I've always been interested in utopian communities and colonies. They're a bit like children's tree-fort clubs writ large and grown-up, and nearly always established with much of the same busy passion. Mostly, with occasional exceptions such as the Shakers, they don't last. Some, like Auroville in India, continue in a compromised form. Auroville houses a tiny fraction of the 50,000 people it was meant to house, but true to its ideals, some of the water at its public drinking fountains is still held to be healthier because it has been “dynamised,” which means it has listened to Bach and Mozart.
Sometimes these communities fail because the pleasure lay mostly in the planning (most of us have a vision of one at some point or another, perhaps our homes are micro-versions of that ideal), and the execution turns out to be dull or fraught. Farming isn't as easy as people think it is. Neither is free love. At worst, these communities are Jonestown.
A distant ancestor of mine, British poet laureate Robert Southey, planned to establish a colony with his brother-in-law, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They called it Pantisocracy – from the Greek meaning “government by all.” It was to have been excruciatingly just – with the labour so evenly divided that, the two men were sure, the citizens of Pantisocracy would have had to perform manual labour for only a few hours each day, allowing everyone time for thought and art. Eventually, partly because the two poets were unable to agree on a location, partly for financial reasons, the project was abandoned.
Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal and Facebook financier, has also embarked on a plan for a new society, for which the location has already been decided and money may not be an issue. The project is described in a profile of Mr. Thiel in September's Details magazine. The new community is to be built about 320 kilometres off the coast of San Francisco, in international waters, free from U.S. regulations. Mr. Thiel is one of the project's main benefactors, to the tune of $1.25-million. The idea is to create what the founders hope will be the first of many sovereign nations all built on top of enormous oil-rig-like structures.
These countries are to be governed on libertarian principles. The ultimate goal, Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, a former Google engineer and the man behind a concept he calls “seasteading,” is to “open a frontier for experimenting with new ideas for government,” to build a country where there is no welfare, little gun control, no minimum wage and looser building codes. Because the first place most of us want to experiment with looser building codes is 320 kilometres out to sea.
I suppose, the theory goes, that if one of these nation-states were to tumble into the deep during a tornado, no one would hire that builder to construct a nation-state again – so the invisible hand of the market will save the vast majority of people from drowning.
Despite the almost indisputable fact that, as Warren Buffett said in an op-ed in The New York Times this week, the rich are not paying their fair share of taxes in America (almost any other country would have to cut personal income taxes to get to the level Mr. Buffett would like to have them raised to), the people behind the seasteading project are certain that America isn't being kind enough to her billionaires. America's tax system and gated communities are letting them down, they believe. These offshore gated communities are the next logical step.
It's possible to view this project, which proposes to have more than 150 people aboard a prototype by 2014, as both an experimental new society (AynRandLandia, perhaps) and a kind of political pirate radio broadcasting ideas to the world. Pirate radio stations, most of which operate on boats, are an example of early seasteading, enjoying the freedom international waters offer.
Mr. Thiel's support for the seasteading project doesn't extend to actually moving to this brand-new country. He's not keen on boats – and I imagine that if there is anything worse then being out at sea with a large number of billionaires, it is being out at sea with a large group of seasick billionaires, so I suppose that is for the best.
A certain segment of people reading this may think, “This all sounds familiar, I've played this game.” It's called Bioshock, a video game about an objectivist utopia (okay, Bioshock takes place under the sea, but under the sea, over the sea is a fine line, one easily transgressed, mind the boom) in which the lack of medical and other regulatory oversight turns everyone into zombies with guns. Possibly this all suggests that far from learning too much from video games, as is frequently suggested, some people aren't learning nearly enough.