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Seasteading and Charter Cities

August 10, 2009

I’ve had some thoughts in my head about similarities and differences between Seasteading and Charter Cities since talking to Paul Romer a couple weeks ago.  I was thinking of saving them for the planned Competitive Government roundtable at the upcoming Seasteading Conference, but now that Alex Tabarrok is comparing the approaches, I’ll post my thoughts.

First, I want to emphasize the core observation that is at the heart of both ideas (and this blog).  Governance, laws, institutions – all of these are types of information technology.  Given the right incentives, technology, especially information technology, can advance quickly and provide enormous benefit to humanity.  Unfortunately, certain structural elements of the governing industry give it poor incentives and little competition, which results in very slow improvement – especially now that there is no frontier for bloodless resets.  In fact, the implementation of current government technology is actually getting worse, due to democratic sclerosis.

Thus the way forward is to enable small scale experimentation in governance to increase the rate of innovation of the technology, and to increase competition among governments so as to improve the implementation of the technology.  We need real experiments, not just talk, so Folk Activism is out.  We will challenge entrenched power structures, so inhabited land will probably not work.

I believe that this set of ideas, so contrary to the vast majority of attempts to reform government, is crucial to achieving real change, regardless of how it is implemented.  That is why this blog is about letting A Thousand Nations Bloom – not just seasteading, and why the similarities are far more important than any differences between the ideas.

That said, differences can be fruitful to explore.  Here are a few of the important ones I see:

Spread Best Practices vs. Raise The Bar: Charter Cities can be thought of as a way to bring the current best practices in governance to places that currently have vastly inferior governance technology.  Seasteading, on the other hand, is an attempt to raise the bar by improving the current best practices.  Both are useful and important.  Note that in the long-term, charter cities also enable raising the bar, by promoting the concept of governance as a product and providing it as a business.  Thus in the long-term, it can result in experimentation with new governance technology, not just spreading best practices.

Government Relations: Charter Cities are closely tied to existing governments, as they are administered by one government, and located within the territory of another.  This makes them less threatening to current states and gives them access to the enormous resources that states can command – which was key to the settlement of North America.  On the other hand, this prevents the most radical innovations – stable governments tend to be conservative, and all the defects which we are trying to improve upon will be in effect to make improvement more difficult.

Seasteads require relationships with governments as well, for a number of reasons.  Locating in the 200-mile EEZ is beneficial and requires a treaty.  Autonomy requires that seasteads not offend the few major nations that can project power around the globe.  Even economic relationships with countries requires some lack of animosity from the trading partner.

However, distance matters – militarily and psychologically.  Being within the claimed territory of a current country means the residents will consider a charter city as “theirs”, unlike a distant seastead.  Seasteads thus have the potential to operate with less government interference in the best case, although there is certainly quite a bit of risk.  As Alex Tabarrok writes:

A charter city is an agreement between governments – Cuba agrees to let Canada import Canadian rules onto a small portion of Cuban property.  Cuba could renege on the deal but it’s going to be much harder for Cuba to renege on Canada than for the U.S. government to regulate or otherwise control seasteading.

While it may be hard for Cuba to renege on Canada, a charter city is guaranteed to be regulated by Canada or Cuba, perhaps quite closely, and a seastead at least has a chance of being regulated loosely or not at all.

Ease of Startup: Seasteading requires significant but incremental developments in ocean engineering technology to make ocean living cheaper, more comfortable, and more permanent than existing technologies such as cruise ships and oil platform.  However, it does not require initial permission from governments.  Charter cities require no technology improvements, and can be built on land.  In order to start one, however, you have to bring two governments to the table – a substantial task.

Both pose substantial challenges, and it is not clear to me which is easier.  Certainly I am personally more comfortable with solving engineering problems that negotiating with governments, but I can easily imagine someone with better political connections feeling the opposite.

Long-Term Impact on Incentives: As Alex Tabarrok writes:

Seasteading is more radical but it is more open, less tied to elites, and more flexible so, if it works, it is a better design for what Romer calls innovation in rules formation.

If we can solve the engineering problems, and seasteads are generally left alone by governments, seasteading will enable much quicker experimentation with rules systems because new ventures can be done entirely privately, with no government bureaucracy involved.  In other words, the barrier to entry is lowered more by seasteading than by charter cities.  Additionally, if seastead cities are built in a modular fashion, they allow residents to “Vote With Their Houses” (and factories, and office buildings). The ability to re-arrange ocean city-states is a crucial factor in resisting governance sclerosis and increasing the speed of innovation.

That said, seasteading’s main challenges (living on the ocean and obtaining autonomy) are significant, and charter cities avoid both of them.  Thus they are lower reward, but also lower risk.  As I have stated elsewhere, given that any such venture to improve government is far from certain, having a portfolio of multiple independent ventures will give far greater odds that at least one will succeed.

I have more thoughts relating to how we bootstrap credibility and who is the ultimate enforcer, but I will save them for the future…

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  7. Kadın permalink
    April 7, 2011 6:30 pm

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  8. Julian le Roux permalink
    February 19, 2011 2:36 pm

    What about anarcho-capitalist charter cities? Wouldn’t they effectively be a hybrid of seasteading and Romer’s current conception of CCs?

    Methinks the competition & experimentation between governance systems/firms in one Ancap CC would create much more technological innovation than dozens of vanilla CCs – since Ancap CCs would exhibit the lower-entry-barriers feature of seasteading. WRT customer lockin, like a seasteading module, each plot of land can change its judicial services firm and/or the rules its owner has contracted to live by.

    Sure, the host nation would probably freak when the A word is mentioned. But at least it removes the number of governments you have to deal with. Plus it nullifies the whiff of colonialism and condescension. Plus the legal system(s) can mould around the customs of the immigrants. Even if the host nation demands a guarantor country, perhaps they can leave a small portion of the chartered land “stateless”.

    Now that Romer’s probably got his host country (Honduras), can’t Patri’s dad gather up a posse of anarchist professors, visit his office and “gently persuade” him that he should get started immediately? No need to search for some meddlesome guarantor nation.

    If this has already been discussed somewhere, please point me in the right direction. Thanks.

    • February 21, 2011 6:09 am

      I consider ancap the most promising idea for a better legal system. But it is not a hybrid of seasteading, because the low entry barrier/cost of switching has no physical enforcement. For example, states in the US were supposed to compete w/ different laws, thus offering competition, but power has steadily centralized and the secession attempt was suppressed with brutal violence. Similarly, ancap protection agencies are supposed to allow entry (of firms) and switching (of customers) and stay competitive, but they may form a cartel or collapse into a monopolistic central government.

      Seasteading offers the possibility for physical separation which increases the difficulty of violently ruling a territory due to the extra cost of projecting force a longer distance. This is unique compared to any form of government on land.

      Anyway, I am certainly in favor of an ancap charter city being tried, but it seems unlikely to be accepted by the host government.

      • Julian le Roux permalink
        February 22, 2011 2:57 pm

        Very good point – I agree that geographic separability makes a world of difference. Thanks for the quick reply.

  9. December 8, 2010 8:18 am

    Unsurprisngly, Libertarians at have been alive to these issues. Page down for the various articles.

  10. August 24, 2009 12:02 am

    “Charter Cities can be thought of as a way to bring the current best practices in governance to places that currently have vastly inferior governance technology. “

    This has been tried, for example innumerable interventions in Haiti, the recent assimilation of East Germany by West Germany, and so forth. It is apparent that such efforts tend to export what has recently gone wrong with our society, rather than what is right with our society. Mencius Moldbug points out the tremendous success of classic colonialism in bringing liberty, prosperity, personal security, and trains that run on time to the colonized – and the ruinous failure of modern colonialism, indicating that modern colonialists have a very poor grasp of what are the differences that make a difference.

    If the US invades Haiti yet again, this time under Obama, then this time around we will probably raise the minimum wage to seven dollars an hour and give them midnight basketball and single payer health care.


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