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 used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.