June 28, 2022

Elon Musk is Right: Governments Shouldn’t Control Land on Other Planets

Productive people like Elon Musk who open up Mars to colonization should be able to do so free of government interference.

Centuries ago, navigators sailed Earth’s oceans looking for new lands. At that time, there were still areas of Earth’s surface that were not ruled by governments—areas beyond laws, regulations, taxes, kings, and politicians. Those frontiers provided an opportunity to set up new societies based on radical ideas, free from the trappings of the old world. The United States of America is the shining example of what people were able to do in such a place. When the country was founded, the ideas it represented were largely untested, and many expected it to fail. Now many of its principles are taken for granted across the world.

But today we are faced with a world that no longer has new lands. Virtually every inch of the globe is under the control of a state (except Antarctica, which is barred from human development by a treaty among states). All of these states interfere with their economies to varying degrees, restricting innovation and entrepreneurship, and they seek to influence people through government-run or -regulated education and media. There are no new frontiers left in which to establish a freer kind of society—except the “final frontier.”

Enter Elon Musk, space entrepreneur. In barely ten years he has, through his company SpaceX, advanced spaceflight more than government agencies managed in the previous thirty years. He has a vision of human colonies on the Moon and Mars, and he also has a vision of what those colonies will be like. The draft Terms of Service of the Starlink satellite network, published in 2020, give a tantalizing glimpse of this vision:

“For services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith at the time of the Martian settlement.”

Wonderful! Mars has the potential to be the next USA. The only problem is, all the spacefaring governments of the world don’t want to let it happen. They have all signed the Outer Space Treaty. This document commendably states that “outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty,” only to then stipulate that “States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities” and states that governments “retain jurisdiction and control” over spacecraft and “any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body.” In short, governments can’t stake territorial claims on Mars—or anywhere in outer space—but they can and must regulate the activities of their citizens there. 

This extension of government authority across space is completely unjustified, and impossible in practice. If people leave one country and go to live in another, the government of their birth does not continue to have jurisdiction over them. The states that try to maintain control of departed citizens, such as Russia (which sends spies and assassins after those who seek freedom overseas) are rightly viewed as tyrannies. Furthermore, the idea that a treaty can apply to all of outer space is ridiculous. If people invented a craft that could fly beyond the reach of any government, how can they possibly be subject to its rules? Space is gigantic, and the fact governments think they can pass laws that apply from here to Andromeda speaks to the boundless self-righteousness and hubris of governments.

This invites an important question. If the governments of Earth shouldn’t have jurisdiction in space, how should people decide who can do what on new worlds like Mars? Does anyone have the right to own them? This may seem like a legal question, but fundamentally it’s a moral one—a question of property rights. For that we can turn to the father of liberty and the philosophic originator of the principles behind the American founding: John Locke.

In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke discussed the nature of property rights:

“Though the earth. . . be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men.”

What Locke was saying is that a person has a right to own those things that they create with their effort, and the unowned natural resources around us belong to those who take them out of a state of nature and turn them into something productive. As philosopher Ayn Rand demonstrated, this right to property is essential for human beings to be able to use their minds and live fully:

“Man has to work and produce in order to support his life. He has to support his life by his own effort and by the guidance of his own mind. If he cannot dispose of the product of his effort, he cannot dispose of his effort; if he cannot dispose of his effort, he cannot dispose of his life. Without property rights, no other rights can be practiced.”

Productive people like Elon Musk, who are working to make Mars and other celestial bodies available for human colonization and exploitation, cannot do so if their right to use and benefit from the resources they make available isn’t recognized. If such people get us to these worlds and set up productive activities on them, only for those to be seized by the governments they left behind on Earth, it would violate their right to the product of their effort, and would disincentivize others from following them. Conversely, recognizing their property rights would incentivize them to make these places productive.

After the 1969-1972 Moon landings, people expected government agencies to get us to Mars by the 1980s. For fifty years, they have failed completely, betrayed by their inefficiency, lack of commercial incentives, and reliance on the whims of politicians. Now private companies are gearing up to get us there in a fraction of the time. It would be a moral travesty to reward the innovators by stealing the product of their labor.

Incidentally, applying this principle to a new world like Mars doesn’t mean the entire planet should belong to the first person who lands there. Some have argued (in trying to apply Rand’s ideas to this issue) that the first person to successfully reach Mars has, by making travel there from Earth possible, turned it from a “virtually worthless ball of rock into something of substantial value.” This argument has two flaws. First, the ball of rock is still just a ball of rock after someone lands on it. Until someone “hath mixed his labour with” it and created value, he doesn’t have a property right to it. Second, the inventor of such a transportation system has unlocked not just Mars but much of the Solar System, and could lay claim to countless other bodies as well.

This argument is like saying that the first navigator to reach America should have owned the entire continent upon arriving (setting aside the question of whether or not Native Americans owned land). The inventors and builders of spacecraft (like those of sailing ships) have a right to own and benefit from those inventions (by charging people to buy or use them), but the right to own land on Mars, asteroids, or other uninhabited places belongs to those who make them into something useful. If the first person to arrive owned the entire planet, nobody else would be able to make productive use of any other part of it without that first visitor’s consent. Those innovators would be denied the chance to mix their labor with this untouched world, and much of the planet’s potential would sit unrealized, as it does today. The inventors of a transportation system create the potential to make a place useful, but others actually make it useful.

Imagine what enormous potential this could open up. Mars, asteroids, and the Jovian and Saturnian moons, could all come alive with a plethora of different productive settlements, each with the potential to blossom into a new civilization. With the incentive of private property on their side and restrictive governments out of the way, a new society could rise up and transform human life the way the United States has done on Earth.

There is no defensible argument for claiming the right of any government to control private citizens beyond Earth. To the extent that governments continue trying to do this, they will hold back the progress of human civilization. We can look to the historical example of the United States to see what might happen if a Martian civilization does develop under the yoke of Earth-based governments—a war of independence. Indeed, science fiction franchises like Babylon 5 and The Expanse depict Martian settlers rising up against oppression by Earth in bloody conflicts. Let’s hope we can avoid such an outcome in reality and allow colonies on other worlds to go their own way from the start.

This article, Elon Musk is Right: Governments Shouldn’t Control Land on Other Planets, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.