Seasteading and Sects

We should expect sects – cohesive groups which instil extreme preferences on their members in order to ensure commitment – to be more prevalent under anarchy than under a state. Eric Crampton and I make this argument here. From the abstract:

Using insights from the economics of religion, we argue that anarchy is more likely than democracy to produce small groups with intense meddlesome preferences. Absent government provision of public goods, voluntary groups will emerge to fill the gap. Strict religious groups – ‘sects’ – are more able to overcome collective action problems and will therefore be more prevalent in an anarchic society. These sects are apt to instil intense meddlesome preferences in their members and have the ability to enforce them: anarchy produces the situation to which it is most fragile.

Sect membership is often voluntary: members get valuable services from sects and may rationally choose to take on irrational beliefs to signal loyalty. According to Larry Iannaccone, sects are not the product of brainwashing but second-best solutions to collective action problems. Sects will erect barriers to exit to ensure the commitment of members. This reduces free-riding and increases the average contribution to public and quasi-public goods.

It is interesting to think about how this plays out under dynamic geography. I assume that the same problems of collective action will be present with market-chosen law on land or water. We should thus expect to see more sects emerge on the ocean than within the jurisdiction of land-based governments. While freedom of movement will usually be greater with dynamic geography, this may not always be the case. A seasteading sect may choose to isolate itself in the middle of the ocean, far away from any other seasteads. This will clearly increase the physical costs of relocation to a more liberal regime. Land-based sects often use social isolation as a means of increasing the cost of exit. An isolated seastead will be able to increase the cost of exit more effectively. The cost of relocation is partly under the control of the seastead, and must be treated endogenously.

Of course, many libertarians will argue that there is no problem here: people voluntarily join sects and accept the high cost of exit. Nobody’s rights are being violated. Maybe, if we are considering only a single-generation seastead. Once children are involved, things become more complicated. Unless we consider children to be mere chattels of their parents, having children born into an illiberal community with little chance of exit is a serious problem for libertarians.

Unlike some libertarians, I think severe indoctrination is akin to coercion.* If a parent teaches their child that the outside world is evil and the only way to avoid eternal suffering is to live a repressed life of servitude, they are preventing the child from becoming a full-fledged agent capable of genuine choice. To me, this is about as bad as physically forcing them to live the same life. This raises the distinction between thick and thin libertarianism. Further, the same factors will increase the potential for outright coercion. Those who wish to leave a community will be more subject to restraint when they are physically and socially isolated and can not easily rely on the help of liberal outsiders.

If law is chosen through the market there are incentives for sects to form. If sects have the option of colonizing the ocean, they will be able to more effectively erect barriers to exit. Seasteading may reduce inter-community illiberalism but increase some forms of intra-community illiberalism.

*I don’t think it actually is coercion, since I don’t think there is any true “inner” self whose preferences are being thwarted by psychological abuse.


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