What Makes Governments Better?

Created by Joe Quirk and Jackson Sullivan.

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Why do governments get better at all? In the middle ages, the feudal system dominated Europe. Kings, lords and armed mercenaries plundered peasants who often starved. Few imagined that better government was possible.

But how did it get better?

A small group of persecuted refugees fled into a marsh, and founded a society on shaky ground. This start-up city was based not on kings and killing, but merchants and markets. The Serene Republic of Venice, as it was then called, came to dominate the Mediterranean for a thousand years, setting a model that changed the world, forever.

Venetian entrepreneurs adopted the best practices of Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic World, and advanced many of the foundational institutions of modern free enterprise: international banking, insurance, joint stock companies, even double-entry bookkeeping. Venice produced so much wealth, some of the most creative people in the world moved there, and initiated what became known as the Italian Renaissance.

The people of the marsh got a rare opportunity to start over with a blank slate. In spite of their moral failings– torture, assassination, astounding greed–mankind began to emerge from barbarism and develop the principles of civil society.

Blank slates are hard to come by, but the search for new frontiers never stopped. A few centuries later, 17th century Europe became an oppressive place for all sorts of misfit people. Many of these oddballs fled to the New World, bringing with them their zany ideas, among them that people could govern themselves by vote.

The misfits demonstrated that the naïve utopian ideals of democracy and constitutional republics could work better than the kingdoms that prevailed in Europe. There were true faults– genocide, slavery, child abuse– but the start-up societies in North America created innovations that utterly changed the rest of the world.

Centuries later, authoritarian communism came to dominate a third of the human population. Millions of people starved, and millions were murdered, but the people in power didn’t want to change.

So why did it change?

Communism didn’t fall because opponents won a war or a debate. Communism fell because freedom set a better example that everybody in communist countries could see. The free black market worked better than the controlled legal market, and most communists just didn’t believe in their system anymore. It wasn’t just because of nuclear bombs, or politicians saying, “Tear down this wall.” It was bluejeans and the Beatles that caused communism to fall. Freedom was just more fun and produced better stuff. Free markets worked better than force, and everybody could see it.

If people hadn’t tried new arrangements in North America, would there even be a free world to show people in communist countries a better way?

So we know what makes governments better. Alternatives. Options. A chance to step away, try something new, and see if you can attract people to move there. The more experiments, the more surprising solutions and shocking failures we discover. As long as people have the freedom to leave experiments they don’t like, and choose the ones they do, the bad ideas go bankrupt, and the good ideas change the world.

What if I told you there’s a technology for that?

Nearly half the world’s surface is unclaimed by any country. Bob Ballard, the famous ocean explorer who discovered the sunken Titanic, says the technology for floating societies is at hand.

Seasteading seeks to radically accelerate the means by which people experiment with new societies. As long as people can create seasteads voluntarily, join them voluntarily, and, most crucially, quit them voluntarily, a diverse market of governance providers will emerge.

Floating neighborhoods can disassemble and move about like a jigsaw puzzle, increasing the power of governance consumers to choose new societies, and creating the incentives for governance providers to innovate to please residents. This will rapidly increase the rate of peaceful innovation in governance.

We land folk are stuck in a Dark Ages government. We need our Venice. We need thousands of Venices. Half the earth waits for us to demonstrate better societies can work.

Long before we go to Mars, we’re going to populate the ocean with sustainable startup societies.

As the Renaissance artist Michelangelo said, “Criticize by Creating.”

To learn more about the next renaissance, read Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians.