The brouhaha over libertarians having the gall to think about leaving current political structures to seek self-determination is flaring up again. Peter Thiel’s Cato Unbound essay, which innocently but unwisely pointed out that women are more likely to vote for statist policies than men, is once again to object of much ridicule and anger. Brad Reed of AlterNet, for example, makes fun of libertarians’ (wet) dream of freedom in international waters, heaping scorn of the idea that rich white males have anything to complain about:
In the end, the strangest part about the seastead project isn’t its founders’ impracticalities but rather their base motivations.
Normally, when a minority of people want to break off from their homeland to form a new country it’s because of genuine oppression such as religious persecution, ethnic cleansing or taxation without representation. Thiel, on the other hand, lives in a society whose promotion of capitalism has let him grow rich enough to blow $500,000 founding his own personal no-girls-allowed treehouse in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
What exactly does he have to be angry about, again?
Patri Friedman nicely summarises what it is that libertarians (even rich ones) have to be angry about here. What I find really worrying, though, is the tendency for people to think rich libertarians like Thiel (and presumably non-rich libertarians like me) have a duty to stay on land and contribute to the society which enabled them to propser. This attitude is most on show in this Metafilter thread (hat tip Cheryl Cline, who has excellent posts on the topic here and here). Some of the Metafilter comments are downright hateful:
[T]he more I hear about libertarianism the more I am convinced that it is nothing more than pure-selfishness codified as a political doctrine. So let me be the first in this thread to say “Fuck you, you selfish dicks. I hope you sink.”
If this is a success, it will be a two (or more) -tier society. And that’s what Libertarianism is really all about. Vast wealth for some, minimal poverty for others. After all, if people are able to save money, well that’s just capital sitting on the table! It’s only fair that money be taken by regulatory rents squeezed out of a corrupt government!
If you can have an emotional response to Libertarian capitalism that isn’t “fucking eww”, you’re disturbed.
Libertarians don’t give a shit about individuality. They just want to benefit from society without contributing to it.
The idea of seasteading is to move away from bigotry like this and create a free society. I’m really not sure how well that’s going to work. Many people believe (at least in the political sense) that seasteaders are raping the planet or taking from society and not giving anything back. If the voters which collectively (and irrationally) control the powerful militaries of current governments see seasteaders as villains, intervention seems inevitable. This, among other reasons, is why I think folk activism remains important, even to seasteaders. Political institutions (and meta-institutions) shape the way individual preferences are transformed into enforceable rules, but every political system must take preferences as its input, and sufficiently bigoted preferences will produce bigoted rules under any set of institutions. True independence is impossible even in the ocean, since those with meddlesome preferences can always catch up with you.
When doing positive political economy, we can’t just assume that good ideas will be accepted and bad ones rejected by political actors. We need to consider the preferences people actually have, and ignore the normative implications those preferences have for us. I think everyone would agree that a seastead specialising in farming babies to run a child sex and torture tourism business would attract the attention of land-based governments and be shut down. If the voting populations of land-based countries see moving offshore to avoid taxes as similarly evil, we should expect similar intervention. As long as a majority of people worship at the altar of democracy and coercive communitarianism, we can’t expect to be left alone.
I suspect an important factor in the likelihood of government intervention will be the degree to which the voters in a given country feel a particular seasteading community rightly belongs as part of their nation. For example, if Patri and a whole lot of other Americans relocate off the coast of America and trade almost exclusively with American landlubbers, interference or annexation by the US seems much more likely than if people from many countries formed a community in the middle of the Pacific and traded with people from a variety of countries.