Patri Friedman is aware that his idea sounds crazy. The former Google engineer and grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wants to build “start-up countries”: autonomous dwellings in the middle of the ocean, starting with a brand newindependent city-state off the California coast. He’s also the first to admit that past attempts to launch floating communities didn’t fare so well.
“The Freedom Ship, the Republic of Minerva, Oceania – they all comically failed,” he said. “This is very different. I was at Google before this. My second in command was at PayPal. We’re competent business people.”
Friedman’s Seasteading Institute also has a backer with serious start-up clout:Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, who has given $900,000 to the initiative so far via his foundation. Thiel and fellow young tech billionaireDustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook, are slated to attend the next Seasteading Institute fundraising event in December, according to Friedman.
Attracting big names to his venture isn’t Friedman’s only plan for the year ahead. He’s refining the design of these proposed floating communities, and has hired a naval architect to oversee engineering. So far, the group has identified an area off San Diego where the waves are relatively low at a cost of $300 per square foot, or $120 million for a 200-person structure. The organization’s engineering team, aided by volunteer oceanography students, will now identify other locations for potential development. The aim is to allow any number of groups to relocate, not just Friedman and his colleagues.
“It’s not our utopia, it’s about enabling lots of people to try,” he said.
Friedman assures detractors that while he identifies as politically libertarian, his plan is not an elaborate tax evasion scheme.
“We’re not planning to do anything crazy so the U.S. will attack us,” he said. “Sometimes people on the left assume this is about rich people escaping taxation, which doesn’t fit with U.S. tax law at all.”
“Instead of complaining about the government, compete with it,” Friedman said.
He admits to “a couple of failed start-ups” in his 20s, and knows how much fundraising work lies ahead, but Friedman is confident that 2011 is the year he’ll be able to change some minds, starting with those who feel politically marginalized.
“I want people to be able to move to places that work from places that don’t,” he said.
And while his grandfather serves as an inspiration, his methods are markedly different.
“Parts of it – the passion for freedom, and for understanding systems and incentives, that’s my grandfather,” he said. “The difference is, my grandfather was very academic. He wanted to win the war of ideas. But the government doesn’t seem to have gotten that much better. It’s not about collecting ideas, it’s about creating start-ups.”