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What distinguishes a seastead from a vanity project?

November 27, 2017


When a writer of the calibre of Izabella Kaminska critiques the economics behind seasteading, it’s wise to take note [On the (non) viability of start-up islands, Financial Times, Nov. 17, 2017]. Right off the bat, however, she’s blinded by the assumption that seasteads are fundamentally akin to special economic zones or tax havens, rather than being something brand new.  She’s right that a seastead cannot compete with the existing options on the basis of tax or regulatory evasion alone. Dubai, Shenzen, and the Cayman Islands already have that market cornered.

She also takes issue with the analogy of seasteads to the member nations of Hanseatic League – a maritime trade alliance among medieval city states – since the latter were not governed anarchically, but were subsumed under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire:

To the contrary, they boasted highly complex systems of civil governance which levied domestic populations. Some had a democratic flavour where decisions were forged according to representative consensus, some less so.

But no one has suggested that individual seasteads be governed anarchically. An alternative slogan for seasteading to “Let 1,000 Nations Bloom,” could be “Let’s have more, better rules,” or more accurately, more systems of rules.

Hansa League

The institutional ecosystem precedes the technological development.

But while Kaminska appears not to have done her homework on these counts, she does have two valid, related points:

1) Although she entertains the idea that seasteaders might be motivated by other concerns – like the American settlers escaping persecution – she maintains that there would not be enough intrinsic resources to sustain even the most die-hard pioneers. With nothing to trade, the platform would have to sustain itself with constant injections of capital.

2) In the absence of any real “homesteading” opportunities, artificial islands would have to provide services, and would be economically-disadvantaged compared to the aforementioned havens:


“In a global economy which already provides plentiful access to much cheaper special economic zones and tax havens, the exercise amounts to nothing more than a vanity project for billionaires with more money than sense.”

This brings me to the essence of seasteading, which has to embrace and the alleged “ocean tax.” Patri has predicted that seasteading will become a reality when the land tax (i.e., the costs of increasingly dysfunctional governments) exceeds the ocean tax, or the added engineering costs of building on the high seas. This formula computes the current (non) viability of politically autonomous artificial islands – vanity projects that may or may not ever come to fruition. But a politically autonomous artificial island is not a seastead. A seastead becomes a seastead when it turns the ocean tax into an ocean windfall, and reimagines the vast expanse of wind-swept waves as a dynamic, moist solar collector, ripe for harvesting in novel forms like algal biofuel.

What distinguishes a seastead from a vanity project? The seasteader isn’t afraid to get wet.

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