Patri Friedman: Permanent autonomous ocean communities, Seasteading Institute

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (July 2009) Tags: Permanent autonomous ocean communities Seasteading Institute City States


Patri Friedman

Patri Friedman (1976) holds a bachelor’s degree in math (HMC), MS in Computer Science (Stanford University) and an MBA (Cardean University).

Mr Friedman is Executive Director and Board Member of The Seasteading Institute and Board Member of Humanity+.

This interview focuses on plans of the Seasteading Institute to found permanent, autonomous ocean communities. What are the reasons for this desire? What challenges lie ahead in terms of international law, global competitiveness and energy security? And how would the ocean communities eventually fit within the world order?

Please note that seastead city-states are permanent, autonomous ocean communities.

The creation of seastead city-states

Why does the Seasteading Institute want to establish seastead city-states?

Because the world needs a new frontier, a place where those who wish to experiment with building new societies can go to test out their ideas. By opening the ocean as a new frontier, we hope to revolutionize the quality of government and social systems worldwide by enabling experimentation, innovation, and competition.

Currently, it is very difficult to experiment with alternative social systems on a small scale; countries are so enormous that it is hard for an individual to make much difference. Imagine if small groups had the capability to instead test their own ideas on a small scale and see what happens. People could create societies with different priorities, and we’d be able to quickly see how well those ideas work in practice. Some ideas will work well, some will work terribly and some will be a matter of preference; but above all we are dedicated to the believe that whatever our ideas, we want to stop arguing about them, stop proselytizing them and start living them.

What technical expertise would be necessary to build seastead city-states?

Quite a lot, since it encompasses so many areas of infrastructure. Besides all the basic civil engineering that goes into a city, the marine engineering that provides that same infrastructure on boats, there is the ocean engineering of how to design safe, affordable platforms that can resist the waves. And then there is the political science aspect – how do you design a new governance system that is better than current systems?

Does international law pose a threat to the creation of permanent, autonomous ocean communities?

International law is the regulatory environment in which seasteads will operate. It poses some difficulties because of the lack of a widely accepted definition for a nation or procedure for a new nation to be recognized globally. That is why we seek autonomy rather than sovereignty. The 200-mile EEZ means that seasteads either need to be 200 miles from land (on the high seas) or to have an explicit agreement with the coastal state. Most of the regulations that apply to the high seas, such as safety, anti-pollution, and anti-piracy are reasonable and should not be a problem. I expect seasteads to begin by flying flags of convenience, later fly flags with an explicit treaty, and eventually to fly no flag and assert their independence.

Economic development of seastead city-states

How could the seastead city-states become economically viable?

The two competitive advantages are the ocean environment and the low regulation/taxes. The main disadvantage is the expense of dealing with the harsh marine environment. To be economically viable, the former will have to be greater than the latter. For example, we are currently starting a business to do medical procedures on ships, combining the cost-savings of medical tourism with the convenience of being able to get procedures 12 miles from the coast instead of flying to India or Thailand.

One nice thing about the advantage of low regulation is that it applies very broadly to many industries. There are numerous historical examples of places like Hong Kong and Singapore with insignificant natural resources that became very wealthy simply through freedom, low regulation, and low taxes. Our task is more difficult because we have higher costs to deal with, but I think it is not insurmountable. The Seasteading Institute is working on business ventures right now so we can demonstrate the economic viability of seasteads.

What measures could the seastead city-states take to ensure energy security?

They could generate energy renewably, either through standard methods like wind and solar, or more novel ocean methods such as OTEC. But burning diesel is much cheaper.

International position and security of seastead city-states

Would the seastead city-states eventually seek international recognition?

Certainly, but I expect this to be 50-100 years off. Not until they are of significant size.

How could seastead city-states defend themselves against external threats such as piracy?

Most piracy occurs in ports, coastlines, and a couple regions where shipping traffic is concentrated by a state with poor security (Malaysia, Somalia). The Somali pirates brag they can go up to 200 miles from the Somali coastline – conveniently, it turns out that most of the ocean is more than 200 miles from the Somali coastline. While a seastead will want to have large calibre rifles and perhaps some short-range cruise missiles for defense, pirate attacks are very unlikely.

Why is one of the long-term goals of the Seasteading Institute that “at least one seastead city-state is considered a notable world power”?

The goal of seasteading is to change the world by opening a new frontier where new countries are founded. If these countries are truly successful, at least one will be considered a world power, which is why our 100-year goals include this. We don’t mean necessarily a great power like European States, but more international influence than Tuvalu or Vanautu, at least.

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