Super-yacht not big enough? 'Seasteads' offer libertarians the vision of floating cities for the future

For (very) wealthy libertarians, seasteads – floating cities – might be the way forward, with their ambition of 'guaranteeing political freedom and enabling experimentation with alternative social systems'

Paul Peachey
Thursday 26 December 2013 19:27 GMT
The Swimming City by Andras Gyorfi, the winning entry in a Seasteading Institute design contest
The Swimming City by Andras Gyorfi, the winning entry in a Seasteading Institute design contest

Available soon, for sale or rent: brand new island with sea views from the terrace, fresh fish daily and swimming pool in the resort hotel. An ideal base for 225 pioneers with £100m-plus to spare and a yearning for a new political and social system.

And if you don’t like it, no problem. Hitch the house to the back of a tug boat and try somewhere else.

For the right-wing American libertarian with deep-seated problems with Big Government, the 19th century challenge to “Go West, young man” retains a powerful appeal. But for the current target audience – the free-wheeling capitalist dotcom millionaire in Silicon Valley – going west means getting wet.

Not an issue, according to a new design report investigating the feasibility of “seasteads”, communities of like-minded, self-governing individuals established on the high seas, free from what its proponents see as the restrictions of nations, welfare systems and punitive taxes.

The seasteading movement has emerged as a political movement – with nods to climate change and land shortages – to create new water-borne city states. Over 85 pages, a Dutch engineering and urban development company has outlined the feasibility of a floating “village” for 225 permanent residents and 50 hotel guests – a blueprint that the pioneering seasteaders hope will become hundreds of floating petri dishes of social and political experiments.

The design consultants envisage a series of interlocking “hollow box” square and pentagonal platforms, allowing each city to grow organically – or be dismantled and towed away in the event of political dispute or interference. Individual seasteaders would decide on how they would rule or be ruled.

According to the feasibility study by DeltaSync, a specialists in floating structures in the low-lying Netherlands, early residents would live in flats of 70 square metres, with terraces open to the sea. Solar energy would power general daily living, including electric-only cookers, while water for showers and drinking would be supplied by the rain.

Early residents would include entrepreneurs, social experimenters and people to tend the floating fish farms. A helipad would allow access to land-based hospital facilities or for when self-sustainable living just became too painful.

The vision is funded by a US non-profit organisation, the Seasteading Institute, established by two darlings of the libertarian movement including the billionaire founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel.

The institute’s stated ambition for the seasteads is to “guarantee political freedom and thus enable experimentation with alternative social systems”.

Establishing an independent non-state settlement on the seas is not an entirely new concept. Roy Bates, a retired army major, occupied a Second World War sea fort off the Suffolk coast in 1967 and a decade later he declared Sealand a sovereign principality, with himself as head of state. The Foreign Office does not recognise Sealand as an independent state, but the Bates family remains unmoved.

Various other attempts at floating cities and tax havens have failed in the face of significant legal, technical and political hurdles.The first rudimentary seastead project is slated to launch this year by a separate group called Blueseed. It is essentially a ship moored far enough off the California coast to sidestep US immigration rules.

For safety reasons, the first proper seastead is likely to be anchored in a protected bay inside the territorial limits of a “host” country. The institute claims to be in early talks with up to five governments to be the first host. It aims to close its negotiations in 2014, with the first seastead residents moving in by the end of the decade.

Given that the whole politically-driven point of the seastead is to provide freedom from government interference, the dependence on a host country’s “supervision” would appear a fatal blow. Not so, said the institute’s executive director, Randolph Hencken.

“It’s a business negotiation,” he told The Independent. The group was asking for “substantial political autonomy, within reason” and in return would supply the host with “some form of compensation”.

After a “large scale selection process for suitable countries”, the study focused on the Gulf of Fonseca, which is bordered by El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. The latter appears a particularly strong candidate, as it has already announced plans for free trade zones with minimal government control. But even if the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute secures a deal with a host government, its dream of independence will still be difficult to obtain. The US government has asserted its right to policing outside its territory, and for its citizens to pay its taxes.

Mr Hencken suggests that the residents of each seastead would set the rules of their community, but using them as centres for things such as a drugs marketplace would be “just asking for trouble”. And what if undesirables tried to buy their way in?

“I’m not going to be in charge, but I wouldn’t want to have exiled dictators who had committed atrocities,” Mr Hencken said. “I wouldn’t want it to be a haven for evil.”

The seasteaders see the platforms as long-term communities, with the ability to join and leave as key factor based on political and economic choices. Engineers say they could be built to last. “If you use the right mixture it can last for a long time,” said DeltaSync project leader Karina Czapiewska.

The seasteading vision is for innovative and self-governing societies that are seedbeds for radical technologies and forms of government. The founders talk of businesses based on Bitcoins – the virtual currency – such as medical and research centres, free from the rules of regulatory authorities.

Mr Hencken said the seastead idea had received an enthusiastic response globally from people who wanted to run their own shops, gyms and research centres.

He said he knew a “handful” of multi-millionaires interested in the project, the first one of which has an estimated cost of £104m. But if you require millions to buy or rent a place in the first place, who will clean the toilets?

“The guys who are very wealthy don’t have personal assistants, many of them clean their own toilets,” Mr Hencken insisted. If not, there was capacity to pay people to do the “dirty work in exchange for a wage and a place to stay”.

Even ardent supporters recognise that the plan may be ambitious and the seasteads are not the best places to live. “Get a group of libertarians on a boat and they won’t agree with each other,” said Cody Wilson, a libertarian activist and “open source” gun designer. “It’s in their nature to be anti-social.”

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