Against Seasteading and Competitive Government

SODOM & GOMORRAH: There has been recent buzz in the news about a group of libertarians who seek to build autonomous island communities. Being in the know, this author was exposed to the concept in 2009 and rejected it outright for a number of reasons.

The concept is simple.  Build an island or a floating platform out at sea, set up your own community with your own rules, and live. The blog “A Thousand Nations” has helped popularize this concept by calling for a “Cambrian explosion of government.” The idea, invented by libertarians who no doubt are sick of the status quo and felt it imprudent to build their compounds on land, reeks of libertarian odor. The goal is to have a competition in government – make multiple types and naturally the most desirable will succeed. In other words, governments should have to compete in the same way a corporation does.

My introduction to seasteading

This author was introduced to the concept of seasteads and autonomous islands in 2009 and had a gut reaction to reject it outright. Something about it didn’t seem quite right. It could be that the traditional exit-via-secluded-compound idea has led to disaster. Land compounds get taxed just as much as other communities, and you’re still beholden to all their laws. A sea community, though more aesthetically pleasing, seems just as likely to end in disaster. The USG is a jealous god. If any lesson should be learned since 1914 it should be this: any government that competes with orthodox democracy is not welcome and will be crushed.  The USG has proven its resolve, despite risks of bankruptcy and universal ire, to stamp out any competing system. Deploying a few destroyers to dispatch a pesky revolting seastead or a few marines to storm an isolated, poorly defended beach head is never out of the question.  The USG may claim to stand for freedom and justice, but they’ve still held on to Guam and Puerto Rico all these years.

But that isn’t the main problem with promoting competitive government. Let us assume that a community or group of communities can build an island and live on it successfully.  On what basis are they doing this? What belief do they have about the nature of government, human nature, and our motives? The answer is tragically, the same basis on which all governmental decisions are currently based. The foundational assumption is economic – that competition inherently leads to good things. No analysis is done to see if the economic influence on politics is good, if competing governmental systems ever compete peacefully, or if different governmental types buy into the metaphysical, economic assumptions that the libertarians do.

The metaphysical problem

In other words, this author proposes that autonomous island communities are a sham because they are not autonomous. They are all infected with the same intellectual disease that has plagued western government for 500 years. As such, they are all the same. Government and politics are not about allocating resources or setting up incentives for human action, they’re about the carrying out of fundamental spiritual beliefs about the nature of the world.  When Europeans first set up polities in the Western Hemisphere, they did so to carry out a metaphysical mission. The puritanical notion of building a shining city on a hill that would exist as a true biblical commonwealth composed of God’s elect was not just a bunch of words for them; it meant something, and that goal was what drove them to establish a new society.

The Puritans carried with them certain views, one of which was that communities either stood for God or they stood for Satan. Most readers (probably) think this is an outdated and strange way to conceive of a community, but there’s plenty of precedent for human communities viewing themselves as the exclusive bearers of truth. The USG has thought it for years, the Soviet Union used to think it when it was around, the Shia communities in the Middle East think it, and there are plenty more through history, including the libertarians.

Now, there are going to be many libertarians that object.  They do not claim a universal truth, they say. But they do.

First, the claim that human beings make decisions based off of a cost vs. benefit, pain vs. pleasure calculus is a claim about human nature and the truth. Libertarians such as Dr. Mises and even Patri Friedman use this as the implicit basis for their arguments.  Patri says,

“In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.”

Did you catch it? Patri is making an assumption about policy.  First, he makes an assumption that the modern world is different than a pre-modern or post-modern one (an assumption that is metaphysical, based on certain beliefs about history and its meaning).  Then he says that action, not design is the cause of bad policy, and the solution is to understand how they emerge from action and change the incentives. What Patri is calling for sounds innocent enough, but it’s really a call for an economic analysis into policy in order to understand how we can change it.  Perhaps Patri is right and this is what’s needed.  Perhaps he’s wrong.  For this argument, however, it doesn’t matter.  He’s made a metaphysical claim.  It shades his approach to politics and what counts as political, non-political, good, and bad.  He’s also made a claim about the ends that politics works for (“real-world liberty”).  The quoted statement is, in itself, a political argument and is the pre-requisite for his notion of competitive governments.

Why? Because of the second truth that libertarianism is claiming for us – competition is good. This is life and death for all forms of liberalism.  This drives the belief in the marketplace of ideas, the competition between companies, and the new proposed competition between governments.  The argument is that a peaceful discussion and debate will defeat falsehood and reveal the truth. The true argument will come out on top. The best company will make more money. The best government will acquire more citizens and wealth.  Far from being a novel concept, these autonomous island communities are a bland extension of the old argument.  The libertarian will fail to see, as we all have at some point, that the USG and its accepted world co-inhabitants already have plenty of economic analysis in their policy making.  One simply has to pick up any random public policy book and see discussions about cost vs. benefit, pain vs. pleasure, changing incentives, and expanding competition.  It is, sadly, a system of decision making that created the current mess.  Absent any insight as to how this economic approach led to the mess we have now, there is no reason to believe that the decay of these seasteads (all governments decay with time) will lead to anything but a similar vein of corrupt government – bankrupt, run-down, welfare-ships. Imagine Detroit on water. No longer urban decay, it’s marine decay, and you heard the term here first.

So let’s compare puritanical metaphysics (we use the Puritans because they did what these libertarians are hoping to do now – leave the mother country and start a new polity on new principles elsewhere, in city-state form) with libertarian metaphysics.  Puritan decisions are not made on a pain pleasure calculus.  Though Mises and other “modern” utilitarians have attempted to argue that costs and benefits are subjective, their attempts to fit everything in a rational frame is laughable.  As Nietzsche argued, the concept of love destroys utilitarianism; arguably there is sometimes more pain than pleasure in love and we nevertheless say it is better to have loved and lost then to have never loved. Further, it misunderstands religion. For the Puritans, the abstinence from earthly pleasure is a cornerstone of the faith.  The faith encourages believers to do contrary to what they want. Mises hints at this contradiction in Human Action where he compares such religious people to plants, saying that human action doesn’t apply to them because they are closer to plants than people.  Puritans made decisions based on its compliance with scripture.  As such, they further rejected the second metaphysical claim libertarians propose – competition won’t reveal truth, but error because any idea that competes with truth is aligned with lies.  The puritanical argument is much in line with the counterrevolutionaries after the French Revolution, such as Donoso Cortes who said that the Bible made it clear that discussion was frowned upon – Christ ordered Satan to get behind Him during the tempting in the wilderness, and with that the discussion was over.

Non-liberal government is naturally excluded from this autonomous island project.  Sure, the libertarian will argue that the Puritans among us can start their own seastead. But they can’t and won’t.  The minute an exclusive community is established, there will be conflict.  Either the Puritans will attempt to fight the agents of Satan (in the 1600′s this meant going after the indigenous population) or the liberals will go after the agents of intolerance (which in our time means anyone who resembles a Puritan). In corporate competition, acquisitions are made with money; in political competition, acquisitions are made with soldiers.  To counter with a claim that the seasteads won’t do this exposes the truth: only good liberals will become seasteads, because they either don’t take their metaphysics seriously enough to defend them or there won’t be anyone around to defend against.  Every libertarian seastead/island supporter should ask themselves: if the community next to me decided to stone homosexuals, would I really say to myself “What’s good for them is not necessarily what’s good for me” ?

The final metaphysical problem we encounter is that of legitimacy.  Prior to 1793, governments were almost universally held to be legitimate when the leaders were considered honorable.  Leaders were deemed honorable through birth, their perceived appointment by God (divine right of kings), actions on the battlefield, and their general character. Attached to honorable people was usually wealth and, though obscene, in most instances this was accepted by a population that was extremely poor because the wealthy person had honor and served a societally significant function (usually as protector of the wider population).  The notion was true across borders, meaning that the Emperor in China as well as the King of England were both seen as legitimate by their populations for much the same reason.  As a result of the existing paradigm of what was legitimate and not, governments took on particular forms.  Most were monarchies, which rested on the honor of one family.  Others, such as Venice, were republics, which rested on the honor of a group of nobles who would often make room for members of the lower class to hold particular office.

In the 1790′s, with the culmination of philosophy and general corruption (the honorable were less than respectable), the societal condition was no longer tolerated and legitimacy was lost. Kings and queens were as good as dead, and in many instances they found themselves to be dead within a few years.  Others, such as in Britain, were neutered.  The new legitimacy was that of the people.  Governments had to be democratic and that was that.

In 1945, after years of struggling with Nazi Germany, the allied powers assembled together and found that the whole self-determination concept sometimes led to bad results. Sometimes Hitlers showed up and were supported by the wider population.  Leaving democratic states to do whatever they wanted in their own national borders was no longer an option.  Thus legitimacy was revised to say that countries had to be liberal and not just democratic, and when there was a conflict between the two (as there often was and is), the liberal side would trump the democratic.

The point here is that any seastead or autonomous community would only be allowed to exist if it were liberal.  A truly illiberal community, absent any formidable defense, would be eliminated from the scene.  It would be deemed illegitimate by the outside forces and police action would be taken.  The wider populations of Europe and the United States wouldn’t mind much since they believe that the only true freedom that exists is a freedom under a liberal framework, and western countries have a long tradition of liberating and re-educating the poor dumb savages who don’t see the light of liberalism.  What’s worse for these poor dumb, sea-bound savages now, however, is that they will be persecuted with greater enthusiasm than indigenous people who never saw the light of liberalism and had to be introduced; these sea-bound savages are pure heretics who were once members of the church and left to practice witchcraft.  The USG is a jealous god.

Whether we were to assume that the other autonomous communities in this grand competition of governments would stamp out governments that truly competed with the status quo, or that the USG would stamp the competitors or everyone out, it is apparent that this island fantasy is a dead end.

The solution

What is to be done?  There are three options.

First, reform current ideas of legitimacy.  Sounds easy, right?  If you change what counts as legitimate government, you change how government runs.  Of course, even if you want to build an island somewhere, you’ll need to change ideas of legitimacy – both so you can avoid becoming Them and so that They don’t come kill you.

Second, go somewhere on the periphery and set up a counter-government.  The ocean is not the periphery; if anything, the powers that be have an easier time reaching people on the open seas than they do in the heart of Africa.  Grab some money, some weapons, learn the local language, and see if you can carve out a small area in a place the UN has a hard time managing.  The people there likely have little to lose and you stand a better chance of survival than you do in a row boat.

Third, wait for collapse.  All systems of legitimacy decay and fade away at some point.  Just sit it out, wait for the fires to die down, and spend your time figuring out what you’ll do when Rome is gone.  You may want to learn Mandarin and stock up on dry goods; you never know what will happen.

Restorus focuses on the first item. Come. Join us.