Note: this page expresses only the personal opinion of the author, who has been wrong many times in the past. It is not intended to be viewed as critical of TSI leadership or policy. I have enormous respect for the TSI founders, volunteers, and other members of the Seasteading community.
BaseSteading is a strategy to form a community in a specific location or "Base" in order to experiment with seastead technology and business models, as an incremental step. This can be considered a form of Gulching.
Seasteading and Startups
When examining any project, it makes sense to compare it to other similar projects that have been carried out in the past. By analyzing the causes of the success or failure of previous projects, one can gain insight into the problems and pitfalls that the present project will likely encounter.
It is difficult to apply this technique to Seasteading, since it is an unique project. Previous micronation projects were complete failures. But by zooming out a bit more, we can see that Seasteading is a lot like starting a company. Since there are many successful startup companies, and there is a lot of startup company lore, it makes sense to see if that philosophy can help us think about Seasteading.
To begin, consider this Paul Graham essay. It contains two maxims that I think are especially relevant: Launch Fast and Let Your Idea Evolve. Taken together, the point is that you want to launch something, and then get feedback from users to guide the subsequent evolution of the idea. The underlying point is that it is meaningless to speculate about the ideal ultimate design of the product, prior to actually putting the product in someone's hands and seeing how it works.
I submit that the Seasteading community is following an approach which is the exact opposite of the one Graham advocates. We are engaged in speculation regarding the ideal ultimate seastead design, without having nearly enough information to justify that speculation. The overall well-being of a seastead is a complex function of its social arrangements, economy, and physical structure; we are attempting to precisely design the latter component without any real clue as to how the former two will work.
Furthermore, the current Seasteading timeline is anything but fast. In five years, we will have ten seasteaders? For those (like myself) who believe TSI is humanity's last best hope for freedom, the timeline is simply depressing.
From the startup company analogy, another line of thought emerges. I submit that many start-ups suffer from the following failure mode. The company begins as a bunch of computer hackers with an idea for a cool new technology. After discussing the technical feasibility for a while, they conclude that the technology can be built. Bursting with excitement, they hole themselves up in a basement and start hacking. Some product comes out of this effort, but because the founders did not put enough thought into the business plan, they cannot achieve fast enough revenue growth and eventually die.
Are Seasteaders entering the same failure pattern? It's not clear. Certainly a lot of effort is expended on discussion of designs. This is in spite of the fact that no one really doubts that seasteads are in principle feasible. There are many Wiki pages and book pages dedicated to technical issues, but the strategy proposal in the book is somewhat vague and appears to be out of date. Note that the process of writing a business plan or strategy document is very useful even if it simply recapitulates what everyone already knew, because:
- It makes assumptions and risk factors explicit.
- It ensures that everyone on the team has an idea of what needs to be done and what direction the organization is moving in.
- It allows the leaders of the organization to convince outside parties, such as funding agencies, of the basic viability of the proposal.
A strategy is a plan of action that will achieve a goal. The Seasteading community has a well defined goal: construct autonomous floating societies. This is an enormously ambitious goal. It involves at least the following steps:
- Design and construction of large scale floating structures.
- Development of a legal framework guiding the relationship of Seasteaders with one another, and with the outside world.
- Convincing large numbers of people to uproot their lives, careers, and families and risk everything to move to a far off place with a bunch of strangers, some of whom have expressed a (shall we say) certain moral laxness.
- Development of an economic structure that allows the Seasteaders to support themselves.
A good strategy document should describe how to achieve the above goals. The specifics of TSI's strategy are not clear to me, however I will try to describe some of the strategic approaches that have been discussed.
FamilyStead. Concentrate on the design of one-family structures. Assumption: if a good, inexpensive one-family seastead becomes available, many families will make use of the option and head out to sea. They will float around, occasionally stopping at ports. They are not expected to form larger groups, and so there is not much in the way of legal framework to worry about.
Pros: Simple. Finesses the problem of legal framework. Design issues are less problematic, as proposed structures are smaller. Sounds idyllic for people with happy families.
Cons: Economic issues may be problematic. Hard to imagine that living on a one-family seastead would be a reasonably comfortable lifestyle (might be alright if there were frequent port stops). Some people do not have families.
XYZstead, described in the book here. The idea here is to start with a small, inexpensive, close-to-land structure, and then build progressively larger and more self-sufficient structures.
Pros: incrementalism is good. The location is near the US, a large source of potential tourists and customers. In the early days, people can live on the BayStead and commute to work in San Francisco.
Cons: significant risk for participants (see below). Not clear what participants do between XYZstead iterations.
ClubStead. Build a floating resort/casino in the SF bay. If it is successful, construct subsequent, similar structures until a small city has been built.
Pros: Less risk for participants. Explicitly addresses the economic issue.
Cons: To live on ClubStead, you will either have to work there (e.g. at the reception desk) or pay lots of money for a room. Very high upfront costs, and substantial risk, for initial investors. Implies that the Seasteading project will depend strongly on vicissitudes of the economy. Not clear how and when the seasteads shift from being a cluster of commercial ventures like the Vegas strip, into being a real city/community.
I suggest the following alternative strategy. It involves the use of a "base". This is just a living place which is much more reliable than a seastead prototype would be. Some examples are the following:
- Used cargo or cruise ship.
- Uninhabited desert island (e.g. Clipperton Island)
- Seaside plot of land in a tax haven country (e.g. Cayman Islands or Anguilla).
- Seaside plot of land in an established country (e.g. USA) - AKA Seasteading Outposts
The various advantages and disadvantages of the different choice of base are discussed below. The important property of a base is that it is highly reliable. The problems of living on a base are well-understood and -solved. If a group of people decided they wanted to form a community on a base, there are no technological problems stopping them.
The basic idea can be summed up as: SeaStead=base+X. X represents the work and money expended on designing and constructing the floating platform. At the beginning of the process, X is small. In this regime, the seastead is not much more than the base. This is not great, but is also not so bad (compare the formula seastead=X). As time goes on X becomes large, and eventually we no longer rely on the base at all.
The BaseStead strategy is as follows. First, organize a small core group of adventurous souls, perhaps 10-100 in number. This group moves to the BaseStead and simply lives there. At the beginning, they don't worry much about spar designs or the merits of ferrocement. They just try to solve the basic problems of living: how to make money, how to resolve disputes, and how to live comfortably in a strange environment.
Once the basic problems are approximately solved, they start to do two things. First, they begin to design and build seastead structures. Second, they try to recruit other people into the community (it may be that finding people is easy, but effectively integrating them into the community is hard). Note that they will receive support in these tasks from the global Seasteading grass roots. As more and more people arrive, the BaseStead economy starts to grow, and the seastead construction process starts to accelerate. As the seasteading structures become more reliable, people spend more time there as opposed to on the base. But note that the base and the seastead form an integrated community: moving from the base to the seastead does not require a major life upheaval. The recruitment and integration can proceed continuously, without regard for the ups and downs of the engineering work. Some other advantages of the BaseStead strategy are as follows:
Speed. The BaseStead plan can be implemented quickly. The other strategies require a long waiting period while the seastead designs are developed.
Parallelism. The plan allows the community to attack all of the challenges described above in parallel. At any given point, people would be working on seastead designs, economic development, legal issues, and recruiting more people. The current strategies require the seastead structure to be completed before any work can begin on setting up the socio-economic arrangements.
People-powered. One of the strengths of Seasteading is its community of passionate, intelligent, and dynamic individuals. The BaseStead plan takes advantage of that strength. The BaseStead plan says: put a core group of seasteaders in a challenging position, and see what they can do. Other plans seem to require substantial amounts of funding; this means that the key talent the whole project relies on is the ability of TSI management to sell the idea to investors (this is not quite as heroic).
Freedom and the Good Life in the not-too-distant future. The other strategies do not appear to offer these within our lifetimes, because constructing the seasteads will take so much time. Depending on the choice of the "base", participants in the BaseStead option will be able to achieve a high level of freedom within our lifetimes. It may take 20 years to construct a large Seastead city; this long waiting period is not so bad if the base itself is free and comfortable.
Wife and Kids. Many Seasteaders are married and have children. This makes the seasteading proposition a bit more delicate for obvious reasons. It's one thing to risk our own lives, but quite another to risk the lives of our loved ones. The BaseStead provides a way around this difficulty, by giving the women and children a safe and reliable living space. At the outset the families reside on the base, and only come aboard the seastead after many design iterations have been completed.
A final advantage relates to the risks which seasteaders will be exposed to.
Every ambitious project involves an element of risk. Seasteading is an enormously ambitious project, and so it involves a large share of risk. There are several types of risk, which can be categorized as follows:
- Physical risk: your life may be in peril.
- Financial risk: investors and participants may lose a lot of money.
- Life/Career/Time risk: you might waste a lot of time, fall behind on your career advancement, etc.
Physical risk is rightly at the top of everyone's list of concerns. But the other two risks are also significant, and merit attention. I contend that the BaseStead strategy substantially mitigates risk compared to the ClubStead strategy and the XYZstead strategy.
In the XYZstead strategy, all three risks are present, and must be born by participants. Most estimates imply that the cost of housing on a seastead will be comparable to the cost of housing on land. When one considers that most people have to take out large loans to afford homes on land, and those loans will likely not be forthcoming for the purchase of such high-risk seaborne property, these estimates seem quite discouraging.
The life/career/time risk is also very significant in the XYZstead strategy. Imagine that TSI constructs a Seastead and begins recruiting people to live on it. You decide you want to go. You quit your job, sell all your possessions, maybe even break up with your girlfriend. You move out to the seastead. A year after you arrive, some technical issue comes up and the 'stead sinks. No one is harmed, and TSI vows to construct a new version that will fix the problem, but in the meantime the participants have nothing to do but go back to land and try to put their lives back together. Note that the XYZstead strategy involves risk from both technical and socio-economic factors.
The BaseStead strategy substantially mitigates risk from the technical factors. If the first seastead prototype doesn't work, the participants just go back to the base and continue living their lives as before. The effortfully constructed economic and social arrangements will not be disrupted. Depending on the choice of specific form of the base, it should also be possible to mitigate financial risk. For example, the cost per person of a used cruise ship appears to be somewhere in the $10,000 range; a 300 person ship seems to cost about $3 million (see here for example). Importantly, a cruise ship has a substantial resale value, reducing the financial downside in the event of project failure. Other choices for the base may not involve significant upfront costs at all.
Compared to XYZstead, ClubStead shifts substantial risk from the participants to the investors. The initial ClubStead structure will cost tens of millions of dollars. If the business venture fails, the money will be lost. It may be difficult to convince investors to fund such a project, in the current economic climate.
FamilyStead also exposes the participants to substantial risk of all types.
Hedging our Bets
As is obvious to everyone, Seasteading is a risky project. This risk is not physical; it is the simple risk involved in all ambitious projects that the participants will work and work and then at the end of the day have very little to show for it.
One of the goals of the realist view of Basesteading is to hedge the risk associated with the project. Thus, one of the main goals is for the participants to start companies. The company is started on land with an eye toward transitioning to a seastead-based operation, but if seasteading doesn't go anywhere, you just continue operating the company on land, so you don't lose your investment of time. This strongly mitigates risk.
Similarly, the choice of Basestead location should be made with risk in mind. The question should be asked: if I move to location X, with the idea of eventually transitioning from X to the ocean, will I be happy in location X if seasteading never goes anywhere? Even better: would I move to location X, if I had never heard of seasteading? If the answers to these questions are "yes", then the possibility that seasteading works out is purely beneficial.
Another thing to keep in mind is the long-term nature of the Seasteading project. The current timeline indicates that total worldwide Seastead population will be 1,000 in ten years. Thus, even if Seasteading does work out, it is going to take a long time. This adds weight to the idea that we should pick the Basestead location with care, as we will be there for many years.
Here I'll briefly mention some pros and cons for the choice of the base.
Boat. Pros: we achieve the maximum possible degree of freedom. The legal status of a boat is well understood. A boat is mobile, so we can migrate to avoid extreme weather and dock every now and then to let people stretch their legs. Cons: the initial purchase might be expensive (though boats have a resale value). Probably the biggest problem is cramped living quarters (this may be a small price to pay).
The book also lists some reasons why boats are not suited to the ultimate goal of seasteading. I emphasize that I agree with this argument; I view the use of boats (or other base forms) merely as a stepping stone.
Uninhabited island. Pros: in principle, we could achieve a great combination of freedom and elbow room. Some islands have lagoons, which would be a great place to test out initial seastead designs. There would be no one around to hassle us. Cons: it seems unlikely that the legal issues could be worked out in practice, although there is probably no harm in exploring the option. Wouldn't be possible to run businesses that depend on nearby customers.
Seaside land in a Tax Haven Country (e.g. Anguilla or Cayman Islands). If freedom means low taxes, then this option could achieve a high level of freedom and a comfortable lifestyle. Island countries are often made up of many islands, some of which might not be inhabited, or only lightly inhabited. If we go to Anguilla, we have a man on the inside. Cons: may be substantial immigration red tape, and the locals might not like us.
Seaside land in the US (or other large country). Pros: easy and simple. You're connected to a huge (pseudo-)civilization so if you have a heart attack you can be airlifted to a hospital. For US residents, there is very little immigration red tape (for others, lots). Cons: no real freedom. May be hassled by locals. Locations are discussed on the Seasteading Outposts page.
Note: there are certain US protectorates, such as the Northern Mariana Islands, where residents do not pay federal income tax. These places may allow an interesting hybrid US/tax haven option, with low legal issues and low taxes, and proximity to civilization.
- Local per-capita income
- Economic Freedom (Heritage index or similar) - ease of starting a business, taxes, etc.
- Personal Freedom
- Immigration Restrictions
- Cost of living
- Real estate prices
- Job availability / type
- Ocean access
Realist and Idealist Views of Basesteading
Different people have expressed different ideas about what the goals of the basestead should be. One vision has been articulated by Pastor_Jason here. The emphasis of his idea is on what can be called economic de-integration. This means that the community should be self-sufficient in the sense of minimizing dependence on the outside world. Thus, the plan involves substantial construction and infrastructure development. It appears to be very similar to the Windward intentional community, with seasteading as the eventual goal. This model is very attractive if one is optimistic about one's ability and endurance for large scale construction projects. Most importantly in terms of location, it requires a large plot of land. This can be called an idealist vision.
An alternate view, which can be called a realist vision, places less importance on economic de-integration and more importance on making money. One of the main goals of the Basestead is to allow participants to develop construct economic arrangements (i.e. starting companies) that can easily be transferred to the seastead. The strategy requires us only to construct seastead structures, and not much in the way of related items. This strategy always prefers to buy off-the-shelf parts when possible.
Patri: This is related to the classic "Low-road vs. high-road" distinction which often comes up in seasteading discussions. The low road involves less initial capital, more labor, and more self-sufficiency. The high road is more capital, less labor, more integration with economic markets.