We argue that those advocating the reform of current political systems in order to promote jurisdictional competition are in a catch-22: jurisdictional competition has the potential to improve policy, but reforms to increase competition must be enacted by currently uncompetitive governments. If such governments could be relied upon to enact such reforms, they would likely not be necessary. Since existing governments are resistant to change, we argue that the only way to overcome the deep problem of reform is by focusing on the bare-metal layer of society – the technological environment in which governments are embedded. Developing the technology to create settlements in international waters, which we refer to as seasteading, changes the technological environment rather than attempting to push against the incentives of existing political systems. As such, it sidesteps the problem of reform and is more likely than more conventional approaches to significantly alter the policy equilibrium.I love this line of work. Milton Friedman said that good government is best-case thinking; we need to constrain government. David Friedman said that constrained government is best-case thinking; we need market-based anarchy. Patri and Brad say that market-anarchy is best-case thinking; no government will cede territory to let it happen.
They aim a cannon at public choice theory:
Public choice theory tells us that we have bad rules because we have bad meta-rules. This merely shifts the question one level higher, however: why do we have bad meta-rules? This question has received much less attention from public choice theorists.2 Constitutionalists generally fail to extend their dispassionate critique of policy choice to the constitutional level (Farrant, 2004), arguing that current decision-making rules tend to produce bad policy outcomes yet expecting the same ﬂawed institutions to produce good constitutional rules (Witt, 1992).And, they give a solution to Caplan's Tiebout capitalization problem:
... dynamic geography addresses the concern of Caplan (2001b) that Tiebout competition is undermined by the fact that governance quality is capitalized into real estate values. When land is tied to a particular jurisdiction, reductions in the quality of governance will immediately lower land prices. This means that landowners have no incentive to exit bad jurisdictions, since they have the choice between putting up with low-quality governance and taking a capital loss when they try to sell. Fascinatingly, however, this is not the case on the ocean. Since ﬂoating real estate can be moved between jurisdictions, its value is not permanently reduced by a property tax increase, because there is the alternate use of moving the real estate to a new jurisdiction. This restores the property of a well-functioning market, where resources go to their highestvalued use. Floating real estate will move to the jurisdiction where it is the most valuable whenever the value difference is greater than the cost of moving it. This cost will be substantial, yet based on the cost of moving oil platforms, is likely to be a small fraction of the value of the real estate. Thus, exit remains a check on government power on the ocean.Harford argues for experimentation and failure as a way of figuring out what's best. Friedman and Taylor argue Seasteading provides a mechanism for polities to fail gracefully:
Unfortunately, political instability tends to be accompanied by bloodshed, producing a tradeoff between peaceful stability with high levels of rent-seeking and violent instability with low levels of rent-seeking. Seasteading allows us to have political instability without bloodshed (Chamberlain, 2009). If rent-seeking becomes too harmful in an ocean polity, the population will gradually ﬂoat away. This allows the polity to die without being overthrown violently. Dysfunctional governments would no longer take up valuable land, but would wither and die based on the preferences of citizen-consumers.Where David Friedman looked to saga-era Iceland as example of anarchist order, Patri and Brad look to the Bajau Laut's pagmunda moorages.
The biggest challenge remains existing territorial governments; should Seasteads prove too successful as competition, we could easily imagine the French sending in dive teams with explosives or the Americans sending in a carrier group. Patri and Brad reckon business models focusing on relatively innocuous applications like innovative medical tourism will not only avoid annoying existing governments but could also build support for Seasteads from within those countries' existing voter bases: would you really support bombing the place that's working out nanobot alternatives to the hip replacement surgery you're going to need in a few years? I still worry this might be a bit of best-case thinking; the Americans can always fabricate an incident whipping up support for a bombing run if they want to.
But I still reckon Seasteading the best value play around. The odds on its all panning out still aren't great. But the upside gains are potentially very very large.