Seasteading: a ’policy-high’

The Grandson of Milton Friedman, Patri Friedman, has written a book called Seasteading in collaboration with a guy called Joe Quirk. My point is the subtitle: “How floating nations will restore the environment, enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity from politicians.” This is a serious case of what I (during a meeting planning the piloting of Universal Basic Income on Scotland) came to think of as the ‘policy high’. The ‘policy high’ is that moment where a policy idea such as introducing a new benefit scheme or building a town on a ship or reef in international waters takes on omnipotent qualities and brings about World Peace while its gets you up early in the morning and prepares your coffee. It is a moment, I recognize from a great many settings where projects or new policy is being planned. It seems to come at some point always – usually towards the end of a really long meeting – like a runners high or a second wind. I do not know if it’s equally related to depletion of oxygen from your brain, but usually – and that is my point – usually people come down from these moments again after a brief break or a good night’s sleep. The tedious pragmatism of everyday getting-by sets in. I am really curious, however, about people who wakes up the morning after and press on: let’s still colonize Mars, let’s still save the world by building mini-nations at Sea. That is the policy high as a permanent condition.

I am a very slow reader when it comes to non-fiction so I flick forward to the book’s forth section called Freedom, which promises to explain “why floating societies will likely be more peaceful than continental governments, simply because fluid mobility will revolutionize the incentives by which individuals interact” (Quirk with Friedman 2017: xv). This section of the book consists of three chapters; 8-10. Chapter 8 is written as a series of questions and answers: How will seasteads survive tsunamis? How will seasteads dispose of trash? Do you want to privatize the oceans? Aren’t seasteads for the rich people only? It is very clever and well thought through: No, seasteads will in fact be for the poor. Why should they want to go to a seastead in the first place if not because the living conditions were better than where they came from [bracket all knowledge of people conned into working under horrific conditions unable to leave again]? Again and again continental governments are described as exploiters of the poor and marginalized. In this version of liberalism, it is not capital that needs protection and freedom of movement, it is the individual; the poor and the exploited.     

One recurrent allegory chosen by Quirk and Friedman when making a case for Seasteading is that of the early European settlers in North America moving still further West. I can definitely see how that fantasy might appeal to an able-bodied, white man but having my head full of popular references like The Revenant and Deadwood and currently reading Laura Ingalls books to my daughter, I have to exercise a mental spring-cleaning to sympathetically follow Quirk and Friedman. What they mean to emphasize in this picture is off course not the mortality rates, lack of medical care, the utter unattractiveness of a female life marked by servitude and male whim, and not even the survival of the fittest or luckiest. It is the political innovations emanating from the 19-century North American cities and territories in order to attract citizens and capital. One example they highlight is the Territory of Wyoming being the first polity in 1869 “to offer complete, unqualified voting rights to women” (Quirk and Friedman 2017:286). As I read through Wyoming’s city webpage I moreover learn, that Wyoming prides itself on being also a first mover when it came to equal pay and allowing married women to own property.

To achieve fame and respect in Silicon Valley, write Quirk and Friedman (2017) it is not enough to found a company, change the world, and get rich in the process. “But founding a company that changes the world, getting rich, and then risking your winnings on a second company that changes the world again,” (ibid: 28) is how you accumulate social capital in Silicon Valley. The bigger and more settled an industry taken on, the better: the banking industry, the oil industry, the space industry, internet provision, the food industry. And then there is the ‘industry’ above them all: The one decisive factor in determining the economic growth and prosperity of a nation’s general population is, according to Quirk and Friedman: governance (Quirk and Friedman 2017: 188).

Theirs is a vision of “man-made islands on the sea, each experimenting with new governance rules” (ibid.). Historically, they argue, new polities have experienced a rush of emigrations from established nations and have “resulted in millions of people racing from poverty to prosperity in less than a generation” (ibid.). Take Hong Kong: miraculous growth and no tariffs, flourishing businesses all based on the labor of poor farmers migrating from China who stood by and accepted the inevitable (ibid: 190ff.). “Thus do ideologies fall: not by violence but by examples showing a better way” (ibid: 192). I think maybe Quirk and Friedman would not have chosen Hong Kong as their capital example of how experiments in governance in Asia led to freedom and economic growth had the book been published in 2020 or at the very least the example would have a different moral. But again I’m not interested in it for historical accuracy or economic analysis. What I want to draw attention to is their vision: In essence their dream scape has pushed the utopian border to the edge of the Earth to encompass all and not just some of us. Nations, island states, city states – each a new governance experiment competing for political subjects. People moving freely to the place they find will offer them the life they want. No one needing to risk their life crossing borders at land or sea in pursuit of countries that do not want them. Theirs is a beautiful vision. It has got all the cleanliness of the paintings from the romantic era where even in the stables there was no horse shit.

Image: Cheyenne, Wyoming from National Archives at College Park

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