April 13, 2017

More than 4,000 special economic zones (SEZs) have proliferated across the globe, proving so successful that they are replicated again and again. Joe Quirk, author and “aquapreneur” with Atlas Network partner the Seasteading Institute, recently spoke at a conference organized by the Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority to explain why new floating free trade zones off the coast of Dubai would allow for “maximum wealth creation on innovative, sustainable floating islands on the sea,” applying the best practices learned from the proliferation of SEZs now in operation.

“You need thousands of startup societies exploring the future, discovering the best ways of governing ourselves,” Quirk explains. “As long as people can join them voluntarily and leave them voluntarily, we will engage an evolutionary market process and solutions will emerge that we can’t imagine now. And the technology to do this currently exists. The prototype for the Seasteading Institute’s Floating Island Project already floats in the Netherlands.”

Quirk points out that Dubai’s success with SEZs makes it the perfect incubator for a new floating for of free trade zones.

“Dubai is the most recent and spectacular example that convinced me that anything is possible if you can start over with new rules,” Quirk explains. “So, Dubai set aside 110 acres, imported common law from England, planted it in a Muslim culture. Why did they do that?”

In only 13 years, Dubai’s special economic zone transformed from a barren desert to a bustling metropolis. Today, Dubai has more than 30 free trade zones that replicate the original experiment, and business is booming. This phenomenon of freedom flourishing inside a tiny geographical area has a long precedent in the 20th century, most notably in China.

“Hong Kong, because of historical accident, became in practice a startup government,” Quirk points out. “In 1961, it was a British colony with British rule of law plated in a Chinese culture — so, unprecedented in human history. And, over the next 36 years, the wealth of the average person in Hong Kong ... grew 87 times. Farmers who toiled in rice fields often put their kids straight into the professional class.”

Hong Kong was clearly an anomaly in communist China, but the country’s leaders soon discovered that its success could be replicated through an expansion of economic freedom.

“Hong Kong started a trend toward what I like to call ‘presteads,’” Quirk continues. “Hong Kong’s startup success so amazed Chinese rulers, China designated the fishing village of Shenzhen to try a similar experiment in business freedom. So, in 1979 when it was designated a special economic zone, Shenzhen didn’t even have a traffic light. ... Today, Shenzhen manufactures 90 percent of computer keyboards, 90 percent of computer mice, and 90 percent of Shenzhen’s population are migrant workers. So, people keep moving there because per-person GDP is the highest in all of mainland China.”

China created many more islands of economic freedom along its borders beginning in the 1980s, allowing half a billion people to escape extreme poverty. By showcasing the tangible effects of freedom, Hong Kong inspired a new renaissance of prosperity in China. There’s nothing quite like a stellar example of success to spur change elsewhere.

“Build it and they will come,” Quirk concludes. “Nobody else is doing this. Seasteading is a superbrand. We hold an unfair advantage because of our network. Since 2008, the Seasteading Institute has been conducting research and building teams. We don't need to seek out partners. Industries come to us. Technologists come to us. Countries come to us. We can say to any coastal government in the world, 'We are taking the next step into more regulatory autonomy, and we don't even need your land. We'll bring our own land. If our experiment in freedom works, we bring prosperity and blue jobs to your local people. If our business model fails, we take our modular seastead apart and float away. There's no risk to you. Smart countries like this deal, and we’ve found a smart country with the vision to become the innovation hub of the blue economy.”

French Polynesia, which contains the legendarily beautiful island of Tahiti, recently signed an agreement the Seasteading Institute to “cooperate on creating legal framework to allow for the development of The Floating Island Project. The legislation will give the Floating Island Project its own ‘special governing framework’ creating an ‘innovative special economic zone.’”

Quirk wrote the book Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians with Seasteading Institute co-founder Patri Friedman, who carries on the rich legacy of freedom exemplified by his grandfather Milton Friedman and father David Friedman.