Seasteading: More American Than America Redux

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Some pockets of the American public have recently begun to channel their frustration with the governing status quo into a renewed interest in carving out new jurisdictions that better represent their values. Ron Paul is the latest to comment on the possibility of states separating from the American Republic, calling secession a deeply American principle. Congressman Paul’s statement is sure to receive many different interpretations, and evoke strong reactions across the political spectrum, but at a basic level his point cannot be denied. We are reposting the following piece, authored by Patri Friedman in 2009, to remind people of the United States’ unquestionable foundation on the principles of secession, while proposing a more peaceful course of action for today’s disillusioned citizens.
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Seasteading: More American Than America

by Patri Friedman, originally posted at athousandnations.com on 9/15/2009 

On a radio show yesterday, I was asked whether seasteading is an unpatriotic activity for an American.  There are three major reasons why I believe that founding new countries on the frontier better matches the country’s founding principles than its current form of government.

Be The Solution

One criticism often made is that seasteading is unpatriotic because it is “cutting and running” rather than reforming the current system.  I find this viewpoint quite amusing, considering that America was founded by people who “cut and ran” from systems in Europe that they did not think they could reform.  As one obscure piece of paper in the country’s history states:

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

In other words, the point of government is to make people happy, and if it ain’t doing the job, it is not only our right but our duty to make a better one.  America was not founded as a nation of whiners, bitching on barstools about how the King was exploiting them.  It was founded by people who saw problems with their current system of government, and responded by throwing it out and building a new one.  Same goes for seasteading – except without the violence.  Whether you call it “cutting and running” or “Being the change you want to see in the world”, experimenting with new forms of government is truly American.

Federalism

The first article of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, begins with:

Article 1: His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.

The war was not won by a country, but by thirteen sovereign and independent states.  America was thus founded as a loose collection of independent local regions, bonded together for a small set of purposes – to ensure for defense, a common currency, and a few others - which were explicitly limited:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Since it’s founding, America has moved more and more towards a centralization of power in the federal government, with major leaps such as the Civil War, the Great Depression, WWII, and more recently the financial crisis.  We will dispense for now with judgment of the morality or practical consequences of this phenomenon, and merely say that it is not what we seek.   We want a return to a loose federation of small, independent states – which was the original basis for these United States.  Those who prefer the modern system are welcome to stay and enjoy it.

Frontier

Frederick Turner’s 1893 thesis The Significance of the Frontier in American History is summarized by Wikipedia:

“Turner set up an evolutionary model (he had studied evolution with a leading geologist), using the time dimension of American history, and the geographical space of the land that became the United States. The first settlers who arrived on the east coast in the 17th century acted and thought like Europeans. They encountered environmental challenges that were different from those they had known in Europe. Most important was the presence of uncultivated arable land. They adapted to the new environment in certain ways — the cumulative effect of these adaptations was Americanization. According to Turner, the forging of the unique and rugged American identity had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of obliteration. The dynamic of these oppositional conditions engendered a process by which citizens were made, citizens with the power to tame the wild and upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality.

Successive obliterations moved further inland, shifting the lines of settlement and wilderness, but preserving the essential tension between the two. European characteristics fell by the wayside and the old country’s institutions (e.g. established churches, established aristocracies, intrusive obliterations, and class-based land distribution) were increasingly out of place. Every generation moved further west and became more American, more democratic, and as intolerant of hierarchy as they were removed from it. They became more violent, more individualistic, more distrustful of authority, less artistic, less scientific, and more dependent on ad-hoc organizations they formed themselves. In broad terms, the further west, the more American the community.”

Turner’s thesis quickly became popular among intellectuals. It explained why the American people and American government were so different from Europeans. It sounded an alarming note about the future, since the U.S. Census of 1890 had officially stated that the American frontier had broken up. The idea that the source of America’s power and uniqueness was gone was a distressing concept.

In addition to this date of 1890, note that Arizona, the last contiguous state to join the US, joined in 1919.  I find it quite striking that the greatest point of demarcation in the size and scope of government in US history then occurred in 1929-1933.  As Free To Choose says:

“From the founding of the Republic to 1929, spending by governments at all levels, federal, state, and local, never exceeded 12 percent of the national income except in time of major war, and two-thirds of that was state and local spending.  Federal spending typically amounted to 3 percent or less of the national income.  Since 1933 government spending has never been less than 20 percent of national income and is now over 40 percent, and two-thirds of that is spending by the federal government.”

While this single temporal correspondence is far from being a complete or proven historical theory, it provides at least some evidence that Turner’s distressing concept may have been correct.  Once America lost its frontier, in a single generation it lost its nature as a country of individualism and local autonomy.

Again, those who prefer the maternalism and paternalism of the modern state are welcome to it.  We try not to judge, except to say that this type of society is not for us.  We prefer the traditions of America’s fiercely independent first century, when its identity was centered around the struggle to tame the frontier.  Which is why we seek the next frontier – the oceans.

Conclusion

America has changed over the last 233 years, and it appears that for many of its modern residents, the modern form of government and culture is preferable.  It is no longer a nation of pioneers, and that is why we do not seek a revolution or even a peaceful restoration of the Republic.  But those of us searching for a new frontier can rest content in the knowledge that we are not betraying our country, but rather taking up the guttering torch of the early American spirit and carrying it to a new land where it can burn brightly once again.

 

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