Kim Stanley Robinson writes bestselling novels about a colony on Mars. Elon Musk talks of actually colonising Mars. There is even a 30-page constitution, courtesy of a Yale political science class, for a Mars settlement. The actual prospects for a settlement remain uncertain, but the question of how it should be organised could stand some further scrutiny.
The Yale proposal is about how to make a Mars settlement democratic, as is an earlier proposal published in Space Legal Issues. But I fear a harsher question needs to be addressed first: Should a Mars settlement allow for contractual servitude?
When the New World was settled, it was common practice for workers to sign multiyear contracts, receiving passage across the ocean but giving up a share of their earnings and some of their freedom.
Contractual servitude is distinct from slavery in the sense that it is chosen voluntarily. But once the contract is signed, the worker is in an uncomfortable position, in both an economic and democratic sense. And once these individuals land in the New World — or, as the case may be, on Mars — their protection by mainstream legal institutions cannot be assumed.
It is easy to inveigh against contractual servitude, but it has one valuable function: It creates incentives for someone to finance the voyage in the first place. If I had to finance my own passage to Mars, and then sustain myself when I got there, and pay off the travel costs, I would never go. But if a company can send a few thousand people, keep half the profits, and remain in charge, the voyage might stand a chance, at least decades from now when the technology is further along.
That said, I am fine with banning contractual servitude on Mars, if that is what a democratic society decides. My point is that this is a more pressing question than what kind of new participatory rights the new Martians will have. Keep in mind the economic point about trade-offs: If poorer people are not allowed to sign up for these funded voyages, then maybe only billionaires will visit Mars.
The tension is that most people have well-developed moralities for wealthy, democratic societies in which most citizens can earn their keep or be provided for by a well-funded social welfare state. Neither of those assumptions holds for Mars, which at least at the beginning will be a kind of pre-subsistence economy.
The upshot is that feasible Mars constitutions will probably offend the educated classes dearly.
Another option for a Mars constitution is to have the US government fund the voyage and apply some version of military law to the venture, as one might find on an aircraft carrier. Earlier NASA voyages were based on military command and involved no democracy.
I support such a plan, but also note that governmental space exploration has slowed dramatically since its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. It is the private sector that has revived interest in a Mars settlement.
Ideally I might like Mars to be settled by a religious group rather than by a government or a corporation. After all, various Puritan groups helped to settle North America, and they had the unity and sense of mission to pull off a very difficult and dangerous endeavour. Similarly, Mormons helped settle the American West.
Not surprisingly, many of these early governments had strong theocratic elements. While I don't view theocracy as either efficient or just, if the key question is motivating the settlers, then the religion option ought to be taken seriously. Like contractual servitude, it could serve a practical purpose.
Yet religious settlements willing to go to Mars may be hard to come by. Relative religious freedom is available in many places on Earth. A victim of persecution in, say, North Korea, will find it far easier — now and maybe forever — to seek asylum in South Korea instead of Mars.
I suspect that no feasible constitution for a Mars settlement would be very popular in the broad sense. Ages of exploration tend to encourage strong non-democratic or anti-democratic elements. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a very democratic philosophy for life on Earth, with the understanding that Mars will be very different.
Can we accept and indeed embrace such a dialectical and contradictory set of perspectives? Can the proper answer to such a fundamental question as how society should be organised so firmly depend on which planet we are talking about? Might some sceptics suggest that, with illiberal values ascendant on Earth, it would be better for Mars to offer an alternative?
These are all valid questions. The debate over a Martian constitution is interesting, but it may also be premature.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.