Can A Democratic Government Exist on Mars?

This post is part of an on-going series. See the other posts here.

The British Interplanetary Society sat down last year in a dingy room in London and decided the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights were the best documents to guide the governance of a colony on Mars.

Conference delegates decide that having air to breathe is a fundamental right that needs to be enshrined at the heart of any colonial constitution. “A space colony is a tyranny prone environment,” Cockell warns, pointing out that no other constitution has listed the right to breathable air before. “If somebody gets control of oxygen, they could very well have control over the whole population and could threaten dire consequences in return for extraordinary levels of power.”

As is usual with the lofty and idealistic discussions of what real world governance would be like in an extreme, hostile environment, this leaves a lot to be desired.

One of the key attributes of the Constutition, besides the Bill of Rights, is that it delegates most law-making and day-to-day governance to the states. That is, the Tenth Amendment — part of the Bill of Rights — explicitly says that any powers not delegated to the federal government default to the states, with the implicit assumption that those powers will be exercised by the States within the bounds of the Constitution.

It’s a tricky thing, but there is a clear logic: even as the 13 founding colonies, the United States was far too fractious a place to be united under a solitary, strong, federal government. A lot of turmoil, from the other 17 amendments to hundreds of Supreme Court decisions to an incredibly bloody civil war helped to settle out where most people will accept the terms of centralized rule.

But there is no escaping that one reason America is governable is because so much power is delegated locally — far more than in Britain, for example. That is also why the U.S. Constitution can get away with being a few pages long, but state constitutions are hundreds of pages in length.

To summarize America, as a federal constitutional system, is fundamentally based on the tension and interplay between local and central federal rule. There are layers and layers of localities that combine to make the peculiar “American Way of Life” possible.

There will be nothing similar on Mars for generations after settlers first arrive on the Red Planet. So any system fundamentally based on the delegation of powers, as the U.S. Constitution is, simply won’t work: there won’t be anywhere to delegate power to.

But! Perhaps the U.S. Constitution can be mined for its ideas about rights and limitations on government. Here, too, the analogy simply falls flat. Everyone can agree with an on-paper right to free speech and freedom of religion; in fact even oppressive tyrannies like Russia offer that right in their legal documents. The trick, for one, is how that right is either enabled, denied, restricted, or expanded through followup law. And as the BIS delegates noted, it won’t cover somthing critical: air.

For our discussion here, let’s also talk water. Unlike on Earth, on Mars you are reliant on other people to generate air and water to live. In fact, I would venture to say that air and water are going to be the primary industrial outputs of any Martian Colony: humans need those chemical inputs to do anything else, and it would be suicidal to not devote an enormous amount of effort to safeguarding resources that are vital to survival. This extends beyond food and healthcare — two rights that are conspicuously not guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. On Earth, in the 18th century, if you wanted food you could barter or grow some. And healthcare, as we imagine it today, simply did not exist (and the continuing political contentiousness of Obamacare, whatever its merits are, shows that the country as a whole has still not yet adopted the idea of access to healthcare as a fundamental right).

So why would the government of a colony on Mars give its primary industrial output to its citizens for free? This is the foundation of many a science fiction story (which are all allegories of a hydraulic empire crumbling under structural pressure), but there is something to consider here. Put bluntly, the primary economic output of the United States in its early years was agriculture produced by a massive slave population — a population the Founders went to great lengths to describe, in the text of the Constitution, as being subhuman (specifically, 3/5th of a person). This seems cruel and arbitrary, the result of a bunch of old guys arguing in a hall in Philadelphia, but it actually comes from a deep place: the economic foundation of a society is a deadly serious business, and no sustainable government could treat its primary economic output as a disposable commodity everyone is entitled to and survive.

Actually, such a government and society could easily do that, but it wouldn’t look like any society governed by the U.S. Constitution. When Elon Musk day dreamed about his ideal govenrment on Mars, it was anarchism: no police, no mayor, no administration, just direct votes. I’m sure one could secure fundamental rights that way, but it has no relationship to American governance. More to the point, in small communities in dangerous environments, executive authority is more important than it is on Earth, not less. You cannot have decision paralysis if something (like, say, a movement to steal or hoarde air) directly threatens the survival of the colony.

So there is a strong element of coercion that is necessary for a Martian colony to be viable, and that element is only halfway elided to by the people envisioning its governance. The BIS delegates thought an ancient Greek system might work:

Another idea that receives broad support owes its origins to Ancient Greece, whereby the government is part elected but also made up of people selected through a lottery. “In a sealed space colony, having a system where everyone has a vested interest in the political system is a good thing to do,” Cockell says. “Apathy in a lethal, hostile environment is extremely dangerous.”

While this is true, so too, is coercion, which breeds resentment, which eventually breeds violence. Ancient Greece was not a functioning or free society in the way we would envision it. Even Athenian democracy, which these guys mean when they say “Greek democracy” (don’t mention Spartan militarism or the oligarchies or the many tyrannies, since Greek is where we get these words from anyway). There was no civil service, no administration. It was rule by the wealthy, those with the time and energy and wherewithal to spend the time in parliament doing the governing. There was no judicial review, and the judges at the lowest levels were openly, proudly corrupt.

So Ancient Greek “democracy” seems like a truly bizarre template to draw from; it seems like a method of guaranteeing zero-sum gamesmanship, which is a recipe for violence in a small, geographically confined society like a Martian colony. So of course, this year, the BIS delegates thought up what to do if there is a possibility of violence. And just like with their discussion of governance, their ideas about how to keep opposition non-violent are also, at best, half-baked.

“The consequences of violence in space could be much more catastrophic than on Earth,” he warns, “So how do you dissent in an environment in which violent disobedience might kill everyone?”

The answer lies, Cockell believes, in preventing dictatorships emerging in the first place. This would be achieved by building non-violent means of opposition to government into the rulebook, perhaps through organised labour systems – similar to unions on Earth – or by holding the leadership to account through journalism and media.

Again, this system of constitutional labor unions bears no relation to the American system of governance the group endorsed last year. A collaborative relationship between unions and government is a feature of European parliamentary democracy, not American representative democracy. I’m not even sure they’re compatible; at the very least Americans would never stand for unions to have such a powerful say over governance issues, even if a large number of them would enjoy the labor protections unions can bring.

More pointedly, this idea that “journalism and media” are remotely sufficient to prevent tyrannt is, at best, painfully naive. As the fawning and pervasive coverage of Donald Trump’s white nationalism or Ted Cruz’s militant Christianism shows, the media have terrible incentives to directly challenge media-friendly, click-driving, outrageous characters (would media on Mars be non-profit or subsidized in some way? It’s a huge quagmire, this idea). Here on earth, journalists are reliant on access to government officials and offices to report on those agencies, and even then journalists can still be rhetorically captured by an oppressive regime. Reporters in Colombia, for example, willingly worked with drug lords and promoted them as mythical Robin Hood figures because it was both insurance against their own lives and it elevated them to fame and prominence. Press freedom is a vital right, but it is no more a bulwark against tyranny than civil disobedience is: hopefully it can be, in an ideal setting that has totally different incentives and economics than Earth, if you squint hard enough. But this is very naive thinking.

But naive, wishful thinking seems to underpin all of the very hard questions about what governance and daily life on Mars might possibly look like. One reason could be the participants: the organizer of these events is an astrobiologist, and they seem to have gotten their insight into politics from writers like Stephen Baxter. This is not a dig against either men — astrobiology is an incredibly interesting subject, and I love Baxter’s books — but they are not experts in governance or nation-building (which is what a colony will be). There is, luckily, an entire field of academic study devoted to these questions: academics who have spent decades understanding how and why regimes can be resisted, how to build new nations, and so on. They don’t seem to have been included in this discussion.

Instead it looks like most other efforts at imagining space colonies: well meaning but ultimately naive technocrats imagining a western technocratic society as the best structure. And just like with Musk’s concept of a Mars colony, the serious economic issues at play here, which are a big deal in designing any society, are ignored. They assume it will be a mostly-deregulated libertarian economic system, again despite the inescapable fact that any space colony will have to concern itself primary with generating enough air and water to keep everyone alive. It is utterly baffling.

I have a more prosaic question none of them seem to have pondered: who will the Martians be in terms of nationality and citizenship? If an Earth-based corporation builds a colony on Mars, will they be ruled by a Martian constitution or will they be ruled by the constitution of their home country on Earth (or by a corporate constitution, which none of them seem to have considered). If NASA builds its Mars Colony, they will obviously be governed by the U.S. Constitution. Will a Mars Constitution be a meaningful concept in that sort of environment? Or if, let’s say, they push for independence — what then? This is more of less the plot of the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, and it is far from clear that these questions are settled. Lastly: if Mars develops into a thriving, self-sustaining society, what if its members cannot live on Earth for any length of time. How do they handle diplomacy, trade, international relations? Wouldn’t they be utterly reliant on Earth-based intermediaries, and wouldn’t that severely inhibit any attempt at local rule?

Those pragmatic questions need to be dealt with before anything as high concept as a brand new constitution (meaning a whole new Martian nation) come into play. But just like with Elon Musk’s dreams of nuking Martian polar caps, all these tech people (who, not coincidentally almost universally disdain actual politics and policymaking) don’t want to be bothered with the really hard, nitty-gritty questions.

Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.