Governments should not own land on other planets, as Elon Musk argues

Those who open up Mars to settlement, such as Elon Musk, should be permitted to do so without intervention from the government.

Aegean seafarers once set out in search of uncharted territory. Areas of the Earth's surface that were not under the control of governments at that time—areas that were free of laws, taxes and kings—still existed at that time. There was a chance to create new communities founded on radical ideals, free from the constraints of the old world, on those borders. When it comes to what individuals can do in such an environment, the United States of America serves as a shining example. It was widely thought that the nation would collapse when it was created on concepts that had never been tried. Many of its ideas are now common knowledge across the globe.

But now, we confront a world in which there are no more unexplored territories. Nearly every square kilometer of the planet is governed by a state (except Antarctica, which is barred from human development by a treaty among states). There are a number of states that attempt to influence individuals via government-controlled or media-regulated education or entrepreneurship to varied degrees, and all of these states want to limit innovation and entrepreneurship. Except for the "ultimate frontier," there are no more uncharted territories in which a freer society may be established.

Elon Musk, a space entrepreneur, is here to help. In less than a decade, he and his business SpaceX had made more progress in spaceflight than the federal government has in the preceding thirty years combined. In his mind, human settlements on the Moon and Mars will exist, and he envisions what such settlements would look 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! This planet has the potential to become the next United States of America. The only issue is that none of the world's spacefaring nations wants to allow it to happen. They have all signed the Outer Space Treaty.While stating that "outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty," this document goes on to say that "States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities," and 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. If you think a treaty can be applied to all of outer space, you're missing the point entirely. How can they be subject to the regulations of a government if they have created a craft that can fly above their jurisdiction? As vast as space is, governments' arrogance and self-righteousness shine through when they believe they can enact rules that apply everywhere from Earth to Andromeda.

An significant issue arises as a result of this. For example, how should people choose who is permitted on Mars if Earth is not a jurisdiction in space? Is anybody entitled to claim ownership of them? Although this may seem to be a legal concern, in reality it is one of property rights. For this, we might look to John Locke, the libertarian philosopher who laid the philosophical foundations for the United States of America.

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."

Elon Musk and others striving to make Mars and other celestial worlds habitable for humans will be unable to accomplish so if they are not allowed to utilize and profit from the resources they provide. Once they've brought us to these planets and started working on them, the governments they left behind on Earth would be violating their rights to the products of their labor and discouraging others from following in their footsteps. While acknowledging their property rights may encourage them, it would also encourage them to make these sites more profitable.

It was thought that we will be on Mars by the 1980s after the 1969-1972 Moon landings. Their lack of economic motive and dependence on political whims have misled them for the last fifty years, and they've been thoroughly defeated as a result. We can now travel there in a fraction of the time thanks to the efforts of commercial businesses. To thank the inventors by taking their hard work would be a moral disgrace.

Although this theory may be applied to Mars, it does not entail that the whole planet belongs to everybody who sets foot on it. To use parts of Ayn Rand's views, some have suggested that the first human to reach Mars has transformed it from a "essentially worthless ball of rock into something of real value" by making it accessible from Earth. Two problems are found in this argument. To begin with, even if someone falls on the rock ball, it remains a rock ball. He doesn't have a property interest in it until someone "hath combined his labor with" it and generated value. Not only has the developer of this travel device opened Mars, but much of the Solar System as well.

Isn't this reasoning like arguing that the first explorer to arrive in America was entitled to claim the whole continent? (setting aside the question of whether or not Native Americans owned land). To possess property on Mars, asteroids, or other deserted areas belongs to those who utilize their innovations to create something valuable, not the inventors and builders of spaceships (like the inventors and builders of sailing ships). If the first person to come owned the whole planet, no one else would be allowed to utilize any other portion of it without the permission of that initial guest. They'd miss out on the opportunity for innovation in this pristine environment, and most of the planet's full potential would remain untapped, as it is now. A transportation system's designers establish the possibility for a location to be beneficial, but it is someone else who really does so.

It's easy to see how this may have a huge impact. For example, a new civilisation may spring out on Mars, asteroids, or the Jovian moons or Saturn's moons, among many other places in our solar system. A new civilization may grow up and revolutionize human existence in the same manner that the United States has done on Earth if private property and restrictive governments were removed from the equation.

Any government's authority to regulate private persons beyond Earth is unjustifiable. If governments continue to do this, human civilisation will be held back to the point where it can no longer advance. In the event that a Martian civilisation does come under the control of Earth-based governments, we may learn from the history of the United States and prepare for a battle of independence. The Expanse and Babylon 5 are two sci-fi series that portray brutal rebellions by Martian settlers in the future. So let's hope for the best and let the colonists on other planets go their own way from the get-go instead.

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