Some Thoughts on Seasteading

Seasteading is clearly awesome and one of the most important ideas of our time. My feeling is that while it won’t produce quite the utopia some might imagine, it will be a significant boon to human welfare. I worry, though, that the discussion is dominated by its cheerleaders, with those who don’t think seasteading will work dismissing it as a crackpot scheme. Serious sceptical engagement is crucial to the development of any idea. In that spirit, I will try to offer some thoughts of a political economy type nature I think are relevant.

I think the most important of these is to carefully consider the Cowen and Sutter cartelization critique of anarcho-capitalism, and see how it works under dynamic geography, and also look at the argument Eric Crampton and I make about meddlesome preferences, which may be more of a problem for seasteads in certain respects [Added: see here and here]. I still need to do a fair bit of thinking about this, and re-read the relevant parts of the seasteading book.

For now, I’ll only point out a minor issue I have with how the seasteading argument has been framed.

Seasteading claims to be politically agnostic. This is not completely true. At least part of leftist ideology rests on coercive redistribution. With dynamic geography, (in the ideal case) all government becomes voluntary and so coercive redistribution is no longer possible. If a jurisdiction redistributed wealth from rich to poor, simple microeconomic theory would predict that the rich would flee and the poor would flock, producing an adverse selection problem which would unravel the whole enterprise.

The upshot is that while many forms of government are possible under dynamic geography, some are not. The left can justifiably complain that radical Tiebout competition rules out their preferred form of government, since that involves coercion. I think everyone who supports seasteading is at least some kind of libertarian and sees preventing coercion as a feature rather than a bug, but the claim that seasteading helps anyone interested in making their preferred form of government work better is false.   

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5 Responses

  1. I’d dispute a couple of assumptions here – firstly that the cost of coercive redistribution to the rich must always outweigh the benefit (although perhaps that’s implied by your use of the word “coercive” rather than “mandatory”), and secondly that admission to seasteading must necessarily be open enough to permit the “poor” to “flock” – but your scenario is probably accurate.

    It’s hard to see how the initial state would form, but to run with your idea, the natural consequence would be that the “rich”, having left, would then – assuming whatever reasons they had for communal seasteading in the first place still held – utilize their resources to form another communal seasteading environment that didn’t suffer from the same charter flaw, right?

    I would venture to suggest that you’ve actually identified a strength of seasteading, not a flaw – repeat this scenario many times, and you should see a range of solutions explored, ranging from various compensative strategies in those communities that insist on practicing coercive redistribution through to an ultra-capitalist subset who would presumably prize self-reliance.

    Give it a little time to evolve and an interested observer should be able to make some meaningful value judgements about the various approaches based on arbitrary metrics, whether value creation, population growth, personal happiness, or whatever.

  2. All good points: I didn’t explain myself very well. From my libertarian perspective this is indeed a virtue of seasteading. My point is only that it rules out the preferred model of government some folks have.

    I was meaning to talk about some varieties of welfare-state leftism: those that think the rich have a moral obligation to help the poor and that coercive redistribution is justified. They can reasonably see dynamic geography as making their kind of government less, rather than more, feasible.

    It would be perfectly feasible for a few people to get together and live communally, but this would not advance the “distributive justice” goals of many on the left on anything like the scale they attempt now.

    My point about adverse selection was that even if a group of rich lefties tried to create a true redistributionist/collectivist society with open immigration, the poor will flock, making it harder for the rich to support them, prompting some to leave, making it even harder for the remaining, and so on. Eventually you should end up with mostly poor people and your social justice goal is frustrated.

    Looking at it from the leftist’s point of view, the rich are free to run away from their obligations to help the poor and go galavanting off in the ocean smoking pot and selling organs.

    Some versions of small scale collectivism are well-served by dynamic geography, others are not.

    I don’t think this is a problem with seasteading. I’m only pointing out that the statements like “Seasteading is an enabling technology to let people try out all these ideas about new forms of social organization” are not entirely true.

  3. Seasteading sounds good but I would have to improve the accuracy of my golf game before I could get involved in something like that.

  4. Yes, you make a good point. The meta-system tends to encourage what a leftist might see as adverse selection of citizens – less rich people to tax. This is a natural consequence of increasing freedom of choice and mobility. Since my sympathies lie with the individual, I don’t see this as a problem, but it does limit the options for a society. Specifically, those societies which depend on not letting people leave won’t work so well. Darn.

  5. The problem with meddlesome preferences on seasteads would be that Iran can always afford to spend more on punishing a Theo Van Gogh than a seastead can spend on protecting him. Not saying that democracy there fares particularly well either though.

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