Yesterday there was a story floating around, from Details of all places, about how Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, has donated $1.25 million to the Seasteading Institute. It’s an organization led by a former Google engineer named Patri Friedman, son of economist and sci-fi writer David Friedman… and grandson of late University of Chicago economic poobah Milton Friedman:
“The ultimate goal,” Friedman says, “is to open a frontier for experimenting with new ideas for government.” This translates into the founding of ideologically oriented micro-states on the high seas, a kind of floating petri dish for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons.
It’s interesting to see the story gaining new traction, because the Seasteaders, and Thiel’s involvement with them, has been around a few years, as first explained at length in an excellent 2008 Wired story, which outlined the surprisingly rich history of libertarians attempting to build sea-borne independent countries:
There was Operation Atlantis, created by Ayn Rand admirer Werner Stiefel in the late 1960s. Stiefel, who made a fortune selling dermatology products, devoted his life to creating a sovereign society with the freest markets imaginable. He started with a ferro-cement boat that made a single successful voyage on the Hudson River. He erected a system of seabreaks near the coast of Haiti but was run off by president Francois Duvalier’s gunboats before he could put land on it. He bought an oil rig and tried to anchor it between Cuba and Honduras, where it was destroyed by a storm.
$1.25 million isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of things: it’ll get you a nice condo in San Francisco, but is well short of the cost of floating a residential oil rig off its coast. More interesting to me is the near-perfect straight line you can draw from Milton Friedman, to his son David, to his grandson Patri.
Milton Friedman, of course, was a tremendously powerful economist—a Nobel Prize-winner who was likely the most influential economic thinker of the second half of the 20th century. His influence was direct, through his academic and popular writings and his role as Barry Goldwater’s economic adviser, and indirect, as his ideas trickled down not only to the University of Chicago’s econ and law departments but to politicians from JFK through George W. Bush.
But Friedman balanced his more radical economic philosophy with participation in the messy arenas of government and the popular press, and never got the frictionless utopia he dreamed of. As Jeff Madrick puts it in his handy survey The Age of Greed:
He argued further that with reduced government and lower taxes, the poor would be better off, inequality would be minimized and material prosperity maximized. It was nearly a utopian or religious promise, and that was its broad appeal, a moral call for the protection of personal freedom. Economic freedom is also the way to achieve political freedom, according to Friedman.
Friedman’s more philosophical bent was enormously influential, of course; ongoing suggestions to move, say, Social Security to a 401(k) model, for example, can be traced back to him. It’s all the more impressive given that he came to national prominence during the height of the Great Society. But in comparison to his ideal state, his gains were inevitably modest.
Friedman’s son David, a Ph.D in physics from the University of Chicago, took his father’s ideas even further, being an honest-to-goodness anarcho-capitalist. As he wrote in his first book, The Machinery of Freedom (PDF):
I am an Adam Smith liberal, or, in contemporary American terminology, a Goldwater conservative. Only I carry my devotion to laissez faire further than Goldwater does—how far will become clear in the following chapters. Sometimes I call myself a Goldwater anarchist.
David Friedman dedicated his book to four people: his father; Goldmanite and YAF founder Robert Schuchman; Friedrich Hayek; and sci-fi master Robert Heinlein. Yes: he’s also a sci-fi author, not to mention a lifelong member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. (He went to the U. of C? You don’t say….) Which makes total sense: outré sociopoliticals ideas often find their way into sci-fi, because it’s one way of bringing them into some form of existence, inventing and populating new, living worlds, even if they only live on the page. Or, in the case of the SCA, in a physical but still fictional realm.
Which brings us to young Patri Friedman. His grandfather had as much or more practical influence on American society as any intellectual in the 20th century, but his vision had to be compromised by reality. His father hewed to a similar, if even more pure vision of the world, but for the most part it had to remain in abstraction. What to do? The obvious: the Seasteading Institute, which is Friedmanite economic theory by way of sci-fi and SCA, straining to find a place in the real world.
Rendering: András Gyõrfi / The Seasteading Institute
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