For years, I had this wicked little idea for a “reality show” called Libertarian Island. In it, we’d drop prominent free-market types on a deserted island, and let them fight to the death. Like The Hunger Games with uglier participants and more cannibalism.
Rush would get killed first, as he has the most meat on his bones. The Koch brother
s would form an alliance with Scott Walker, then eat him. Sarah Palin would, ironically, get trampled by a moose. Newt Gingrich would contract cancer and divorce himself. I’m not sure who would win, but Dick Cheney’d be best at shooting into people’s faces.
Unbeknownst to me, there’s been a libertarian think tank that actually wants to create their own floating island. Not for murder (well, not of the rich), but as the ultimate free-market utopia. They’re called the Seasteading Institute, as in like homesteading, on the ocean. (Phonetically, it makes me think of some chic new birthing procedure.)
Apparently, for a while the idea gained real traction among Silicon Valley types, no doubt dreaming of being surrounded by great minds like themselves. (Peter Thiel of the Valley is a major investor, and a major blowhard.) Yet they lost interest (perhaps sensibly realizing they already get every concession they want from America’s political parties).
Happily for fans of really crazy ideas, the project is now back on. The Seasteading people are in negotiations with French Polynesia (islands containing Tahiti, Pago Pago, and other places Marlon Brando lived to be weird).
This would appear to make sense from the Polynesian standpoint; it brings flights to their airports, money to their economy, and some cool stuff to wash up onshore when an eventual typhoon or tsunami wrecks the seasteaders.
A Study in Silliness
I still doubt it can happen. (Why spend all that startup cash when you can just bank in Panama?) Yet the effort they’re putting into it is impressive.
Particularly fun is this academic-style PDF, presented at a conference in the Bahamas. Unless the conference featured peer review, it’s not really an academic paper, but it adds a little intellectual patina. Like having impressive book titles lying around that the owner never intends to read. (A suggested example for conservatives is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History Of Whine.)
The paper is full of silly pseudo-terminology. Libertarian ideology is “public-choice theory.” (For rich people.) “Constitutional states” are those with, um, actual rules, which are always doomed to failure. (For rich people.) “Mobile citizens”? Rich people. (The authors praise that laboratory of “competitive government” innovation, feudalism.)
Free Market in People
This passage is my favorite:
The European settlement of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries shows this dynamic at work. The open space of this frontier allowed many new jurisdictions to be formed. Colonies, some of which were explicitly for-profit enterprises, had a great deal of independence and varied in their approach to governance. With an abundance of land and a shortage of people, colonies needed to attract residents to survive and grow. Settlers were comparatively mobile and good rules would give a colony an advantage in the competitive struggle for citizens. Churches and various culturally-specific governance providers added to the diversity, and the result was many new entrants into the governance market competing for citizens.
Nothing like genocide and forced labor camps to make the “governance industry more competitive.” You get the sense that if an extinction-size meteor were heading towards Earth, these people would be arguing for regulatory cuts.
Real Governmental Problems
To be fair, the authors do have some good (if common) sense in their criticism of existing governments:
When the role of individual interests in choice are reduced, expressive concerns are even more likely to dominate than is the case in workaday politics.
My monster-to-human translator decodes that as “voters who feel powerless make emotional choices instead of logical ones.” True enough — but Thomas Frank says it more readably.
Enforcement of constitutional promises is usually left to governments themselves, leaving them relatively free to break these rules, either explicitly or through liberal interpretation.
Again, old news.
Democracies are always subject to the risk of regulatory capture — rule by the very organizations they are supposed to be subjecting to law. This was a favorite argument of Milton Friedman.
It shouldn’t come as any shock that one of the authors here is Milton’s grandson, Patri. Naturally, Gramps was more concerned with labor unions and taxes than he was with corporate malfeasance, and so when Patri mentions “special interests,” it’s not hard to guess who he has in mind.
One Little Problem — How the Heck Can It Work?
How is this all to be paid for? The magic of the market, naturally. Investors will buy their own floating houses, easily detachable from the Hive if they don’t like how it’s working. (And go … where? To a houseboat community in America? Warning: vermin issues.)
What will power the economy? The authors have some ideas, including aquaculture and medical tourism “enabled by cheap labor.” Well, if you don’t have money for cancer surgery in America, you certainly don’t have the money for tickets to Tahiti.
I suppose they could specialize in experimental treatments for the desperate. And that perennial favorite of rich folks — black-market organ trafficking.
That “cheap labor” line is no surprise — conservatives have loved it forever. But it is telling of a major problem with the model. Cheap labor means a workforce. They have to live somewhere. You’re not going to give them their own fancy detachable houses, as they might detach. They also might want to organize. Which means paying for a goon force, which means taxes.
And we haven’t even discussed military protection yet. Let’s say the floating island is highly popular. What’s to stop a single warship from showing up and demanding a ransom, or threatening to sink the island? Well, for that you need a military alliance of some kind. They’re not going to provide that service for nothing.
So the Seasteaders would need a government and constitution and taxes — or something pretty much the same, if labeled differently. (A “freedom fee”?) Why not just go live in a touristy tax shelter and open some hotel there? It would cost less.
The Ayn Rand Fantasy
These are dreamers, my friends. If you look at their board members, you see a lot of young faces. They’re gonna change the world!
You also see the usual libertarian interest groups. Drug legalization types, gay rights folks, hedge fund managers, Big Ag executives, right-wing think tank members, etc.
These are people who’ve swallowed the Norquist Kool-Aid; the only reason conservative policies haven’t created earthly paradise is, naturally, that pro-business trends worldwide haven’t gone far enough.
It’s the Ayn Rand fantasy. If you only achieve perfect “freedom” for those who can afford it, their brilliance will shower humankind with its blessings. War, famine, global warming, all shall be solved through “market innovation.” (Forgetting that markets are profiting quite handsomely off all three.)
It’s the supreme arrogance of true believers, and ultimately no different from the religious fanaticism that justifies terrorism. Except that it kills far more people.
Best of Luck!
In any case, I hope this project is pursued for years to come. It strikes me as a harmless way for rich idiots to lose their money, which is never a bad thing. Maybe someone can talk President Trump into investing.
He can slap his name on the organ-dealing hospital. And when his sign washes ashore, it can grace some charming Polynesian tiki bar.
Image cropped from pxfuel. Image cropped from Ayn Rand by DonkeyHotey under CC BY-SA 2.0.