Atlantis-themed aquarium. Photo via
Though they abhor both lemmings and nation-states, libertarians can't seem to help heading to the sea to found countries. As with lemmings, the result is always the same, but there is nevertheless fascinating history of libertarian sea states, where grandiose ambitions run aground against obstacles like nature, privateers and actual nations.
Motherboard's Grace Wyler just investigated the latest plans for a sea-state, a floating Silicon Valley 12 miles off the coast of San Francisco. Founder Patri Friedman, a former Google engineer and grandson of Milton Friedman, and backer Peter Thiel, the Paypal billionare, are both outspoken libertarians, but they don’t insist that every member of their new nation share this belief. Their “vision is open to anyone who desires to improve government through experimentation,” according to their website.
And maybe this nod to diversity will be their strength and spare them the fate that has befallen so many of their ancestors. If you get schaudenfreude from Ayn Rand fanboys freely realizing their full potential in the form of an egregious failure, dig in, because notions-taken-to-the-ocean are rarely like Atlas Shrugged and usually more like The Poseidon Adventure. It's like Rapture, but it fails preemptively.
One of my favorite failed libertarian sea states was called “Operation Atlantis.” Just like the city of myth, this story ends at the bottom of the sea. Like a college freshman's "douchebag phase," it begins with Ayn Rand.
Around 1970, soap-magnate Werner K. Steifel bought an old motel in upstate New York and invited libertarians there to begin planning their move to the sea. Steifel had recently had the doorway to his mind kicked open by Rand’s turgid prose, but thought that she was too optimistic about living with a state. Steifel wanted to get out completely.
The living-in-an-upstate motel phase was known as “Atlantis 1,” which would be followed by the living-on-a-boat phase “Atlantis 2,” until finally they were living-on-a-platform-or-terraformed-island-in-sea, “Atlantis 3.”
Steifel assembled his team, and they practiced by building a Buckmeister Fuller-style geodesic dome, wherein they then built their seafaring vessel. The team got as far as building and launching “Atlantis 2” before being toppled by a hurricane and amateur engineering, ultimately sinking under the weight of their dreams and shipbuilding materials—concrete and rebar.
A different Atlantis, this one was a concrete ship that came loose in a storm and ran aground in New Jersey. But you get the idea. Photo via Boston Public Library.
A concrete ship seems like it wouldn’t work--and eventually it didn’t--but they were for a time an affordable and viable option when steel supplies ran low during the world wars. Ferro-cement ships were easy to build and durable, if a little bit harder to operate because they were so heavy. I'm sure the libertarians thought they could handle it.
In December 1971, the Atlantis 2 phase was underway for a few hours, sailing down the Hudson River. Then the tide went out and Atlantis 2 tipped over into the mud and caught on fire. Its cement structure prevented too much damage, and they soon resumed their trip southward, to the open seas and freedom.
Erwin Strauss describes how that trip went in How to Start Your Country:
“It appears that the Atlanteans took a few liberties with the ship’s design to make it more suitable for their purposes. For example, a (concrete) deckhouse was added. This made the vessel extremely top-heavy. All gear was stripped from the ship except what was needed to make it operable, and replaced with ballast. It still almost capsized from superstructure icing while crossing the mouth of New York harbor. Then it broke a propeller shaft off South Carolina, and finally limped into the Bahamas. There it stayed until it sank in a hurricane.”
Just like the Soviet Union, Atlantis 2 was undone by the selfish ambition of its members and top heaviness.
There were no fatalities in the sinking, not even Steifel’s dreams of an independent nation-state. Rather than taking his chances with more amateurs, Steifel bought a ship and went down to what he thought was a free, shallow spot in the Caribbean to start dredging up seawalls.
Perhaps unbeknownst to Steifel or at least unaccounted for, the area was called Silver Shoals, named for the sunken Spanish galleons in the area and their accompanying sunken treasures. Operation Atlantis actually found some silver before the value of the area became clear to nearby Haiti’s dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier, whose privateers showed up to Atlantis 3’s construction site in a gunboat one day and chased the would-be nation builders off.
It seemed as though both God and man were conspiring to thwart Steifel. From his new base of operations in the Caymans, he had an oil rig towed to the Misteriosa Banks midway between Cuba and Honduras, but before it could be properly installed another hurricane blew it away. By the time Steifel bought an actual island near Belize, he wasn’t able to wrest enough autonomy from the Belize government before old age and frustration finally eclipsed his ambition, and Atlantis stayed a place that only exists in myth. Steifel died in Florida in 2006 and was buried back near his old home in New York.
Brief on the Reef
Creating an island from nothing is difficult, but someone else is always going to claim one that already exists. Michael J. Oliver, however, split the difference and had tons of sand delivered to the Minerva reefs in late 1971. Oliver was a Las Vegas real estate millionaire who had written a treatise titled A New Constitution for a New Country, in which, according to Cabinet magazine, “he created a model constitution for a nation whose extremely limited government could be financed voluntarily.”
His nation would start with a resort called “Sea City,” and eventually be home to 30,000 residents, who, Oliver hoped, would live free of taxes, welfare or subsidies. The dredged sand left enough land exposed for the colonists to build a platform and plant the Nation of Minerva’s flag, a white torch emblazoned on a blue field. While no one could live there yet, the Pacific nation was free from the threat of hurricanes that had befuddled Steifel.
On June 21, 1972, the 400-pound king of Tonga, King Taufa’ahau Tupou, a brass band, a convict work detail and the Tonga Defense force showed up to nip this island nation in the bud. The band played Tonga’s national anthem as the king tore down the flag and declared Tongan sovereignty over the reefs. The convicts dissembled the platform, and Minerva was conquered– wiped from the Earth.
Tonga’s claim, based on the reefs historical importance as Tongan fishing territory, was recognized by neighboring Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Nauru, and Samoa. Oliver and his Phoenix Foundation had to move on.
Like Steifel, they too turned toward existing, dry islands, however, with plans of overthrowing those islands' existing governments. Oliver tried funding separatists on Abac, an island in Bahamas, then attempted to foment revolution on Vanuatu in the Pacific, before troops from Australia and Paupa New Guinea quashed it and the FBI threatened him with legal repercussions for rogue arms dealing and interfering with American international relations. The state, man.
The nations of Minerva and Operation Atlantis raise some practical questions for the future sea-steaders, however imperfectly. Let’s say that people had been living on Minerva and they been invaded. Let’s say that a hurricane hit a populated Atlantis 3. Who bails these countries out if they get into trouble? Let’s say they’re 12 miles off the coast of San Francisco and populated by American millionaires. You can guess who’s coming for them then.
The Seastead FAQ section addresses these questions with a cheerful optimism that can only come from Silicon Valley billionaires. Pirates? Pirates live somewhere else and our population will be armed and fighting for their homes. Don’t worry about pirates. Hurricanes? We’ll just get out of the way of hurricanes, plus we’ll design our structures so they can withstand a hurricane (but not, presumably, according to any building codes).
It's hard not to be skeptical with this plan treading where others have san, but there's enough of a frontier spirit here to capture the imagination and make you hope, on some level, that the seasteaders will succeed. The sombre lesson of their ocean-faring forebearers is that takes more than moxie, money and optimism to keep an island nation afloat.