March 18, 2006
Libertarian vs. Statist Settlers

In this post and in comments to this past week's Luddite Pillory, "Doctor Biobrain" set me to thinking about different approaches to settlement of space, the Moon, and Mars.

Doctor Biobrain cast the issue into two different extremes, what he calls the "libertarian" approach and what I would call the "statist" approach. To summarize the two ends of the spectrum (my definitions, with Mars used as an example for simplicity and blog-topicality):

  • The libertarian approach relies on free enterprise and private property to develop a permanent and self-sustaining human presence.

    With a clearly-defined and market-oriented property rights system in place, private companies left to their own devices can be expected to develop new ways of operating and earning a profit in these new environments. The profit motive will drive innovation, as many players -- each with different ideas and working independently towards similar goals -- find better solutions for existing markets (better surface suits and cheaper consumables, for example) and develop entirely new products and services. Standards would emerge naturally in a free market, as market competition selected winners and encouraged compatibility across products and services (e.g.: docking hardware for surface rovers...a rover will be less useful if it requires a non-standard docking adapter or cannot dock at all, and will therefore sell fewer units). While this would seem to apply only in the mid- to long-term, as an evolution of economic activity already under way, this approach can be employed from the beginning to bootstrap settlement. Short-stay services such as extreme tourism or privately-sponsored scientific expeditions could form the initial market, infrastructure, and technical capabilities leading to longer stays and eventually a permanent presence.

    Some degree of governance would be desirable under the libertarian approach...at minimum some authority, accountable to the settlers, which would have the responsibilities of keeping the peace among settlers and settlements and acting as a check against and recourse in case of the use of force and fraud. This minimal central authority would allow individual settlements to be otherwise free to operate as they see fit, with freedom of movement on the part of settlers spurring individual settlements to operate efficiently (keeping fees and taxes low) and improve safety and quality of life to recruit and retain scarce labor and entice capital. Private development can be encouraged by working today to establish a clear system of property rights and a minimal, provisional legal framework, so that the "rules of the game" are clear to all players before settlement begins.

  • The statist approach relies on governments to take the lead in establishing a permanent off-planet presence and in steering the direction of its evolution.

    From this perspective, the initial establishment of a human presence on Mars will be so difficult and expensive that it will require the technical and financial resources that only a government (or quasi-governmental entity) can muster. Furthermore, the safety of settlers and the orderly progression of settlement would require government oversight and planning, to ensure that those public and private resources devoted to the effort are used in an effective and efficient manner and not wasted on duplicative efforts. Additional regulation would be required to prevent damage to the planetary environment, and social provisions (medical care, education for the young, care for the disabled and elderly, etc.) would have to be figured in to all proposed settlement activities from the beginning. Private enterprise would be permitted to operate in the settlements, subject to approval and compliance with these plans and regulations. Self-sufficiency would be achieved through targeted development of critical capabilities through subsidies and partnerships with private industry, and through enterprises operated by the government/quasi-governmental entity itself in the case of items critical to the operation and survival of the settlements.

    The importance of planning and oversight would necessitate a strong governmental structure, which in turn would require money to carry out its duties. For this reason, commercial operations and individual settlers would be taxed to fund the many governmental activities and services from which everyone benefits in common, and states taking part in the settlement activity would be asked to provide ongoing support until such time as a degree of self-sufficiency could be attained.


Note that this is a difference of means towards a broadly similar end, and that there is a spectrum of variation between these two approaches. (I haven't considered the extreme statist "Antarctic" position, in which only governmental entities and not private companies or individuals would be allowed to set up a presence in space, as I don't consider it viable...it would preclude the permanent and self-supporting settlement of space, just as such an approach has precluded settlement of Antarctica.)

I think it is a common view among space settlement advocates that settlement must follow a libertarian approach to be successful, since the competition and economic freedom associated with it would foster technical innovations that enhance the long-term viability of settlement, speed the pace at which development takes place (hastening self-sufficiency), and ensure robustness through economic diversity (many players, many alternatives). A statist approach is, in my view, no different at root than the various central planning schemes which have been tried unsuccessfully over the past century, and (as one of Doctor Biobrain's comments here shows) is likely more motivated by a misconception of and distrust towards laissez faire capitalism than by any admirable qualities of the statist approach itself: in this view, private enterprise can't be trusted, and that leaves only government as the means through which the desired end of space settlement can be achieved.

Your thoughts? Do you favor a libertarian or statist approach to space settlement, something in between, or a combination of the two...and why?

Posted by T.L. James on March 18, 2006 06:26 PM

Comments

I favor whichever approach works. I suspect in practice both will, with extremes at either end of the scale that will be used as bad (or good) examples. In practice the best place to live will inevitably favor a balanced approach much like we have today. Some activites remain the duty or obligation of the State, some not.

But I favor the Lib approach. We gave the Statists control over large parts of the earth, millions of people and it's always failed. Why assume that what hasn't worked in the past will work in a new and strange place?

I keep coming back to things I know best. In this case it's ERP - enterprise resource platform. Huge systems that control great swaths of the enterprise and plan everything. HR, payroll, factory planning you name and ERP can do it.

When it works it's a grand thing.

But you see some of the oddest bugs. Ratty data can shred well crafted programs. Ratty sub-programs from a 3rd party vendor can bring production to it's knees.

A typical, and small, ERP system with which I am aquanted has hundreds of documented bugs and errors that keep a small platoon of developers and support people busy eradicating. These are probably all of them because the team is good at ferreting out these problems. I don't want to know how many documented bugs a really large ERP platform would have, let alone how many bugs and errors are lurking that no one knows about.

This is an environment where you have total control over input, output and environmental issues. Expand that to include a population of millions of people who don't want to be robots and won't repeat the same action twice ... the mind boggles. You want state control over that? Good luck.



Posted by: Brian at March 18, 2006 08:50 PM

I'm not sure that the question is very useful. If history is any guide, there will be both state and private entities operating on the Moon, then Mars, and then so on. Indeed, I will predict that some of the state entities will act more "libertarian" than "statist" by using their efforts to spur private development. And some of the private entities will act more "statist" than "libertarian" if they happen to be groups of people trying to found whatever their conception of a good society out there.



Posted by: Mark R. Whittington at March 20, 2006 10:18 AM

>> With a clearly-defined and market-oriented property rights system in place <<

This is a major sticking point in my opinion. I would love to see this happen, but where would such a system come from?

The history of the Treaty of Tordesillas (where the Pope gave 1/2 of the New World to Spain and the other 1/2 to Portugal (thereby greatly annoying the English, French, Dutch and so on) suggests that accomplishing a clearly defined property rights system may be more difficult than it seems.

I am writing a paper on this exact issue for ISDC 2006 and I do agree with the main thesis of the post - - robust private property rights and profitable commerce are essential for humanity to become spacefaring. Now, how do we get such a legal system implemented?

Many people fail to understand that without a government, private property cannot exist. (Posession? Yes. Property? No.) Even the English common law (perhaps the most freedom friendly system of property rights ever invented) is a system of government.



Posted by: Bill White at March 20, 2006 02:52 PM

>> With a clearly-defined and market-oriented property rights system in place <<

This is a major sticking point in my opinion. I would love to see this happen, but where would such a system come from?

The history of the Treaty of Tordesillas (where the Pope gave 1/2 of the New World to Spain and the other 1/2 to Portugal (thereby greatly annoying the English, French, Dutch and so on) suggests that accomplishing a clearly defined property rights system may be more difficult than it seems.

I am writing a paper on this exact issue for ISDC 2006 and I do agree with the main thesis of the post - - robust private property rights and profitable commerce are essential for humanity to become spacefaring. Now, how do we get such a legal system implemented?

Many people fail to understand that without a government, private property cannot exist. (Posession? Yes. Property? No.) Even the English common law (perhaps the most freedom friendly system of property rights ever invented) is a system of government.



Posted by: Bill White at March 20, 2006 02:53 PM

but where would such a system come from?

The first bunch of settlers, on arrival, print out a copy of the Mayflower compact, update it, sign it.

Right - that is simplisitc. But it worked in North America in the 17th century. Settlers from England arrived, recreated their county governments, and - with minimal oversight from the Crown - put themselves in the business of self-government.



Posted by: Brian at March 20, 2006 03:15 PM

A 21st century Mayflower Compact is a great idea for "one way to stay" settlers but might not work as well for moon and asteroid miners who only intend to visit.



Posted by: Bill White at March 20, 2006 06:41 PM