Don't Like The Government? Make Your Own, On International Waters : All Tech Considered A nonprofit called The Seasteading Institute is advancing a hugely ambitious scheme: constructing floating structures that will house hundreds of people in international waters, out of the jurisdiction of any nation. Now, the organization has attracted its first big name donor.

Don't Like The Government? Make Your Own, On International Waters

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.


SIEGEL: Plenty of people complain about taxes and government bureaucracy, but most of them don't get so fed up that they try to start a brand-new country of their own. But that is exactly what a group of wealthy techies say they plan to do. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, these "seasteaders" want to start their own nation at sea by creating artificial islands.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Patri Friedman's vision of seasteading sounds like paradise.


PATRI FRIEDMAN: A lot of tourism from the world; the most cutting-edge hospital facilities on the planet; probably the largest fish farms in the world - best sushi you can imagine.

SYDELL: In this documentary, Friedman's words float over a sparkling ocean. Then, computer-generated images of cities on platforms rise out of the water. Friedman's dream has caught on with certain types of tech professionals, particularly the strand of Silicon Valley that's always been a mix of tech and hippie culture - at least, superficially. At a meeting tonight at a bar in Millbrae, California, there are guys with long hair, beards and wizened faces; mixed in with casually dressed engineer types and a few suits. And it is mostly guys. There's a lot of chatter about what's wrong with our country - the school systems, the bickering in Washington, the rising price of health care, long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Filmmaker Adam Jones came to be part of the group because he shares their frustrations.

ADAM JONES: They just want to avoid taxes so they can own what they make; so they can be truly free. And that's the nature of true liberty, and that's what the founders wanted in America.

SYDELL: There's revolution in the air here. In the 1960s, hippies started communes on farms. But this group wants to build their own country in the ocean.

MICHAEL KEENAN: Hello, everyone.


SYDELL: Michael Keenan is the former president of the Seasteading Institute. The discussion flows from stuff like desalinating seawater, to using waves to create electricity, to how to build homes at sea.

KEENAN: We'll most likely start with retrofitted cruise ships and barges. That is what the current seasteading ventures are looking at.

SYDELL: That's right - cruise ships docked out in international waters. The seasteaders are also working on artificial islands, designed using technology from oil rigs. But if hippies of the 1960s were talking about communities built on love, this group is talking about communities built around profit.

KEENAN: That is the core of the future of seasteading: sustainable businesses. And so our huge focus right now is on, basically, enabling more seasteading businesses.

SYDELL: The seasteaders do have some hefty backers; among them Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and PayPal. Founding visionary Patri Friedman is a former Google software engineer, and the grandson of the Nobel Prize-winning free market economist Milton Friedman. Friedman wants to create a libertarian nation. But the ocean is big, and he sees room for plenty of different kinds of governments.

FRIEDMAN: And so if we can figure out how to let people create start-up countries, they might try different laws and institutions and constitutions to achieve those. And we'll see what works and what doesn't, and kind of get progress and government from that.

SYDELL: Friedman imagines that if the people could pick governments the way they do computers and coffee, they'd find a better way to run a country.

FRIEDMAN: Well, what if I got the same type of service from my government that I do from Apple, or from Starbucks? Like, what an awesome world that would be.

SYDELL: Friedman's comparison to businesses raises red flags for Holly Folk, an expert on alternative communities.

HOLLY FOLK: It's difficult for me to respond positively to a movement that says OK, let's create a carve-out for people who have the resources to, in some ways, game the global system.

SYDELL: Folk thinks if the seasteaders got in trouble on the high seas, they'd probably need help from taxpayer-supported services like, say, the Coast Guard. Folk, a professor at Western Washington University, has studied a lot of alternative communities within the U.S. She says the ones with shared religious beliefs - say, like the Pilgrims - last the longest. Folk says many communities start out with lofty ideals. But the challenges of sharing resources, and living together, are often greater than people imagine.

FOLK: And when we think about something like seasteading - that has an individualist, libertarian flavor to it - you're talking about a worldview that's going to be attractive to people who, in some ways, are probably not hard-wired to behave and take orders very well.

SYDELL: Folk says the history of the U.S. is littered with intentional communities that fell apart. Some run out of money, and then bicker over who gets the last piece of bacon. Others don't last because the second generation doesn't want to keep the community going. But Patri Friedman says the beauty of his vision, is choice. Just like you can pick what computer to buy, you can pick your government.

FRIEDMAN: I won't go there, if it looks like it's going to be "Lord of the Flies" - right? So the great thing about this is that nobody is forced into it. You know, it's not like building a wall around East Berlin. So people aren't going to go there, unless it looks like it's safe.

SYDELL: The first community that calls itself a seastead doesn't really sound like a country - or even a community. They want to put a ship off the coast of San Francisco so that entrepreneurs who can't get a green card can start a business, and still be close to Silicon Valley. They expect to launch in 2014, and they expect to be profitable.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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