Space, the final frontier. And like previous frontiers, it poses problems to would-be colonists. Governments and think tanks alike are now engaged in trying to solve these problems, specifically with respect to the colonization of Mars. Among the questions that are being asked are: How will property rights work? What about national sovereignty? What will a Martian government look like?
These may seem like abstract thought experiments better suited to science fiction writers than to policy makers, but in fact, manned missions to Mars may be closer than you think. NASA expects to accomplish the feat by 2030, and private enterprises like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the Mars One project are shooting for the mid-2020s. With people arriving on the red planet potentially within a decade, it’s important that we figure out some of the logistics beforehand, as they will have a dramatic impact on the incentives explorers face to build colonies, start extracting minerals, and otherwise make use of what until now has only been a bright light in the sky.
Several different models have been proposed. The first and least attractive stems from the Outer Space Treaty, a document created during the space race of the 1960s, which claims that space is the province of all mankind, and should be used for the benefit of all countries. It’s a lovely sounding platitude, but utterly useless as a practical approach to space exploration. No one is going to invest the huge amounts of resources necessary to successfully colonize and develop Mars if their earnings from so doing will be seized and redistributed to Tuvalu and Botswana. For this to work, we need clear, defensible property rights to encourage responsible development of the planet’s scarce resources.
The Blue Marble Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, has proposed a compromise system that allows for property rights with respect to mineral farming and other resource gathering, but which does not allow colonists to prevent trespassing on their land by newcomers to the planet. This impulse is understandable, since we don’t want the whole planet to be claimed by Elon Musk to the exclusion of all other travelers, but we would be wise to remember the parable of the tragedy of the commons. If people are allowed to tread wherever they please on Mars with no ownership interest or possibility of eviction, there is no incentive to treat the land itself with respect. Pollution, littering, and other environmental and aesthetic blights will be the inevitable result.
A more attractive proposal would apply the principle of property acquisition outlined by philosopher John Locke in his “Two Treatises on Government,” which served as a major inspiration to America’s founders. Locke asserted that unowned property came to be owned by “mixing one’s labor” with it, and thereby making it an extension of the self. In other words, people who land on Mars and work towards developing a chunk of it will own that chunk, at least until they decide to sell it.
But apart from land use, there is also the question of government in general. While spacefaring nations like Russia and the U.S. will no doubt want to assert sovereignty over the parts of Mars colonized by their citizens, this is expressly forbidden by the Outer Space Treaty. However, even if it were not, there are significant problems with trying to effectively govern from a distance, as the British learned to their cost in 1776.
Recognizing this, there have been a couple of attempts to come up with alternative solutions. The first, also from the Blue Marble Foundation, proposes to let Martian colonists largely determine their own affairs, governed by a relatively weak central authority called the Mars Secretariat. Musk, on the other hand, has a proposal for a direct democracy aimed towards making it easier to repeal laws than to pass new ones, while a professor at the University of Edinburgh thinks much of the planet should be designated as “national parks” to protect it from overuse and development (which again runs afoul of the tragedy of the commons scenario).
For myself, I think the idea of letting Martian colonists determine their own forms of government seems best, although the Secretariat seems unnecessary and has the potential to spoil the whole thing. Instead of one experimental government, why not let there be many? That way we can see which flourish and which falter through the age old test of competition. It’s a similar concept to that proposed by the fledgling seasteading movement, where many floating islands each develop their own systems of law and order.
Such opportunities to break away from conventional government control are rare and becoming rarer as more of our inhabitable universe is explored and claimed, so it is important that we make the most of this one. It would be a pity to see a whole new world fall immediately into the pitfalls of big government we have observed on Earth when there exists the possibility for so much more.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.