Friday, November 1, 2013

Silicon Valley Technocrats Plan to Flee U.S. for Libertarian Floating Cities

Already, Republican and Tea Party malcontents in liberal California are seeking to split away with candidates for statehood like “South California” and “the State of Jefferson” (as reported on extensively in this blog).  But the newest cries for independence in the Golden State are coming from Silicon Valley élites, and they want out of the United States altogether.  Or something.  Sort of.

Earlier this month, a tech entrepeneur named Balaji Srinivasan, co-founder of a San Francisco genetics start-up called Counsyl, delivered an address titled “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit” to a crowd at a seminar run by the venture-capital firm Y Combinator.  The “ultimate exit” in question is not assisted suicide but instead, as he put it, a “need to build [an] opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”  He declared, “We need to run the experiment, to show what a society run by Silicon Valley looks like without affecting anyone who wants to live under the Paper Belt” (i.e., us poor schmucks who are so two-weeks-ago that we use Stone Age technologies like paper and telephone lines and money that isn’t Bitcoin and computers that sit on desks instead of being implanted in our corneas).

A slide from Srinivasan’s talk “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit”
But Srinivasan’s “experiment” supposedly won’t involve rebel armies, impromptu border checkpoints, coups d’état, or other tools familiar to readers of this blog.  Though he left it deliberately vague, his futurist fever dream, which has become the buzz of the industry this week, is more likely to involve any number of utopian visions that have been tossed about in the break rooms of Silicon Valley firms.  (Okay, I guess “break room” is a pathetically outdated “Paper Belt” idea: I suppose techies spend their work breaks bouncing around in ball-pits or locked in sensory-deprivation tanks or whatever.)

Elon Musk
The C.E.O. of Google, Larry Page, said earlier this year that he wants to “set aside a part of the world” where technology can be innovated without government regulation.  The founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, has plans for an extrajurisdictional Martian colony, in visions unmistakably inspired by the libertarian science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein wrote fantasies about intergalactic homesteading
which some techies now take seriously.
Likewise, something called “seasteading,” analogous to homesteading, is becoming popular, thanks partly to one Patri Friedman, who looks, to my mind, suspiciously like one of the moai of Easter Island ...

..., but who is also a grandson of the late 20th century’s most revered free-market guru, the dwarflike Nobel-Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman ...

Friedman the younger heads a high-profile, increasingly popular organization called the Seasteading Institute.  Seasteading is an idea which dates to the founding of the Principality of Sealand, in the late 1960s, on a disused sea-fortress turned pirate-radio station just outside the United Kingdom’s territorial waters.  Sealand is still the most famous and successful “micronation” in the world, and (as has been reported on in this blog) has attracted the attention of hackers and Wikileakers interested in stationing their illicit computer servers there.

The Principality of Sealand (actual size)

More recently in micronational history, in 1972, during a renaissance of Ayn Rand–style libertarianism in the U.S., a Lithuanian-American real-estate mogul named Michael Oliver barged tons of sand from Australia to a South Pacific coral reef too low-lying to qualify under international law as territory.  There, he built up a land-mass which he christened the Republic of Minerva, luring settlers and investors for a free-market utopia.  But it was quickly snuffed out by troops from the Kingdom of Tonga.

Backed by gold, naturally
Then, as the British–French co-ruled colony of the New Hebrides moved toward independence in the late 1970s, Oliver tried to piggy-back his utopian dreams on a “cargo cult”–based separatist movement in the north of the archipelago.  These plans for a libertarian Republic of Vemwrana did not take the native people’s culture or aspirations into consideration much at all.  Equally short-sighted was an idea to settle thousands of boat people from Vietnam on the small island group.  (Didn’t he reckon they’d had enough of American-style “liberation” from socialism?)  “Vemerana” collapsed, and its territory is now a part of the independent Republic of Vanuatu.  Oliver also tried something similar in the Bahamas also on the eve of its independence, crawling into bed, unfortunately, with paranoid white settlers fearful of Black socialism.

Flag of the short-lived Republic of Vemerana
Not long after, in 1983, American free-marketers developed a plan for seasteading on a similarly unclaimed seamount called the Cortes Bank, south of California’s Channel Islands, near Mexico’s marine boundary.  They planned to call it Taluga.

In the modern era, there have been plans by the New York University free-market economist Paul Romer—a former student of Friedman’s at the University of Chicago—to build a Singapore-style free-market city-state in, or I suppose on top of, the sleepy fishing village of Trujillo, Honduras, on the Caribbean.  There, Romer says, entrepreneurs can build capital and maximize value for their shareholders by avoiding unreasonable regulations.  See how deftly he avoids the word “sweatshop”?  Maybe that specter is why the idea has gotten a cool reception in Honduras, or maybe it is the choice of locale.  Trujillo, almost certainly not coincidentally, is the final resting place of William Walker, a 19th-century pro-slavery mercenary who tried to annex Baja California, and later Nicaragua, to the U.S.  For Central Americans, he is a despised emblem of norteamericano economic imperialism.

An auto tycoon’s vision of an autonomous Commonwealth of Belle Isle in Detroit
Not too long ago, in Detroit, the former C.E.O. of Chrysler, Larry Sperlich, tried to stoke interest in turning a 982-acre island in the Detroit River, into a Singapore-style free-market city-state to be called the Commonwealth of Belle Isle.  And right-wing survivalist types are building something in the Idaho mountains called the Citadel, which they envision as a separate, heavily-armed community of “patriots” outside the control of Barack Hussein Obama’s jackbooted thugs.  It is more or less directly modeled on “Galt’s Gulch,” the remote Rocky Mountains redoubt of the capitalists in Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged who tuned in Adam Smith, turned on to Ludwig von Mises, and dropped out of society as it collapsed in socialist inefficiency.

So far, Idaho’s “Citadel Community” is just a website
Of all of these dreams, the one with the most money behind it so far is the pilot seasteading project proposed by PayPal’s founder, Peter Thiel, called Blueseed.  It is to be an anchored or floating non-territorial structure—a vast one—lying just outside U.S. waters west of the San Francisco Bay area.  It will be home to tech firms which can take advantage of U.S. citizens commuting from the mainland via helicopter or speedboat and foreigners who can live on Blueseed and work for the firm without getting visas.
An artist’s vision of Blueseed
Blueseed is a fantastic idea, except for its unworkability.  The international law of the sea says that every vessel on the high seas needs to be flagged by a recognized nation, and its laws will then apply there as though it were real territory.  The same is true of anchored structures on the high seas, like oil rigs.  They are not no-man’s-lands.  Sealand is only allowed to exist because not much happens there.  If it started housing companies earning millions, to say nothing of WikiLeaks, you can bet that the U.K. government would sweep in and shut it down if it didn’t agree to be taxed.  (Since its founding, Sealand has found itself suddenly within a legally expanded U.K. marine boundary.)

With this in mind, Blueseed proponents concede that they may have to relent and fly a “flag of convenience” such as that of the Bahamas, Bermuda, Panama, or the Marshall Islands, as many vessels do when they skirt the edges of national law at times.  The Republic of the Marshall Islands has, in fact, been mentioned specifically and repeatedly by Blueseed proponents.  But the Marshalls are a former U.S. colony and now independent state in “free association” with the U.S., so Marshallese-flagged entities on the high seas would not necessarily escape all scrutiny.  Remember the scandal a few years back when Congress investigated conditions in sweatshops in the nearby Northern Marianas Islands?  I’m sorry, did I say “sweatshop” again?  I meant to say “entrepreneurial enterprise operating free of government regulation.”

Ain’t no OSHA in Oceania ...
and that’s what libertarians like about it.
And even if Blueseed did somehow prevail, without sovereign states shutting it down in order to recoup possible revenue, it could set up dangerous precedents.  It wouldn’t just be pirate radio stations and unregulated, untaxed tech firms that would take advantage of a seasteading loophole.  We could also expect to see things like floating headquarters for Somali-coast pirates, floating al-Qaeda training camps, and floating child brothels.  Perhaps there are some good reasons why all human activity on Earth is under the aegis of some sovereign state or other.

Who knows?  All sorts of industries could thrive in floating cities,
free of oppressive government regulation.
Suffice to say: it’ll never happen.  But don’t say that around Srinivasan and the other visionaries of Silicon Valley.  They’re so excited building their Lego cities of the future.  I just don’t have the heart to tell them.

[You can read more about Blueseed, Belle Isle, Vemerana, and other micronation, independence, and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]


  1. Another interesting article.

  2. What's going on with this rename group in Mozambique?


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