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Our Declining America Needs Less Libertarianism, More Moderation, Federalism and Seasteading

September 29, 2017

As a political observer and commentator, my mind can’t help being occupied over the last year with America’s decay into soft civil war and mutual extremism from Republicans and Democrats. Generally my thoughts align with the few moderate voices saying this growing tribalism is an existential threat to our country, such as Scott Alexander (“Against Murderism”), Andrew Sullivan (“Can Our Democracy Survive Tribalism?”, and Russ Roberts (“The World Turned Upside Down (and what to do about it”). But as someone with a strong identity around libertarianism, competitive governance, and seasteading, I have thoughts to add to the discussion.

First, I’m feeling much less comfortable strongly promoting libertarianism and my libertarian identity in today’s America, because it just feels like we have bigger problems. Whatever the equivalent of Maslow’s Hierarchy is for your country of residence, we have, sadly, moved down it. I no longer see my country as a safe, stable place with decent but not great rules that I should try to change into an amazing free society. Or one with a vibrant tradition of individualism that can be tapped into and the strength to handle deep criticism.

Instead, I see a country with increasing bipartisan extremism, including political street violence. One which is not merely a post-peak empire (that’s fine with me), but which, as it declines, is fractionating along geographic, ethnic, religious and class lines and dissolving into internecine sectarian conflict, zero-sum battles, and soft civil war.

And so it feels more urgent and important to promote moderation and anti-tribalism than a specific platform like libertarianism. On the other hand, I feel more energized than ever to speak about the critical importance of federalism and seasteading. Federalism feels like not just a libertarian minority idea, but a key part of the liberal technology that allowed different groups to live peacefully together in the United States. So I believe that promoting federalism should be a key part of the moderate platform that develops in response to current political ills.

However, it remains to be seen whether such a moderate platform can win mindshare in the memetic arena when competing with today’s virulent clickbait memes and their toxic winning weapons of outrage, dishonesty, superficiality, and exaggeration. Seizing enough support to change the momentum of our growingly narcissistic democracy will be a huge challenge. And so, the worse things get on land, the more critical it becomes to have the escape valve, innovation laboratory, and startup sector of seasteading.

Which is why it’s so exciting to see The Seasteading Institute signing an MOU with French Polynesia for our Floating City Project and forming a broad movement as shown in the Tahitian First 100 conference with seasteaders, Polynesian leaders, and entrepreneurs. While at the same time, our new book from Simon & Schuster is spreading an exciting, detailed, big tent vision of seasteading to the world. One city on a hill is never enough – we must Let A Thousand Nations Bloom.

And all of this is why I’ve started writing again this past year, mainly on Facebook and Twitter, and will relaunch my blog by the end of the year. Because a world gone mad, an empire in decline, and a populace losing touch with the virtues of civilization needs philosophy, federalism, and floating cities. And that means it needs Friedmans continuing to spread our Friedmaniacal ideas.

Ephemerisle, 2016

Insightful Review of Seasteading Book

September 25, 2017

Blogger Below Potential has posted a good, concise review of Joe and Patri’s new Seasteading book, calling it a “must-read” for conservatives, progressives and libertarians alike. It also mentions the politically confused, which is – if we’re honest – all of us.

 Technology rather than an Ideology

Seasteading is a technology for anybody to try their vision of society. Seasteaders are from all political spectrums – and some simply identify as politically confused. They share the conviction that experiments are the source of all progress and that humanity needs more experiments in governance. They have realised that arguing about politics is a waste of time and that trial and error is the way to go.

My first blog (if you don’t count LiveJournal) was called “Radical Ignorance” – an idea from Austrian economics referring to the impossibility of assigning probabilities to future events where human action is concerned. This outlook makes one more humble about what governments (armed with statisticians and other high priests of statecraft) can accomplish, but there is a risk of taking it too far, and giving up on trying new things collectively that might bring benefits. We might not make a colossal mistake, but we might fall… below potential.

Seasteading is one of the few ways out of this paradox. We can try to make a better future, but only after figuring out who “we” are, and what ideas we imagine have the best chance of working.

First Annual Berkeley Colloquium on Seasteading & Marine Biology

September 21, 2017

I never get email at my old seasteading address. It’s been three years since I was staff writer at the Institute, but I got a note out of the blue this month from a French marine biologist in the Bay Area (“on mission … at NASA”). Dr. Virginie Tilot de Grissac wanted to meet some seasteaders. She seemed (from my Googling) to be a genuine intellectual – a curious academic, whose papers and conference talks are motivated by a desire to find out something previously unknown. She’s also been to the deepest explored parts of the ocean, and seen plants that grow with no sunlight – only hydrothermal energy.

I punted to Joe Quirk (President of The Seasteading Institute), but there were no events happening when Virginie was available. “Hey,” I thought, “why not invite her *and* Joe, and whoever else wants to come, to lunch at the Berkeley Marina?” There’s no better place to talk about the future of oceans/governance than aboard Tara, the stoutest little sloop on J Dock.

Virginie came with her old childhood friend, Michael Gomez – a Bay Area native and fellow marine biologist. She mentioned that it was a trip with Michael to the aquarium with their mothers that first made her want to be a marine biologist. This led to a conversation about what inspires change. The Cold War “space race” narrative gave us a whole generation of kids that grew up into crazy adults that want to colonize Mars.

Michael told us about “Resilient by Design,” through which the Rockefeller Foundation is dividing a $4.6 million grant among 10 teams, who are competing to come up with the best solutions to improve the Bay’s resilience to natural disaster and sea-level rise.

Virginie and Joe discovered a mutual friend in Pascal Erhel Hatuuku, a seasteading ambassador from French Polynesia who identifies as Marquisian, and proposed floating islands in the South Pacific four years before The Seasteading Institute was founded (see his  mostly French seasteading talk). I haven’t met him, but the fact that he uses a Moana screenshot on his powerpoint makes me think we’d get along. If you haven’t seen it, Moana is Disney’s latest blockbuster. It will inspire you to venture beyond the fake boundaries we set up when we lose touch with our ancestors’ wisdom.

We were also visited by one of J Dock’s bolder seagulls, who was attracted by our DIY sushi (canned salmon, arborio rice, and seaweed snacks), bringing our colloquium up to five participants.


Watching… Waiting…

Virginie made known her intention to put together a conference at UNESCO Paris, titled, “A multi-sectoral strategy for Island communities facing climate change.” UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Consider me a skeptic on some counts. In my mind, the U.N. stands for a certain “talking over doing” approach, not to mention its reverence of global governance that stifles the trial and error needed from many independent countries to discover what works. But if Virginie – a doer and original thinker – is representative of her colleagues, the conference could produce some interesting results.

As an aside: UNESCO’s Twitter feed is abuzz, since today is Peace Day, apparently. I liked this image they shared:


If any Bay Area-ites want to co-host another “first annual” colloquium on something seasteading-related, drop a line in the comments.

Federalism 2.0, or Bully Federalism?

September 20, 2017

The Hoover Institution’s David Davenport can’t make up his mind about the resurgence of Federalism from the unlikeliest of states. He is one author of the SF Chronicle’s second pro-Federalism Sunday op-ed in two weeks – a piece titled, “States flexing their power, just as Founders Intended” (9/14/17). But we soon learn that this is not, in fact, your (founding) father’s federalism. Just a few days earlier, Davenport put out a 1-minute clip on “California’s Bully Federalism,” on conservative blog, noting that some of the state’s go-it-alone policies are less about freedom from federal interference than imposing California Über Alles. Take a listen:

Still, Davenport swallows his pride and joins his voice with a liberal to make the broadest possible case for federalism (whether or not you agree with the specifics):

Now everything from legalized marijuana, the minimum wage, climate change, immigration, auto emissions, and civil rights is on the federalism agenda. On one issue or another, federalism is now for everyone, from conservatives to liberals, a spectrum represented by the authors.

Federalism 1.0 was tainted by the association of states rights with pre-Civil Rights Era discriminatory statutes. Davenport’s concern, which I share, is that California will use its economic heft to impose its values on other states it sees as less enlightened. The prime example of bullying is California’s ban on state-paid travel – including for university students – to states that don’t provide sufficient protection for LGBT individuals. If progressives discover that Federalism 2.0 is a way to accelerate cultural and political change across the country, the term may overtake big data as the hottest buzzword in Silicon Valley. I think the strategy will backfire, and lead other states to hunker down in a fortress mentality.

The potential downside of federalism, as I noted in my last post on Federalism, is that states will seek “federalism for me, but not for thee.” Although I’m partial to certain uniquely Californian values, I don’t want to see them imposed them on other states. The beauty of the founders’ concept of states as laboratories of democracy is that they can run different experiments – not set the agenda nationwide.

On the other hand, I recently attended a memorial event for California’s leading historian, Kevin Starr, who apparently believed in California as a beacon on a hill that could atone for the sins of the nation (i.e., mistreatment of minorities, immigrants, refugees, and the environment). Federalism 2.0 should be about leading by example, and resisting the temptation to bullying.

Don’t label me, man.

September 19, 2017

I have good news and bad news for lovers of fermented tea, aka kombucha. First, the good:

If you purchased GT’s kombucha products between March 11, 2011 and Feb. 27, 2017, you may be entitled to benefits from the kombucha class action settlement.

Sweet! Now the bad: the GT’s and Whole Foods are being sued by a competing purveyor of probiotic beverages, KeVita, for underreporting their drinks’ sugar content. I knew something about their Trilogy flavor seemed too good to be true.

In related news, Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept reports on a Whole Foods supplier – Pitman Family Farms – that is accused of falling short of standards for the humane, “free-range” label they use on their Mary’s Free Range Chicken product. It’s unclear from the story whether Pitman raises chickens from separate substandard facilities and labels them as such, but it doesn’t look good for either company.

As someone who may spend $8 for a dozen eggs on occasion, I want to know that what I’m buying is the real thing. One solution is better labeling. The same health food newsletter that recently extolled voting with your dollars ended with a plea for activism, in the form of support for the National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory board of dedicated volunteers. But the inspectors seem to not be doing their jobs, and who could blame them? There are thousands of small organic farms and only a handful of bureaucrats, who prefer air-conditioned offices to smelly hen houses. Industry probably sets up their facilities in a way that makes it easiest for inspectors to check the right boxes, not engage a thoroughgoing search for truth. This is not to impugn anyone’s motives, just speculate on how I might act if I were in the inspector’s shoes.

In the case of GT’s kombucha, it took a rival producer to discover the “”error”” in GT’s nutritional facts. In the mysterious case of the “”free””-range chickens, it was the private news outlet that brought you Snowden’s leaks on drone strikes and the NSA that shined a light in the chicken coop. Even public goods like transparency and accuracy in labeling can come from competition. The mistake is thinking that the label, the standards, or the legislation are what create accountability.

Good Earthlings Vote with Their $$

September 18, 2017

Fairfax, California (population: 7,598) straddles the cosmopolitan haven of San Rafael and the more rural West Marin. It’s a town where everybody seems to know everybody – where town drunks rub elbows with local police, bikers with cyclists, hippies with yuppies, rednecks with tattoo freaks, and pot farmers with cowherds. These charming contradictions have earned Fairfax the nickname of “Mayberry on Acid.”

Good Earth Natural Foods, in the heart of downtown Fairfax, sells groceries to customers who care about recycling post-consumer waste. I had the pleasure of shopping at Good Earth yesterday, and picked up their latest newsletter, The Good Earthling. This issue was promoting organic food as the foundation of good health, and organic soil as the foundation of organic food. The back-page article, titled “Vote with your Dollar!”, says:

The simplest and most poignant form of food activism is voting with your dollar; making every place or way you buy your food a conscious decision about who you support, and who you do not. Your monetary choices combine with the monetary choices of likeminded individuals to make waves, and have significant effects on whether or not certain entities are allowed to thrive, and grow.

Once again, progressive values are suddenly being expressed in terms of decentralization and individual choice. Could the 2016 election have permanently de-romanticized politics for a certain segment of the population? Let us hope.


Be a good earthling. Vote with your dollars and buy good grass-fed meats. It’s good for the soil, good for the animals, and good for you.

Michael Strong on SF Bay/Seattle Radio

September 16, 2017

Update: The show is now available as a podcast/mp3.

This Sunday (9/17, 8-9am PACIFIC) I will have the privilege of interviewing Michael Strong, alongside guest host and Seasteading author Joe Quirk. The topics are startup cities, education, entrepreneurship, and human flourishing. You can listen online here, or on 860 AM in the SF Bay.

Michael Strong is a contributor to this blog, founder of multiple charter schools,  author of BE THE SOLUTION:  HOW ENTREPRENEURS AND CONSCIOUS CAPITALISTS CAN SOLVE ALL THE WORLD’S PROBLEMS, and co-founder (with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey) of Conscious Capitalism, Inc.

I’m fascinated by startup cities for all of the obvious reasons, but I’m especially interested in Michael’s perspective as an entrepreneur and defender of capitalism who also speaks disparagingly of materialism, and owns very few things. He heralds a shift in the things people value, from “stuff” to meaningful experience. Our conversation will look at whether the imperatives for the under-developed world, where material scarcity is still a reality, are different from those in the developed world, where people are drowning in worthless possessions, and where infrastructure seems better suited to a bygone era. We’ll also discuss the relationship intellectuals have to capitalism, and why they have historically been hostile to the system that made them wealthy. Do they have some good points? How can we incorporate the best critiques into the foundations of the new forms of government we want to build?

It ‘s also worth mentioning that Michael is about to move from Austin to the San Francisco Bay Area to start a new school, and that Conscious Capitalism has a (dormant) Bay Area Chapter. From the website:

If there’s one place that positive change is alive and well, it’s the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the comments, I’d like to hear whether Bay Area-ites agree with this statement.

I am grateful to Bob Zadek (whose weekly show I produce) for the opportunity to sub for him this weekend. Joe and I welcome your calls at any time during the show, at (424) BOB – SHOW. Let’s give Michael a warm welcome to the Bay Area.