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Sovereignty May Be Boolean, But Freedom Isn’t

October 5, 2009

A couple of weeks ago Mencius Moldbug wrote a very substantive, lengthy (SHOCKER!) criticism of seasteading, which you should read if you haven’t already. He makes a variety of interesting arguments, which will require a number of posts to address, but we have to start somewhere.

Mencius writes:

There is no reason to think that any ship or structure, anywhere at sea, will be able to sustain any nontrivial infringement of US law – especially if any part of its organizational structure includes US persons or US entities…

…China and Russia are not new lacunae, and their quasi-sovereignty is maintained by one thing: military power. A seastead will never achieve military power, because it will never be allowed to start achieving military power. Terrestrial resistance to USG is conceivable under certain circumstances, preferably not including me. Naval resistance is inconceivable under any circumstance.

This is the demon-filled pit. The endgame problem with seasteading is that your “alternatives to government,” your pelagic argosies, will either become sovereign, or not. Sovereignty, like virginity, being boolean.

Until you have a realistic plan to become sovereign, you have no realistic plan to escape. You can spend all the time you want, and have all the fun you want, pretending to be free. Or planning to pretend to be free. In Washington, however, they know the difference – and always will.

There are a few issues here. First, there’s no particular explanation as to why the lack of absolute sovereignty means somehow that seasteaders won’t enjoy significant increases in the freedoms that they desire. Want to use drugs? The cops won’t barge in your door. Want to offer services that are prohibited in the United States? It’s not like the US has invaded Mexico over the fact that they sell Vicodin in Tijuana without a prescription. The degree to which the United States intervenes in the affairs of others decreases massively once you get outside of its jurisdiction.

That’s not to say that the USFG couldn’t stop seasteaders from being more free. Of course it could. The argument was, and has always been, that it won’t.

Now, there are some freedoms that seasteaders probably won’t be able to enjoy. Exporting drugs to the United States? Probably not. Molesting Children? Also unlikely.

It’s possible that Mencius considers the increases in freedom that people will realize “trivial.” But what the government considers trivial, and what individuals consider trivial are very different things. There are freedoms that the government will deny you within its jurisdiction, and allow you to have outside of it, and some individuals value those freedoms more than others. If the seasteading movement could help people access the specific freedoms that they value most, then it is an avenue worth pursuing.

  1. October 8, 2009 6:51 am

    Try free banking. You will get the Panama treatment.

    Now I rather think we are going to return to gold fairly soon – but through facilities that are harder to sink.

  2. Tim permalink
    October 6, 2009 9:48 pm

    A few thoughts:

    (1) I don’t think it helps to talk about sovereignty without defining it. For instance, Moldbug claims that sovereignty requires military power. Obviously, if he defines sovereignty as the power to resist invasion or control from a hostile government, I guess he’s right, though trivially and tautologically. If he defines sovereignty as existence without invasion or control from an external government, I think he’s wrong. People can exist independently of established governments. The power to resist invasion/control differs from absence of invasion/control. Perhaps seasteaders should not hope for the former, but they should hope for the latter.

    (2) Which brings me to my second point: I don’t think even sovereignty is boolean. Just look at the Principality of Sealand. The UK does not formally recognize Sealand as a sovereign state, but they treat it as such. Sealand (consisting of the Bates family) enjoys de facto sovereignty. Admittedly, a UK court recognized Sealand as falling outside UK jurisdiction. This helped.

    I imagine, however, that Sealand does not owe its de facto sovereignty to this court decision. Nor does it owe its de facto sovereignty to military victory. For all I know, my dad owns more weapons than the entire population of Sealand.

    Sealand probably owes its de factor sovereignty to indifference. It would cost the UK more (in terms of reputation, money, etc.) to challenge the sovereignty of Sealand than to simply leave it alone. Why bother? It simply makes no sense after weighing costs and benefits.

    Voila. Sealand enjoys one kind of sovereignty (i.e., the absence of invasion/control from an external government) without enjoying another (i.e., the power to resist invasion/control from a hostile government).

    I think seasteading can succeed because individual seasteading communities will be too small, disparate, and diverse to warrant expensive intervention from current governments.

  3. October 6, 2009 5:35 pm

    Obviously, the USG won’t look at a seastead and say, “Oh, look a country! Let’s try talking to the local government and coerce the local tax evaders, just like we do in Switzerland!” Nah, they’ll just shut it down and arrest everyone, just like they would if they didn’t like the looks of your yacht. It does warrant mentioning, however, that even if they did try to treat a seastead like a country, they would still try to extract taxes, arrest individuals, and generally lean on the local government until it decides to roll over and become a compliant tool.
    Now, sure, one can find relatively more freedom outside of USGs immediate grasp, but does this freedom translate into a genuine profit when one considers the restrictions necessary to living on the sea? It is possible, though it’s probably much more likely to work if the stated goal has something to do with shipping and the flag is some flag of convience that the USG is okay with. Nothing pisses off the cops more than a mention of freedom, unless, of course, you have sovereignty and the means to enforce it.
    A slightly different approach would be to continue to hope that USG would ignore seasteading, but to go ahead and engage in the risky, but high dollar sorts of businesses that the USG would likely shut seasteading down for- for the express purpose of getting powerful enough to defend the seastead before they notice. This may be a more sensible plan, especially since the are just as likely to shut a seastead down for drug running as they are for child abuse- in fact, they are more likely to use child abuse because they don’t need actual proof. They’ll just say child+seastead=abuse because obviously said child has been far removed from all the wonderful services USG provides, and such isolation from their grandeur must be evil.
    Statutes are broad and vague so that they can turn practically any activity into a felony.
    But I digress.
    I suspect a seastead would be a very visible thing upon the sea. Strategies for fight/flight are best thought out ahead of time and well funded (says he, as he simultaneously realizes he doesn’t follow his own damn advice in the here and now!).

  4. Will Chamberlain permalink
    October 5, 2009 11:20 pm

    To wit: Will seasteaders pay US income taxes?

    Depends on the seastead, depends on the seasteader. Pretty hard to know this in advance.

    “If yes, seasteading has no point…”

    Maybe for you, maybe not for others. The idea that there is one “point” to seasteading is pretty silly.

    “and if not, will USG stand for this once it becomes a serious drain on it’s balance sheets? Mencius’ answer is that USG will not allow this, and I haven’t read any credible arguments as to why he’s wrong.”

    Here’s two. The US generally doesn’t invade other countries with tax-evading citizens, even those with very little in the way of military defenses, so all odds are that the US wouldn’t attack seasteads.

    And, seasteading won’t create “a serious drain” on the government’s finances for at least fifty years. Nobody can know what USG will look like at that point, not even someone as smart as Mencius.

  5. October 5, 2009 9:45 pm

    The important question, and the PURPOSE of seasteading, is being glossed over in this post.

    To wit: Will seasteaders pay US income taxes? If yes, seasteading has no point, and if not, will USG stand for this once it becomes a serious drain on it’s balance sheets?

    Mencius’ answer is that USG will not allow this, and I haven’t read any credible arguments as to why he’s wrong.

    • October 6, 2009 12:05 am

      Depends on whether or not they’re US citizens… 😉 I don’t pay US income tax, and I don’t see why I would if I move to a Seastead

      Thousands of US Citizens don’t pay nearly as much income tax as they ought to, thanks to the taciturn business acumen of the Swiss.

      Let’s stop speaking in conjecture and maybes. Just explain to me *how* the US govt demands and then takes a portion of the wage I pay the shelf-stacker in “Sconzey & Son, Recreational Substances” ?

    • October 20, 2009 4:26 am

      American expatriates make up several percent of the entire population of Costa Rica. Costa Rica doesn’t even have an army, and the US hasn’t threatened them.

      Sure, at some point, if the wealth drain is bad enough, maybe the US will do something. But that something is much more likely to be increasing the expatriation tax than blowing up the seasteads. If that happens, that will be bad. But how does that make seasteading not good, or not worthwhile? People can still try to smuggle their money out. People can leave before they make their money. All kinds of good things can happen from the competition.

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