Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and space policy analyst Taylor Dinerman have written an interesting article on the economic potential of space. They argue that the Moon and possibly other parts of the solar system might contribute greatly to fulfilling future energy needs, and also produce other valuable products. More importantly - from my parochial perspective as a property professor - they emphasize the importance of creating private property rights in space, rather than leaving everything to government ownership:
A base on the Moon does not have to be a permanent government-controlled and owned facility. After it has been fully established, control could be handed over to a private non-profit consortium that would lease space to companies and governments which will then pursue their individual goals, such as energy, research, tourism, or developing the technology and supplies needed for further space exploration.
Handing off control of the base to a private group means that we will have to establish rules explaining what exactly is and is not private property on the Moon. According to the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon is “common heritage of mankind”. No one has ever been able to agree on exactly what this means, but few space law experts outside the United States seem willing to accept the idea that there is room for private entities to claim any sort of recognizable property rights on the Moon. The best they are willing to concede are long term leases with the rent being paid to the United Nations.
Still possession is nine tenths of the law. An American moon base would insure that traditional American ideas such as private property and homesteading would influence the future legal regime. Otherwise the Europeans and others might try and push their model of tight government control and high taxes onto the off-Earth economy of the late 21st century . . .
Greg Allison, Chairman of the National Space Society’s Policy Committee states that it “believes that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty can be interpreted as permitting public and private entities to appropriate resources that they can directly utilize and to establish a ‘reasonable’ zone of operations around sites of activity.” An American base, even one with substantial international participation, would create a precedent that would not only apply to the Moon but to all the other accessible bodies in our solar system.
I lack the expertise to assess Aldrin and Dinerman's claims about the economic potential of the Moon and other parts of the Solar System. Perhaps they greatly overestimate that potential, in which case the issue of property rights beyond Earth will be largely academic.
But if they are right conclude that the Moon or other bodies in the Solar system have tremendous potential utility, then they are also right to emphasize the importance of establishing private property rights. While some government-owned facilities in space and on the Moon are probably inevitable and desirable, imposing government ownership on all property beyond Earth orbit, as the conventional interpretation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty seems to do, is a recipe for disaster. A vast socialist empire in space is no more likely to be a good idea than earthbound socialist empires have been.
Obviously, these issues are not yet urgent, since we are still years away from establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon, much less seriously beginning to exploit its resources. However, if those resources turn out to be valuable, it will be essential to consider the appropriate property rights regime for them ahead of time. If either national governments or the UN are able to establish government ownership over the Moon and other extraterrestrial bodies, it will be much harder to establish a private property rights regime after the fact. The entire history of modern government shows that it is much easier to limit government power over an issue area in advance than to roll it back once it has become established. The old saying that government programs are "immortal" is an exaggeration, but it does contain a large measure of truth. I suspect that this will be no less true in space than it has been on Earth.