Surging government interference is motivating high-profile Silicon Valley leaders literally to seek new frontiers where innovation can flourish. PayPal founder Peter Thiel, for example, is funding seasteading — man-made sea colonies. The concept is not new, and innovators can find a valuable case study in the short-lived Republic of Minerva.
As revealed for the first time in the new book, Willard Garvey: An Epic Life, Minerva was the brainchild of international developer Willard Garvey, pioneering global investor John Templeton, and entrepreneur and yacht designer Seth Atwood. Like today’s Silicon Valley tech leaders, the three friends saw the ill effects of governments quashing opportunity and dreamed of an alternate environment where individual rights would be respected and entrepreneurship could flourish unabated. They set out to find an unclaimed piece of property well outside the territorial limit of any country.
In 1970, Atwood identified the Minerva reefs, 260 miles from Tonga, and 450 miles from Fiji. The three agreed they would keep the project under wraps, and Garvey contacted Michael Oliver, who had been involved in previous new country efforts. Oliver took the lead on the project, with Garvey, Templeton, and Atwood bankrolling the efforts, including the purchase of a dredging vessel to build up a permanent land mass that could support 25,000 inhabitants.
Unfortunately, Oliver proved far less reserved than his backers, and in early 1972, despite having not yet established a habitable toe-hold, he filed a “Declaration of Sovereignty” with the U.S. State Department. As reported by the New York Times, the following month, Tonga – some think at the behest of the U.S. State Department – laid claim to the reefs.
Sovereignty, of course, remains the hurdle in any attempt to establish a new nation, and the Seasteading Institute’s “Poseidon Award,” offered for the first established sea colony, rightly includes de facto political autonomy as a criterion. Yet it is hardly in the interest of the world’s established nations to bestow recognition on a new country setting itself up in competition for the world’s entrepreneurs and taxpayers.
Garvey and his partners abandoned Minerva and for the remainder of their lives devoted considerable energy to efforts that would establish the principles and practice of liberty, free markets, and individual rights in the United States and elsewhere.
Garvey supported pro-liberty groups such as the Independent Institute, created the National Center for Privatization, and engaged in an endless campaign of building recognition and support for opportunity-enhancing systems of government on the local, national, and international stage. Templeton created his own foundation, which continues to champion the advancement of freedom and free enterprise.
Garvey, Templeton, and Atwood all lived to see the remarkable aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and must have felt vindicated by the real-world success of countries that adopted the ideas they backed. Consider, for example, the former Soviet colony of Estonia. Freed at last from Moscow’s control, Estonia embraced free trade, a low flat tax, sound money and privatization, resulting in one of the freest societies and fastest-growing economies of the late 20th century. Just twenty years later, the Economist calls Estonia “a world leader in technology.”
In the United States, meanwhile, government increasingly colonizes Silicon Valley with an onerous regulatory regime. Surveillance agencies conduct vast customer data sweeps, the FTC targets Apple with a directive, and the government restricts the hiring of foreign-born talent. And so on.
That’s why Google’s Larry Page proposes creating “a piece of the world” where new ideas can be tried out in the absence of antiquated laws. That’s why venture capitalist Tim Draper is backing a ballot initiative to carve California into six states, including an autonomous “Silicon Valley.” And that is why PayPal founder Peter Thiel is funding man-made sea colonies.
Something may well come of it but these determined entrepreneurs have other options. They can learn from the Minerva experiment in Willard Garvey. And the track record of Estonia makes a case for directing support toward creating demand for a free economy at home rather than a new economy elsewhere.
Mary L. G. Theroux, the daughter of Willard Garvey, is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute, publisher of Willard Garvey: An Epic Life (LibertyTree Press).