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Waves Washing Inland: Symbiosis Between Think Tanks and New Nations

November 24, 2009

As Peter Thiel said at TSI’s recent conference (talk video), the prospects for freedom over the coming decades depend enormously on whether we end up with more or fewer sovereign jurisdictions.  Even governments respond to competition and the threat of exit.  But that does not mean voice does not matter at all – far from it, the two are complementary.

Let’s consider the case of pirate radio in the UK, as covered in the old seasteading book, and featured in the movie “Pirate Radio” which recently came out in the US.  From Erwin Strauss’ book:

In the 1960’s, a new form of offshore activity emerged. Commercial radio as known in the United States didn’t exist in Europe at the time. With few exceptions, all that was to be heard were staid government stations. Then a ship named Veronica dropped anchor just off the Dutch coast, with a transmitter beaming programing filled with the latest popular music. Advertisers eagerly bought up all the available time at premium rates, and imitators soon followed in the Scandinavian and British markets…

International agreements were entered into to ban broadcasting from ships, but the African country of Sierra Leone chose to offer its flag as a flag of convenience rather than subscribe to the treaties …

In addition to competition giving rise to friendly flags, another source reports that it ensured access to supplies:

…on January 22nd, the governments of Belgium, France, Greece, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and Britain signed a Council of Europe Agreement that not only banned broadcasts ‘on board ships, aircraft or any other floating or airborne objects’ but also banned anyone from those countries from supplying the pirates with materials, supplies or equipment. The stations were forced to obtain new sources of supply from either Holland or Spain, neither of whom had been party to the agreement…Caroline’ was also in the happier position of being able to obtain supplies from Dublin or even the Isle of Man as the Manx government were reluctant to ratify legislation against the pirate ship due to the trade and tourism she brought to the island. “

Most importantly, pirate radio won, as Strauss reports:

The British finally knocked their offshore broadcasters off the air by banning advertising on them by firms doing business in the United Kingdom…then the coup de grace was delivered: the opening of popular music stations on land.

The waves from pirate radio washed inland, eventually forcing the UK government to give people what they wanted: rock-and-roll music on the radio.  The pirates shut down, not because they were forced out of existence, but because the changes on land ended the arbitrage opportunity and eliminated their market.  Which is the ultimate victory – helping those in current countries get more of what they want, through the existing systems they are comfortable with, and without the extra cost of ocean operations (what we call the “ocean tax”).

Jurisdictional competition movements can provide experiments, empirical evidence, and competition – which I believe are almost indispensible requirements for political change.  But the greatest leverage will come from the effects on existing countries, which are far more populous than seasteads will be for many decades to come.  Hammering home the lessons of failed policies and reminding people that there are better alternatives is exactly what domestic activist institutions such as policy think tanks specialize in.  Thus, there is a symbiotic relationship between movements like seasteading, Free Zones, and Charter Cities, and domestic organizations such as Cato, The Independent Institute, Pacific Research Institute, etc.

Without A Thousand Nations to serve as examples and provide incentive for governments to improve, think tanks will only be an expression of dissatisfaction, not a force for change.  But without think tanks to advocate for more effective government which incorporates the lessons learned in these experimental communities, the Thousand Nations will have no effect beyond those small communities.  Think tanks need nation-startups to make waves, and the world needs think tanks to help those waves wash inland.

(this post is based on recent discussions with Michael Strong & Gayle Young, as well as Doug Bandow and David Boaz‘s comments on my Cato talk last spring).

  1. March 2, 2010 9:20 am

    hello, spring is cooming! good post there, tnx for


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