s backing will allow them to move beyond the extensive background work they’ve already done and begin the expensive task of actually designing and building their first prototype, which they hope to splash down in San Francisco Bay in the next few years.

Will this ultimately lead to the creation of libertarian metropolises in the open ocean? There are certainly lots of reasons to be skeptical. But there are also plenty of examples of technological change undermining existing hierarchies of authority. The invention of the printing press helped to undermine the authority of the Catholic church by democratizing access to knowledge. And in the 1960s, “pirate radio” ships, operating in international waters, helped to undermine many European states’ monopoly on radio broadcasting by beaming the latest pop tunes to eager European listeners. In this month’s Cato unbound, we’re talking about the ways that technological change is challenging traditional copyright law. Swedish copyright activist Rasmus Fleischer kicks things off arguing that advances in Internet connectivity and portable digital storage will make it effectively impossible for the authorities to control the dissemination of copyrighted works. My reaction to his essay will be up tomorrow.

Hence, policy changes are frequently the result of technological progress. Hierarchical institutions often exert control through the exploitation of technological limitations. The Catholic Church exploited the high costs of reproducing the written word; today’s copyright industries are built on the formerly-high costs of reproducing copyrighted works. By the same token, today’s governments owe much of their authority to the high costs of changing jurisdictions. The technology of seasteading may change that by allowing “dynamic geography,” a situation in which any part of society is free to exit and take their homes and businesses with them. It may take many decades for this vision to be realized, if it can be realized at all. But it’s fun to see someone at least giving it a shot.

North Carolina: REAL ID Implementation on Hold

North Carolina is not one of the states that has joined the REAL ID Rebellion. By all accounts, it was plodding along, getting ready to implement the federal government’s national ID mandate.

But now comes news that the changes North Carolina had planned are on hold. “ ‘The Real ID Act is pretty much at a standstill nationwide,’ said Marge Howell, a spokeswoman for the Division of Motor Vehicles,” according to one report:

As a means of complying with the federal Real ID Act, the state DMV had planned on implementing a requirement that people who apply for a new or renewed driver’s license start producing documentation showing the motorist’s proof of identity and legal address beginning Dec. 1. That has now been delayed.

Another change, set to begin on July 1, requires the DMV to mail a motorist’s license to a residential address instead of instantly issuing a license. Howell said that program won’t go into effect statewide at the beginning of July. Instead, the DMV plans to phase that program in.

Even the compliant states are getting the message that REAL ID is a non-starter.

I recently queried whether one of the largest companies producing driver’s licenses would continue to agitate for the national ID law or embrace a diverse, competitive identification and credentialing marketplace.

Gates vs. Fighters

The Secretary of Defense must read Cato-at-Liberty. I suggested Thursday that Robert Gates should break 25 years of fighter pilot rule over the Air Force when he picks Buzz Moseley’s replacement. And voila. General Norton Schwartz, who was head of US Transportation Command (the logistics center for the military, essentially) has experience as a C-130 (airlift) pilot and in Air Force Special Operations Command. He has even written about using AC-130 gunships to support urban combat operations.

This is the kind of guy the Army would pick to run the Air Force. The Air Force fighter leadership apparently wanted to elevate Gen. John Corley, commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, a former F-15 guy, to the top spot. Not only did Gates not do that, he moved Schwartz’s deputy from Transcom, Lieutenant General William Fraser III, a three-star former bomber pilot, to Vice Chief of the Air Force.

Gates is slapping around the figher mafia that runs (ran?) the Air Force. The chances of F-22 procurement going beyond 183 (the Air Force, at least until today, wanted 381) just went down, although Congress and the next administration will have something to say about that. The China threat inflation coming from the Air Force should diminish. The Air Force’s commitment to supporting Army led counter-insurgency campaigns will increase. The cries that the Air Force is underfunded will soften.

Delegate Norton, Congressional Dems Set to Cut Educational Lifeline, Parents “Befuddled”

The Washington Post reports today that D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is working on a plan to kill the voucher program that enables close to 2,000 children in the District to attend good private schools. Anticipating an expansion of a Democratic majority in Congress and possible takeover of the presidency, Norton believes the program will end next year.

Norton admitted that in her conversations with parents, “They looked completely befuddled” at learning that the voucher program might be killed. I’m sure those parents can’t understand why politicians want to eliminate a small program that lets some lucky students escape from DC’s failing, dilapidated, and often dangerous schools.

These parents don’t understand that the priority for many politicians is giving kickbacks to teachers unions, not the welfare of kids or taxpayers.

Studies consistently demonstrate that choice increases parental satisfaction, student achievement and saves money. As Andrew Coulson noted in a recent oped, the District spends more than $24,000, in contrast to the maximum $7,500 voucher, on each child and still can’t ensure a safe, let alone adequate, education.

“We have to protect the children, who are the truly innocent victims here,” explained voucher opponent Norton, apparently without irony.

Instead of conspiring to send nearly 2,000 children back to one of the worst public school systems in the country, Norton and other Democrats should keep the D.C. voucher program and expand school choice through other methods such as education tax credits. We need to put more power in the hands of parents instead of a corrupt and union-dominated school system.

Killing DC’s voucher program would be a cruel and indefensible exercise in special-interest pandering.

Civil Liberties and Business

The Washington Legal Foundation has just published a Special Report: Federal Erosion of Business Civil Liberties (pdf).  Looks like a comprehensive analysis of the ongoing trend at the federal level to criminalize ordinary business activity. 

Check out this admission from the SEC’s Paul Atkins: “What is astonishing is that the attorney-client privilege, one of the foundational rights on which rests Anglo-American legal culture … should now be under siege.  The two federal agencies that have been most vigorous in seeking waiver of the attorney-client privilege have been the Department of Justice and – unfortunately, I must say – the Securities and Exchange Commission.”  Well, admitting the problem is the first step toward addressing the problem.  But notice the way he makes his agency appear uncontrollable.  It’s a fairly common tactic here in the capital.  Senators talk about “runaway spending” as if the federal budget was on some sort of auto-pilot.  And then they name highways and buildings after themselves to memorialize their “public service” and “leadership.”

When the status quo becomes politically unacceptable, Congress ought to abolish corporate welfare and restore the attorney-client privilege and other legal safeguards.

Related Cato work here and here.

A Flat Tax in New Brunswick?

Canada’s Atlantic provinces historically have been statist, but decades of big government have not worked and now policy makers are looking to adopt a growth-friendly 10 percent flat tax to boost the economy.

Alberta already has a flat tax, which has worked well, so tax competition is having a positive impact on Canadian fiscal policy. The Telegraph Journal has more details:

The New Brunswick government is considering a fundamental rebalancing of the tax system tilting towards consumption taxes and relieving citizens and businesses from the burden of hefty income taxes with a flat tax by 2012. Finance Minister Victor Boudreau released the government’s discussion document on tax reform on Wednesday that proposes replacing the system of four different tax brackets with a single rate of 10 per cent, which would tie the province with Alberta for the lowest tax rate. Large businesses also stand to gain under the various proposals that could see their corporate taxes fall from 13 per cent as far as five per cent, giving it the lowest rate in Canada. …To pay for the deep tax cuts, the document is suggesting the Harmonized Sales Tax be raised by two per cent, essentially moving into the tax room vacated by the federal government. …Niels Veldhuis, a senior economist at the Fraser Institute, insisted the 10 per cent single rate would act as an incentive to keep young New Brunswickers home and attract new immigrants to the province. “I would label this as a revolutionary document because it doesn’t focus on one aspect of the tax system. It goes through and delineates what are the major problems with New Brunswick’s taxes, from personal income tax, corporate income tax, to capital taxes to property taxes,” Veldhuis said. “I think this is a model for the other provinces because these are very important topics; the province should be commended for putting this out there and the aggressiveness.” Finn Poschmann, the director of research for the C.D. Howe Institute, said a flat tax will also be a benefit for families. “Flat rate tax makes life a little bit simpler, that is worth something,” Poshmann said. “For flattening the tax system is good for rewarding investment, rewarding work so when you take on an extra shift or get some overtime pay, you don’t blast up through the bracket schedule.” …Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University, said…the Liberals appear to be outflanking [the Tories] on the taxation issue. “It is consistent with the government’s general view that it needs to market to play a greater role in economic development,” Bateman said. “In that respect that would put the Liberal Shawn Graham government firmly on the right of the political spectrum. This should make every Progressive Conservative blush I would think.”