We deserve a future of good governance in which people live under high-quality rule sets suited to their preferences. Rules are enormously important to human welfare – just look at the differences between those on opposite sides of an arbitrary border, such as that separating North and South Korea. Rules are a meta-technology that determines how well people can cooperate to achieve their goals, and the potential benefits of improvement in this area dwarf those of any other effort to improve the world.
Proposals to improve government are common, but few are ever tried. Those that are tried generally end badly. The clearest example is communism, which claimed more than a hundred million lives and left billions poor and miserable. It's no wonder that conservatives see radical reform as dangerous.
The central difficulty of improving governance is like any product: we don't know what will work ahead of time. Products improve not by some grand plan that maps progress from start to finish, but by a series of decentralized experiments that allow ideas to be retained or discarded based on performance in reality. This is why we have such amazing phones today: entrepreneurs tested ideas against technological constraints and consumer preferences. Good ideas were retained and bad ideas abandoned – without anyone needing to die. Over time, we progressed from clunky machines to modern smartphones.
In governance, though, such low-stakes experimentation is currently impossible. Those wishing to improve politics have the impossible task of creating proposals without incremental feedback from reality. If they get things wrong, millions of people may suffer or die. Rather than groping in the dark for the right solution, as utopian philosophers do, we need to bring progress to politics by lowering the barriers to experimentation and making failure less costly. If new countries could be created by those with good ideas, and citizens could move to whatever country best suited their preferences – and leave if it got unpleasant – we would see the decentralized experimentation that drives progress in other areas.
Historically, this has happened on the frontier, but since every square inch of land is currently claimed by some existing government, we need to look elsewhere. In the long run, space will provide a vast blank space for experimentation, but there is another frontier here on Earth which is ready now: the ocean.
By developing the knowledge we need to permanently live on the ocean comfortably at a reasonable cost, my colleagues and I at The Seasteading Institute hope to transform the market for governance. The political vacuum of the ocean would itself make seasteading worthwhile (we don't have to fight anyone for it). As it turns out, the ocean has another important property: shifting large objects is much easier in water than on land (that's why the ocean is our global highway for goods). With modular ocean cities, people could move countries without leaving their house. Seasteading makes it easier to create and compete in the nation-state industry.
While settling the ocean may sound utopian and unrealistic, it is far more humble and realistic than the alternatives. We admit our ignorance about the ideal society, so we want to let a thousand nations bloom to see what works. And by transforming a political problem to a technological one, we avoid the problems endemic to large-scale politics. While the technological challenges are large, they are far easier than convincing a majority of the population that your utopia is worth the whole country trying. The cruise ship industry shows that people can live comfortably at sea for around $200 per day. Our mission is to drive comfort and safety up and cost down while finding better ways to make a living at sea.
Settling the oceans is a realistic way of increasing quality, diversity, and innovation in governance. It avoids the hubris of top-down reform, and there is a clear path from here to there. While there is much work to be done, the potential benefits are huge. We hope you'll join us in supporting seasteading as a powerful way to move towards the Future We Deserve.