Yale’s proposal addresses how to make a settlement on Mars democratic, much like an earlier proposal published in Space Legal Issues. But I fear that a more difficult question must be tackled first: should a Mars agreement allow for contractual servitude?
When the New World was colonized, it was common for workers to sign multi-year contracts, receiving passage across the ocean but giving up part of their earnings and part of their freedom.
Contractual servitude differs from slavery in that it is chosen voluntarily. But once the contract is signed, the worker finds himself in an uncomfortable situation, both in the economic and democratic sense. And once these individuals land in the New World – or, as the case may be, on Mars – their protection by traditional legal institutions cannot be assumed.
It’s easy to argue against contractual servitude, but it serves a valuable function: it induces someone to fund the trip in the first place. If I had to fund my own trip to Mars, then support myself once I got there and pay the travel expenses, I would never go. But if a company can send a few thousand people, keep half the profits, and stay in control, the trip might have a chance, at least decades from now when technology is more advanced.
That said, I agree with prohibiting contractual servitude on Mars, if that is what a democratic society decides. What I mean is that this is a more pressing issue than what kind of new participation rights new Martians will enjoy. Keep in mind the economic point of trade-offs: if the poorest people aren’t allowed to sign up for these funded trips, then maybe only the billionaires will visit Mars.
The tension is that most people have well-developed morals for wealthy, democratic societies in which most citizens can earn a living or be supported by a well-funded welfare state. None of these assumptions hold for Mars, which at least initially will be some sort of pre-subsistence economy.
The upshot is that the workable constitutions of Mars will likely offend the educated classes.
Another option for a Mars constitution is for the US government to fund the trip and apply a version of military law to the company, such as might be found on an aircraft carrier. Previous NASA trips were based on military command and did not involve any democracy.
I support such a plan, but also note that government space exploration has slowed considerably since its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the private sector that revived interest in a colony on Mars.
Ideally, I’d like Mars to be colonized by a religious group rather than a government or corporation. After all, various Puritan groups helped colonize North America, and they had the unity and sense of mission to pull off a very difficult and dangerous undertaking. Likewise, Mormons helped colonize the American West.
Not surprisingly, many of these early governments had strong theocratic elements. While I don’t consider theocracy to be effective or fair, if the key issue is motivating the settlers, then the religious option should be taken seriously. Like contractual servitude, it could have a practical purpose.
Still, religious establishments willing to travel to Mars can be hard to come by. Relative religious freedom is available in many places on Earth. A victim of persecution, for example in North Korea, will find it much easier – now and perhaps forever – to seek asylum in South Korea instead of Mars.
I suspect that no workable constitution for a settlement on Mars would be very popular at large. Eras of exploration tend to encourage strong undemocratic or anti-democratic elements. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a very democratic philosophy of life on Earth, with the understanding that Mars will be very different.
Can we accept and even embrace such a set of dialectical and contradictory perspectives? Does the correct answer to such a fundamental question as how society should be organized depend so firmly on the planet we are talking about? Could some skeptics suggest that, with illiberal values rising on Earth, it would be better if Mars offered an alternative?
These are all valid questions. The debate over a Martian constitution is interesting, but it may also be premature.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• To reach Mars, the human body may need some updates: Adam Minter
• Life on Mars: our cousins or something entirely new? : Faye Flam
• We’re never going to mine the asteroid belt: David Fickling
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the Marginal Revolution blog. He is co-author of “Talent: How to Identify the Energizers, Creatives and Winners in the World”.
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