House of Refuge: Fiction for a Future of Freedom

HouseOfRefuge-CoverToday Liberty.me adds Mike DiBaggio’s award-winning novella House of Refuge to the Library.

I was very excited by the opportunity to release a Liberty.me edition of this story, as my editorial preface should make clear:

Editorial Preface by B.K. Marcus

I became a devotee of seasteading — the creation of autonomous communities out at sea — during the summer solstice of 2014, while seated in the Austin Music Hall, surrounded by hipsters half my age.

We were at Voice & Exit, an event, “built around a simple idea: human flourishing.”

The hipsters were waiting, I suspect, for the liberty-minded lectures to end and the arts festival portion of the evening to begin.

I was there to hear about the end of the era of coercion. They were there for collaborative wall painting, group yoga, and the electronic violin of soundscape guru Govinda (né Shane Madden).

Maybe the alien setting made me more receptive to new ideas — or even some not-so-new ones. Seasteading, in particular, was not a new idea for me. Yet something opened me up to the visionary talk given by “aquapeneur” Joe Quirk, director of communications for the Seasteading Institute.

Joe talked about the technological benefits of seasteading and the untapped potential of the oceans for healing the planet and feeding the world. His focus, however, was on the unique opportunity uncolonized waters present for escaping the crippling strictures that land-based monopoly governments impose on both freedom and innovation.

The American Founders saw the future of freedom in the idea of federalism: small governments that would have to compete for citizens, akin to businesses having to compete for customers. It was, after all, such freedom of movement — of “voting with one’s feet” — that had allowed individual liberty to grow, however imperfectly, in late-medieval Europe. The Founders looked to the model of Greek and Italian city-state republics as a way to keep the state (coercive territorial monopoly government) from growing in America the way it had done in the Europe of their recent ancestors.

But federalism among territorial governments requires small political domains. As Sheldon Richman said in a recent session at Liberty.me U, the smaller the jurisdictions, the cheaper it is to vote with your feet.

It’s hard enough to uproot your family and move to the next town or county in the hope of lower taxes and fewer illiberal laws. It’s much harder when the laws and taxes become ever more centralized over ever vaster territories. As the enemies of freedom seek greater international “cooperation” on banking, taxation, and regulation, how do we recover the liberalizing power of exit?

Those of us with a fondness for science fiction — especially written science fiction — may see our salvation in the colonizing of space. While Star Trek has its Federation and Star Wars its Empire, author Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love) offered a different vision of the future, one in which new pioneers could push new frontiers to keep the option of individual liberty alive. Innovation, Heinlein understood, happens at the outer margins of coercive authority, not in the capital cities or central planets of interstellar governments.

But as Joe Quirk put it that solstice day in Austin, “First the ocean, then outer space.”

However unfamiliar, challenging, and even dangerous the oceans may be for 21st-century pioneers, they are far safer and more familiar than the irradiated vacuum outside our gravity well. And ocean colonization will be cheaper. In fact, it will be profitable. The seasteads will innovate both technology and systems of community, law, and governance. If you don’t like how your current ocean city is being run, just sail on to a more compatible arrangement. You can leave the government without leaving your home.

And knowing the tenuous grasp any floating city will have on its citizens, each government will finally face the appropriate incentives to serve the governed — to provide the legal infrastructure to allow maximum private innovation, the best environment for secure wealth creation, and a civic culture that is respectful of privacy and individual autonomy. Talk about human flourishing!

Why did this vision finally take hold for me that day? I’d heard about seasteading for many years. I read about it soon after Patri Friedman began to evangelize for the idea. So why hadn’t I caught the bug before Voice & Exit? Why am I now fired up by the potential for real human freedom offered by “voting with our paddles,” whereas before, seasteading was just one of the many topics buzzing around the liberty movement?

As I said, it might have been that the culture shock of Voice & Exit had disoriented me to the point where my mind was more open to radically different perspectives. But I’m not quite as excited about biohacking, smart drugs, 3D printing, or other disruptive technologies that were discussed that day.

Maybe Joe Quirk just found the right way to bypass my defenses. He is an effective speaker, and his quiet passion and deadpan delivery probably match my aesthetic better than the energetic enthusiasm of most evangelists.

But I suspect much of the credit goes to the science fiction story you are about to read.

House of Refuge is first and foremost a fast-paced adventure story,” author Mike DiBaggio writes in his special introduction to the Liberty.me edition. “And I think it is fully capable of being enjoyed by those who don’t agree with its anti-war and anti-statist undercurrents, or for those who don’t care to look too deeply for lessons in their literature.”

I first read the ebook last spring, shortly after it won second place in the Students for Liberty/Libertarian Fiction Authors 2014 short fiction contest. After starting to talk with Mike about releasing a special edition to Liberty.me members, I very much had his story on my mind when I rediscovered seasteading in Austin. Had Mike’s fiction been my catalyst?

After the Austin event, my family visited the Houston space center on our way out of Texas. The visitors center exhibit that my eight-year-old son and I were most excited by wasn’t anything from the past, present, or future of NASA. It was Star Trek’s Galileo shuttlecraft, restored by fans and donated to the space center. Surrounded by a well-financed propaganda program to promote government funding for centrally planned space exploration, I found that the high point of my visit was instead this fan-restored TV stage prop from the original 1968 science fiction series.

It may seem inappropriate to include a television prop among the exhibits promoting real science and real exploration, but the connection between science fiction and the early history of NASA is an important one. I’ve heard more than one post-Apollo-era astronaut or NASA scientist say that it was Star Trek that turned their imaginations — and later their studies and careers — toward the stars. In the original Cosmos series, astronomer Carl Sagan had similar things to say about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi pulp hero John Carter of Mars.

Science fiction captured hearts and shaped imaginations, making the idea of space exploration more and more mainstream — less and less, well, science fictional.

If a government agency can benefit so significantly from imaginative literature, why can’t the advocates of peace and freedom?

We have to help people imagine alternatives to monopoly government before we can hope for any popular support for those alternatives. Heinlein and other individualist science fiction writers have helped more than one generation of libertarians imagine long-term alternatives, but humanity’s future in space is too remote. Joe Quirk is right to point out that we skipped a step: before we leave the earth, we need to leave the land.

And if seasteading’s radical experiment in thousands of competing governments on myriad ocean cities succeeds, we may yet find the call of outer space less alluring.

Mike DiBaggio’s story of adventure and heroism, set entirely at sea, exemplifies the sort of fiction I think the freedom movement needs much, much more of — a tale that demonstrates the evils of force and the virtues of freedom without ever allowing an ideological agenda to distract the reader from the action and drama.

Enjoy House of Refuge and let me know if you agree. Will it draw you into the blue revolution, as it helped do for me, or is it just a ripping good yarn?

Mike and I are both available to continue the conversation on Liberty.me.

BK Marcus, Chief Bookworm
Tannersville, New York
July 2014