TCS Daily

We the People of Mars...

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 12, 2002 12:00 AM

In response to a column of mine on Mars a few weeks back, reader Philip Shropshire posted a comment asking: "I'm curious as to what you think. Would you prefer to live under the American constitution on Mars or a new constitution that you designed case you're looking for next week's column material."

Well, I'm always happy with suggestions for new columns, but this isn't actually all that new an idea. In fact, the Smithsonian Institution, in cooperation with Boston University's Center for Democracy, produced a set of principles for creating a new constitution to govern human societies on Mars, and elsewhere in outer space; fellow lawyer John Ragosta and I drafted an alternative proposal that was published in the American Bar Association's journal of law, science and technology, Jurimetrics. (Alas, neither document is available on the Web.)

Shropshire makes it easy, of course: I'd rather live under a new constitution that I designed myself -- it's the constitutions designed by other people that I'm worried about. Actually, that may not even be true. The United States Constitution isn't perfect, but it's lasted a long time, through all sorts of stresses, without producing the sort of tyranny or genocide that has been all-too-common elsewhere, even in countries we generally regard as civilized. So perhaps it's been demonstrated to be "fault tolerant."

But the interesting (and worrying) thing about proposals for new constitutions for outer space is that they mostly take it for granted that the United States Constitution offers too much freedom. Writing in Ad Astra magazine some years ago, William Wu writes that"[s]pace colonists may face life on a political leash," and compares space colony life to that in an oppressive company town. "In a company town, freedom of expression may be in danger. Democracy permits citizens to make public statements about political figures that they would never say openly about their immediate bosses or top-level officers of the companies for which they work. The security and efficiency of a well-organized and well-run company town in space might be politically stifling. . . . The colonization of space may point toward a weakening of individual rights and a strengthening of government power."

The participants in the Smithsonian conference on space governance seemed to feel the same way, stressing the need to balance individual freedoms against the needs of the community rather strongly, and emphasizing a wide array of social controls: "The imperatives of the community safety," they wrote, "and individual survival within the unique environment of outer space shall be guaranteed in harmony with the exercise of such fundamental individual rights as freedom of speech, religion, assembly, contract, travel to, in and from outer space, media and communications." There's no similar provision in the United States Constitution, and this probably reflects the participants' belief that in space, we won't be able to afford as much freedom as we can on Earth.
This view is probably wrong, but nonetheless it concerns me a great deal.

It is probably wrong because all of the available evidence is that things don't work this way. Although there are some simulated Mars bases on Earth now, the closest current analogs to a space colony are Antarctic bases. But these are not harsh, dictatorial environments. By contrast, the kinds of conditions that Antarctic crews face tend to force the abandonment of traditional hierarchical systems in favor of more flexible ones. As Andrew Lawler writes:
A winter base in Antarctica is a unique world, where the cook often has greater prestige than the officer-in-charge and the radio operator can have more influence than an established scientist. The traditional hierarchical structure of the military, and of government as a whole, breaks down... This was a controversial and embarrassing realization for the Navy. Flexible authority and sharing of tasks among everyone are vital... This can run against the grain of highly specialized scientists and career military officers. The absence of women was also a factor. Navy traditions excluded females from the continent, and this increased tensions.

Some lessons have been learned. With great reluctance, the Navy eventually allowed women on the continent... A more flexible organizational structure is tolerated, and private enterprise is now providing some services and personnel... The Antarctican experience reminds us that the dangers of mutiny or psychosis in a space station or colony are as real as the threat of meteors or solar flares.

Experience, thus, tends to suggest that overly rigid and controlled environments are harmful to survival under such conditions, not essential to it. George Robinson and Harold White agree, stressing in their book Envoys of Mankind that "the real answer to [space] community success probably lies in motivated, self-actualized, strong, adventurous, unconventional, yet disciplined and well-trained human beings."

I said that the negative view of liberties in space societies worries me even though it is probably wrong. Here is why. I believe that, consciously or unconsciously, interest in space societies is as high as it is because their future in many ways mirrors our own. Many characteristics of space societies, such as strong dependence on advanced technology, problems with maintaining environmental quality, the need for people to work together under stress, and individuals' strong dependence upon their society for basic necessities such as food and water, are simply amplified images of characteristics already present, and growing, in our own society.

This is a good reason for being interested in space societies, since by studying their problems we gain a window into our future on Earth. It is also a reason to be worried. For if there is a general belief that a high level of interdependence and environmental fragility means that space settlers will not be able to afford individual rights, then what of those of us who remain on Earth under similar conditions? I don't think that the march of technology has made individual rights obsolete, but I worry that others do. And I believe that it is wrong. Just as space societies will need access to the creativity and individual initiative of their inhabitants to flourish, so will societies on Earth. Surely the failure of totalitarian societies worldwide to achieve any kind of social -- or even material -- greatness illustrates that.

In fact, I think that although early Mars societies will not offer certain kinds of freedoms that we enjoy on Earth -- such as the freedom to be nonproductive sponges living off the labors of others -- they will offer more freedom for individuals to make something of themselves. And I suspect that, being populated by people willing to undertake a tremendous life-altering journey in order to make something of themselves, they will also be populated by people who are unwilling to be subjected to the sort of pointless regulation that is all too often the rule on Earth. At that point, they'll start writing their own constitutions, and what we Earthlings have to say about it will matter very little.

Which is as it should be.



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