One of the most important problems to solve if the future of humanity is to be a multi-planet one is not a technical problem, but a socio-political one. Who should make decisions about spaceflight and how should they be made? In a recent interview by Vox at the Code Conference 2016, Elon Musk briefly tackles just such an issue. Along with topics such as, “are we all characters in a video game?”, Musk describes just how he thinks a colony on Mars should be governed, and it is remarkably (deceptively even?) simple. Musk suggests a direct democracy, where everyone votes on the issues. But to avoid legal creep, Musk believes that it should be much harder to pass a law than to get rid of one. By requiring a larger majority to pass a law than to change one, and requiring sunset provisions on every law, the problems of laws with infinite life can be avoided. Problem solved right? Not so fast. While I think it is important that discussions about the governance of humans living in space start now, they certainly shouldn’t stop with Elon Musk.
The model that Musk puts forward is a version of legal democracy. Legal democracy holds that the rule of the majority protects citizens from authoritarian rule and protects individual liberties. To combat the threat of majorities oppressing or marginalizing minority political groups, the rule of law limits majority rule. Musk’s proposal fits this model nicely: a basic framework of majoritarian voting for decision-making, and a set of general laws limiting the scope of majoritarian decision-making.
Legal democracy has several downsides, however. First, the legal framework limiting the authority of democratic mechanisms of this system is very powerful. Thus, whoever gets to set that framework is extremely powerful. Second, majoritarian democratic politics focuses heavily on decision-making at the expense of ignoring agenda setting. Voting as a mechanism is especially bad at this. Who gets to decide what gets voted on? Or even what is worth considering voting on? Democracy is about a lot more than just majority rule. Self-determination in governance has historically been the second, though oft ignored in popular discussion, pillar of democracy. Does Musk’s proposal take into account these barriers to better democratic governance?
Given that the legal framework of legal democracies is so powerful, it is worthwhile to examine the impacts that Musk’s legal framework might have. First, from a procedural point of view, it is entirely undemocratic for such a legal framework to be determined by a single man. Now Musk hasn’t suggested that his idea for a Martian government should be the final word, but if his plans work as he has designed, then they will be. Musk announced that he intends to send humans to Mars by 2025, which is well before NASA’s still flexible date somewhere in the 2030s or 2040s. This means that if he is successful, his mission will be the one that establishes the governance framework on the red planet. And Musk’s mission it is likely to be. SpaceX is a private company, which means Musk has the final say. Musk has an established history of maintaining very tight control over his companies. Not to mention the huge amounts of capital that Musk has put into SpaceX and the Mars endeavor more specifically, and the huge amounts of capital that have yet to be invested: multiple missions starting in only two years to set up supplies and infrastructure. It seems unlikely that Musk will not demand a return on this investment, given that he has described launch vehicles as giant piles of cash. It thus seems likely that Musk will be creating at least the legal framework under which his Martian democracy will operate. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him put more direct limitations on the democratic authority of his colonists in order to be more certain SpaceX sees returns on the mission.
It is also not surprising that the legal framework Musk has already proposed makes it harder to make laws than abolish them. From Musk’s perspective, laws serve primarily to limit what he and his companies are allowed to do. To him, the necessity for SpaceX of operating as a launch provider for NASA and the DoD must have seemed like a labyrinthian navigation of different contradictory regulations that make things more difficult and, worse, expensive. A legal framework where such a rat’s nest of laws is difficult to create would seem mighty appealing from that perspective. But why should that perspective be the one that a Martian government privileges? How democratic is it really to design into the government a legal framework that privileges the interests of private companies?
To answer these questions, we should understand that markets and their promotion are inherently undemocratic when we think about democracies as more than just majority rules decision-making. The theory behind majoritarian decision-making is to ensure that each person has some degree of self-determination in their governance. If decisions are being made that will impact a person’s life and well being, then they deserve a fair opportunity to shape that decision. For this to work, every participant in the democratic process must have relatively equal authority over decision-making. If things become too unbalanced, that self-determination is lost. Markets fundamentally create inequalities, of monetary capital, but also cultural capital. Thus markets are fundamentally opposed to democracy. That doesn’t mean that democracies can have no markets, as some degree of inequality is reasonably expected, and the tradeoffs might be at least worth considering. The fact remains that building a privileged position for business into the very framework of democratic governance would eventually undermine that democracy.
While Musk’s idea for democratic governance of Mars is clearly flawed, what I hope he has succeeded in by presenting it is to start a much more robust conversation about how, not just Mars, but the endeavor of interplanetary spaceflight more generally, should be governed. This conversation should not be limited to how democracy would work on some other planet, but also how the governance of spaceflight here on Earth sets the foundation for the future of humans and their governance on other planets. In one of his more radical essays, economist and political scientists Charles Lindbloom outlines how markets act like “prisons,” preventing even the most beneficial reforms through a system of automatic punishments. Spaceflight is not immune from this influence. The private sector has gained more and more control over governance of spaceflight, as the fear of job loss, or loss of competitiveness in high tech sectors to other countries has caused law makers to make more and more concessions to aerospace companies (both dominant contractors and so call NewSpace). If we truly care about promoting interplanetary democracy, we must understand that undemocratic decision-making on Earth will almost certainly lead to undemocratic governance elsewhere.
There has been almost no public debate about the appropriate future of spaceflight in the U.S. or elsewhere. Spaceflight enthusiasts, such as me, assume that interplanetary travel is a good thing to do, but who has made this decision? It has certainly not been made democratically, and if we are truly to be dedicated to the principles of democracy, then even that undesirable (to us) option should be left on the table for consideration. Most important decisions about spaceflight are made by technical and business experts. I think it is high time that spaceflight decision-making be made more public.