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Peter Thiel Makes Down Payment on Libertarian Ocean Colonies

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Peter Thiel Makes Down Payment on Libertarian Ocean Colonies
Tired of the United States and the other 190-odd nations on Earth?
If a small team of Silicon Valley millionaires get their way, in a few years, you could have a new option for global citizenship: A permanent, quasi-sovereign nation floating in international waters.
With a $500,000 donation from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a Google engineer and a former Sun Microsystems programmer have launched The Seasteading Institute, an organization dedicated to creating experimental ocean communities "with diverse social, political, and legal systems."
"Decades from now, those looking back at the start of the century will understand that Seasteading was an obvious step towards encouraging the development of more efficient, practical public-sector models around the world," Thiel said in a statement.
It might sound like the setting for the videogame Bioshock, but the institute isn't playing around: It plans to splash a prototype into the San Francisco Bay within the next two years, the first step toward establishing deep-water city-states, or what it calls "seasteads" -- homesteads on the high seas.
Within the pantheon of would-be utopian communities, there's a particularly rich history of people trying to live outside the nation-state paradigm out in the ocean. The most ambitious was Marshall Savage's Aquarius Project, which aimed at nothing less than the colonization of the universe. There was also Las Vegas millionaire Michael Oliver's attempt to create a new island country, the Republic of Minerva, by dredging the shallow waters near Tonga. And the Freedom Ship was to be a mile-long portable country costing about $10 billion to construct.
None of these projects has succeeded, a fact that The Seasteading Institute's founders, Google's Patri Friedman and the semi-retired Wayne Gramlich, are keenly aware of throughout the 300-page book they've written about seasteading.
Instead of starting with a grand scheme worthy of a James Bond villain, the Institute is bringing an entrepreneurial, DIY mentality to creating oceanic city-states.
"There's a history of a lot of crazy people trying this sort of thing, and the idea is to do it in a way that's not crazy," said Joe Lonsdale, the institute's chairman and a principal at Clarium Capital Management, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund.
The seasteaders want to build their first prototype for a few million dollars, by scaling down and modifying an existing off-shore oil rig design known as a "spar platform."

This schematic illustrates the ballasting system that Wayne Gramlich imagines would keep the seastead from tipping over. The amount of water in the ballasts could be raised or lowered to move the seastead up and down.
Holl Liou/Wired.com


In essence, the seastead would consist of a reinforced concrete tube with external ballasts at the bottom that could be filled with air or water to raise or lower the living platform on top.
The spar design helps offshore platforms better withstand the onslaught of powerful ocean waves by minimizing the amount of structure that is exposed to their energy.
"You have very little cross-sectional interaction with waves [with] the spar design," Gramlich said.
The primary living space, about 300 square feet per person, would be inside the tube, but the duo envisions the top platform holding buildings, gardens, solar panels, wind turbines and (of course) satellites for internet access.
To some extent, they believe the outfittings for the seastead will be dependent on the business model, say aquaculture or tourism, that will support it and the number of people aboard.
"We're not trying to pick the one strategy because we think there will be multiple people who want one for multiple reasons," Gramlich said.
Dan Donovan, a long-time spokesman for Dominion, an energy company that operated Gulf of Mexico-based gas rigs, including Devils Tower, the world's deepest spar structure, said the group's plan wasn't too far-fetched. His company's off-shore rigs, which are much larger than the institute's planned seasteads, provided long-term housing for its workers.
"They were sort of like mobile homes. We could move them from one place to another," Donovan said. "People did live on them."
But even the institute members admit that their plans aren't far enough along to stand up to rigorous engineering scrutiny. Some engineers, Gramlich said, have been skeptical of their plan, particularly their desire to do it on the cheap.
"We have some legitimate doubting Thomases out there," Gramlich said.
But if the idea turns out to be just crazy enough that it works, Friedman, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, envisions transforming the way that government functions.
"My dad and grandfather were happy arguing their ideas and were happy influencing people through the world of ideas," Friedman said. "I see a real need for people to go out and do something and show by example."
True to his libertarian leanings, Friedman looks at the situation in market terms: the institute's modular spar platforms, he argues, would allow for the creation of far cheaper new countries out on the high-seas, driving innovation.
"Government is an industry with a really high barrier to entry," he said. "You basically need to win an election or a revolution to try a new one. That's a ridiculous barrier to entry. And it's got enormous customer lock-in. People complain about their cellphone plans that are like two years, but think of the effort that it takes to change your citizenship."
Friedman estimates that it would cost a few hundred million dollars to build a seastead for a few thousand people. With costs that low, Friedman can see constellations of cities springing up, giving people a variety of governmental choices. If misguided policies arose, citizens could simply motor to a new nation.
"You can change your government without having to leave your house," he said.
Of course, one major role of government is to provide security, which would seem to be an issue on the open sea. But Friedman's not worried about defense beyond simple firearms because he thinks pirates will lack the financial incentive to attack the seasteads.
"More sophisticated pirates will take entire container ships that have tens of millions of dollars of cargo and 10 crew [members]," he said. "On a seastead, there's a much different crew-to-movable assets ratio."
In fact, his only worry is that a government will try to come calling and force their jurisdiction upon them. Toward that end, they are planning to fly a "flag of convenience" from a country that sells them, like Panama, to provide them with protection from national navies.
"If you're not flying a flag … any country can do whatever they want to you," he said.
Even if their big idea doesn't end up panning out, their story should live on in internet lore for confirming the dream that two guys with a blog and a love of Ayn Rand can land half a million dollars to pursue their dream, no matter how off-kilter or off-grid it might seem.
"Everything changed when we got the funding," Friedman said. "Before that, it was two guys with some ideas writing a book and blogging about their ideas.... Now that we've got some funding, it's something I plan to make a full-time job out of."

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