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Buzz Aldrin on Property Rights in Space:

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.

bigchris1313 (mail):
I know what Heinlein would say about the "ownership" of Luna.
2.22.2007 5:14am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Simin's worries about government ownership displacing desirable private ownership are contradicted by history. Somin writes:


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.


If I recall correctly, the U.S. government used to own tons of land in the United States that is now privately owned. This is an example of government relinquishing its power over something to the private sector when it is seen as in the public interest.
2.22.2007 5:59am
Mho (mail):
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is literally a product of the Twilight Zone era, when the future looked like anthropomorphic aliens in silver suits landing nozzle-down in their rockets, and most Americans actually believed that the UN was worth something.

Fact is, the resources of space will render moot the "limits on growth" we keep hearing about from present-day Malthusians. Near-earth asteroids are incredibly rich sources of iron, nickel, cobalt, and dozens of other useful minerals, including water.

The best time to consider the property rights implications of this potential wealth is behind our current "veil of ignorance" regarding who, exactly, will be the winners and losers. Privatizing property once it comes under the hold of government can be very messy. Taking U.S. history as the lesson, government grants were both the source of tremendous corruption (e.g., land grants and mineral rights to the politically well-connected) and a source of tremendous incentive to economic development (40 acres and a mule to all comers).
2.22.2007 8:10am
dew:
The original post conflates some different, largely unrelated issues in the same sentence. The overall base could remain in government control, or be leased to a private entity. Space in the base, and concessions or other property rights on the moon outside of the base, could be leased/sold to private entities by either the government or by a private group. In any model, property rights on the moon and in space will have to be determined.

Viscus: "If I recall correctly, the U.S. government used to own tons of land in the United States that is now privately owned. This is an example of government relinquishing its power over something to the private sector when it is seen as in the public interest."

I think you missed the word "easier". He did not say "never".
2.22.2007 8:17am
gahrie (mail) (www):
Ther larger issue is soveriegnty. What gives the right of the US or UN to decide the Moon's fate? If a privately funded venture should happen to establish a colony on the Moon or Phobos, what is to stop them from declaring it an independent state?
2.22.2007 8:39am
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (www):
Money doesn't exist in the Twenty-Fourth Century.
2.22.2007 8:55am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I am not really worried about sovereignty, but rather that there be strong private property rights. Of course, U.S. sovereignty is nice because we have stronger private property rights than do many other countries.

The idea that there are plenty of resources on the moon and out in space has been out there for a long time now, and various people (often science fiction authors with technical degrees, but still..) have worked out ways of bootstrapping them.

The place where strong private property rights comes in is in guaranteeing private enterprise a profit for investing in space. We are possibly at the place now where we could go into space using private enterprise and make it self sustaining and profitable over the long run. We saw last year how cheaply it could be done with Spaceship One and the X Prize, and there are enough billionaires out there looking for the next great thing in which to put some of their money. And a lot of that money comes from high tech, which predisposses the owner of it towards considering this sort of venture (i.e. a Paul Allen is much more likely to invest in this sort of thing than a Warren Buffet).
2.22.2007 9:20am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Dew writes:


I think you missed the word "easier". He did not say "never".


I never said he said never. =)

The point holds taking into consideration the word "easier." There was nothing particularly difficult about distributing land to private hands, which is not to say that the process was done perfectly.
2.22.2007 9:25am
TDPerkins (mail):
If a privately funded venture should happen to establish a colony on the Moon or Phobos, what is to stop them from declaring it an independent state?


The first U.S Marine Corps Lunar Expeditionary Force, of course. Also of course, it will be UN flagged.

If you want a private colony independent of an earth govt were to be established successfully, it woul dhave to have a defense budget from about DAY-1440.

And that's illegal.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
2.22.2007 9:36am
Anon Y. Mous:
Private property in space? Shouldn't be a problem, as long as everyone accepts that it's mine.
2.22.2007 10:32am
Fub:
Ilya Somin wrote:
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.
Property rights regime not urgent? Somebody better tell these folks!
2.22.2007 11:11am
Brett Bellmore:

If you want a private colony independent of an earth govt were to be established successfully, it woul dhave to have a defense budget from about DAY-1440.


No, not really. You see, the key difference between space and the Earth is that space is infinite, whereas the surface of the Earth is merely unbounded. So that, while on earth a private colony can only be so far from an existing state, where "so far" is a few hours' travel, in space a private colony could be arbitrarilly distant from all existing states, rendering attacks on it infeasible by virtue of distance alone.

Secondly, landmasses on Earth move relative to each other at negligable speeds, while objects in space are moving relative to each other at speeds comparable to the speed of travel between them.

So, you could establish a private colony on, say, a cometary body departing the inner solar system, and not only would you start out distant from existing states, you'd get continually further away.

This raises the possiblity of gaining independence purely on the basis that an expedition to bring you to heel would be uneconomic even if you folded at the least pressure.

Distance is your "defense budget" in space.
2.22.2007 11:19am
WHOI Jacket:
Colonial Space Marines!

That'd be awesome!
2.22.2007 12:07pm
RadCap:
"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."

It is the current lack of defensible property rights which makes the "economic potential" of solar bodies small to non-existent. Without such property rights, men have little personal incentive to risk their limited time and effort on projects which are highly speculative.

However, if one wishes to get an idea of the "economic potential" which exists in privately owned space bodies, imagine - just as an exercise - the "economic potential" which men would create and exploit if the US granted ownership rights for the ENTIRE planet Mars to anyone who could reach it and stay there productively for 10 years (something along the lines of the Homestead Act, but as a one time deal). Now, I don't necessarily propose this as a serious option (one could grant ownership of half of mars, or one-fourth or one-eighth). The point of the example is to show that, if one offered such an amazing deal, one would be witness to a historically unprecedented explosion of productive activity, all aimed at making the planet Mars a value to men. In other words, the point of the example is to show that private property rights are not only essential to productiveness - ie essential to the creation of values - but that they also serve to drive the discovery and manufacture of such values. It is the lack of such private property rights today which limits "economic potential" - be it on Earth or on some other celestial body.

Put simply, it is impossible to "overestimate" the "economic potential" of the entire solar system - just as it would have been impossible to "overestimate" the "economic potential" of the New World. The wildest, most 'insane' "overestimate" of its value in the time of Columbus isn't even a fraction of its actual value today. The same is necessarily true of the solar system - so long as men are left free to think and to act in order to create wealth.

Conversely, so long as men are denied private property rights beyond the Earth, the "economic potential" of the entire rest of the solar system will necessarily remain largely "academic." For it is the absence of such ownership rights which relegates "economic potential" to the realm of the "academic" (of thought) rather than to the realm of the actual (of deed) where it rightfully belongs. This is as true in space as it is on Earth.

Without a free market,a free mind is useless (and in fact is not free at all).
2.22.2007 12:27pm
Jeek:
if the US granted ownership rights for the ENTIRE planet Mars to anyone who could reach it and stay there productively for 10 years

What does "productively" mean?

A major problem with private industry investing in space is that the initial investment is very large, and the return takes a long, long time to materialize (if ever). I suspect a Mars venture would take much longer than 10 years to break even.

We saw last year how cheaply it could be done with Spaceship One and the X Prize,

How cheaply what could be done? Getting to suborbital altitudes? All very well, but this hardly demonstrates that mining the Moon or Mars would be self-sustaining or profitable anytime soon.
2.22.2007 12:48pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
For years, the Libertarian Party has been mocked for having a platform that, among other things, opposed the 1967 moon treaty and called for private property in space. Gee, maybe they were right all along? It's a fairly obvious example of a tragedy of the commons,and of how the UN is a net threat rather than boon to world welfare.
For another example, the recent UN-sponsored invasion of Somalia. For a number of years, Somalia has had an extreme federal system, with no central government. Tribes, possibly I mean clans, hold territory and enforce a customary law known as Xeer ("hair"). When two Somalis meet they first sort out how they are related to each other. Somalia has two sections, the formerly British north which is relatively (only relatively) calm and prosperous,and a formerly italian south which is relatively hotheaded and violent.
Both areas have had to cope with repeated UN sponsored attempts to install puppet central governments. Apparently the former dictator borrowed a few billion from UN-connected banks,and the current lack of a central government makes it hard to impose taxes to try to get the money back.
What's any of this got to do with a moon treaty? The point is that the UN is willing to take extreme measures to prevent people from getting away. What you read in the western press is almost 100% from the UN perspective, with nobody asking the Somalis how they feel about getting invaded again. Since 1967, there's been a spread of the meme that markets work and governments don't, so it may be possible to delevop a wider consensus that property rights in space would be good thing. A sort of a laffer curve where the governments in questions can realize that a smaller slice of a large pie beats all of no pie.
Whether the Libertarian Party has been a useful vector for the spread of the pro-market meme, is not something I can objectively evaluate. It's probably been more a symptom of a trend toward market solutions than an important actor in itself, but I remain skeptical of arguments that have been made here that the LP actually hurts the cause of liberty.
But I digress, and should probably go get some work done.
2.22.2007 1:34pm
gasman (mail):
Cap'n Picard said above "Money doesn't exist in the Twenty-Fourth Century."

Even Star trek couldn't avoid monetary reality. They didn't call it money, but 'credits' were used by federation employees to obtain goods and services. And every species encountered, including civilian humans, all had a currency of some sort.
2.22.2007 2:03pm
KeithK (mail):
The Outer Space Treaty was created at a time when all space activity was government owned and operated and socialist ideas were strong on earth. I doubt the US would sign the same treaty today. I suspect that if private US interests establish reliable non-government access to space there will be pressure on the US government to repudiate the treaty. The idealistic (and foolish) idea of "mankind owns outer space" will fade befoer the power of the almighty dollar.

Unfortunately this will probably take quite some time. There's a long way between Space Ship One and a reliable, commercially viable Space Ship Two. And even that is only suborbital, which has essentially zero relevance to outer space property rights. Private access to earth orbit is still quite a ways off.
2.22.2007 2:24pm
James Blakey (mail):
(I)mposing 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.

Especially when the Borg, the Gou'ald or the Aliens from Independence Day show up and disagree with our claims.
2.22.2007 2:31pm
Avatar (mail):
I can't agree with 'distance as a defense". YOU got there, after all, with enough resources to make a colony; the same delivery vehicle filled with munitions would probaby make you somewhat unhappy.

Heinlein was mentioned immediately, of course. Sovereignty issues regarding outer space and the moon are important because, er, people with a permanent orbital presence can drop large rocks down the gravity well. Either they're under the purview of an Earth government (in which case, sucks to be a government that isn't that one!), or they're under the purview of a UN government (in which case, sucks to be any non-UN government), or they're under their OWN government (in which case things get interesting...)

I suspect that by the time we have the ability to put long-term outposts in space or on the moon, the US will have already repudiated that treaty and installed space-based weaponry. It's just too good a fit for our current tactical doctrine, and who needs military bases in unfriendly foreign countries when you've got a container full of self-guided tungsten rods in orbit? ;p
2.22.2007 2:35pm
tom (mail):
It's probably already too late. At the risk of saying the same thing that's been said before, we already have a test case for what the result of the 1967 Outer Space treaty -- the Antarctic Treaty it's modeled after.

Whatever your feelings on the scientific utility of the Antarctic wastes remaining as zero-human-impact as possible, it's clear the effect of the Antarctic Treaty has been to entirely outlaw economic activity everywhere but the fringes of the continent.

The Antarctic Treaty is considered settled law by all nations in the UN, even New Zealand, which has the most to lose as the closest big nation. As a result, even exploratory missions of economic potential are not proposed.
2.22.2007 2:56pm
KevinM:
We could call it the "Lunar East India Company."
If we do, by warp drive or whatever means, achieve speeds greater than light, property law will need some serious adjustment. For example, what effect will race-notice laws as to recordation have if we can set off one day, in a relative way, and record our deed the preceding night?
2.22.2007 3:07pm
Tracy W (mail):
The obvious problem with establishing a socialist empire in space is that the government will need settlers. (As long as we're talking about this solar system they certainly won't be able to enslave the locals except possibly on some moons on Jupiter).

Now, how do you get settlers? Well the obvious solution is to offer them attractive things, like, for example, their own private property.

Even when Britain took up sending convicts to Australia, they still set up their system of common law and private property in Australia as well - many convicts worked for settlers and of course after convicts finished their sentence a number of them went on to become farmers. And a number of Brits voluntarily migrated out to Australia for the higher wages.

Any government setting up a colony in space is going to have incentives to offer private property rights, regardless of if it is American or European or Chinese or African.
2.22.2007 3:30pm
Ilya Somin:
If I recall correctly, the U.S. government used to own tons of land in the United States that is now privately owned. This is an example of government relinquishing its power over something to the private sector when it is seen as in the public interest.

Yes, they set up rules to facilitate privatization IN ADVANCE, before government itself began using the land. This is exactly what Aldrin and I advocate. Unfortunately, the current legal regime for space property (the Outer Space Treaty) seems to forbid privatization.
2.22.2007 3:35pm
Ilya Somin:
A major problem with private industry investing in space is that the initial investment is very large, and the return takes a long, long time to materialize (if ever). I suspect a Mars venture would take much longer than 10 years to break even.

It is a problem, but not necessarily a fatal one. Private entities often make longterm investments that may not pay off for a long time. IN fact, many of the British colonies in North America were initially founded on this basis, with primarily private investment (or even exclusively in some cases).
2.22.2007 3:39pm
TDPerkins (mail):
Brett Bellmore wrote:

Distance is your "defense budget" in space.


In the general case, yes, but we are talking about the moon. I think even this early in the game, the moon is far too close. If nothing else, if you are close enough to trade with people, they are probably close enough to shoot you.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
2.22.2007 3:43pm
RadCap:
Original Quote: if the US granted ownership rights for the ENTIRE planet Mars to anyone who could reach it and stay there productively for 10 years

Response: What does "productively" mean?

A major problem with private industry investing in space is that the initial investment is very large, and the return takes a long, long time to materialize (if ever). I suspect a Mars venture would take much longer than 10 years to break even.


This is one of the reasons I referenced the Homestead Act. Productiveness, in this context, would not necessarily mean one has yet begun to make a profit off of whatever one is doing. Productiveness and profit are different concepts, not necessarily synonyms. Productive use is used to distinguish from mere occupation. In other words, it distinguishes simply plopping a spaceship down and having it sit in the same spot for 10 years straight doing nothing vs landing men on the planet and having them work the land in some fashion for 10 years.

Also, even if one did use the 'break even' point as the indicator, the fact that it might take 50 years for a Mars venture to 'break even' simply means there will be a competition to see who can be the most productive in the shortest amount of time. If it will take Corporation X 50 years to gain ownership of Mars through productive use, but Consortium Y determines a way to only take 40 years to gain ownership through productive use, then that will render Mars a value to man that much sooner, and thus earn Consortium Y ownership of Mars by that very fact.

--

The point of my thought experiment, however, was not to get bogged down in the details of such a hypothetical 'Mars Prize'. The details are optional.

The point was that instituting private property rights would open up an unprecedented wellspring of human activity designed to produce value where currently no such value exists.

In other words, if you want to create value, then institute private property rights. Otherwise, the issue will be imprisoned in the realm of the "academic" - and we will all be left the poorer for it.
2.22.2007 3:56pm
Brett Bellmore:
<blockquote>
YOU got there, after all, with enough resources to make a colony; the same delivery vehicle filled with munitions would probaby make you somewhat unhappy.
</blockquote>

Oh, I didn't deny that a government could reach out to a colony, and do it damage. But you could get far enough away that they'd spend more doing it, than they could possibly recoup in the form of taxes you might pay them to refrain. And so it would make economic sense for them to leave you alone. Governments, after all, can't completely ignore economic realities.

And, agreed, the Moon is too close for that. They would most assuredly need a defense budget to stay independent.
2.22.2007 5:07pm
J. Wilde:
Y'all can squabble over Mars if you must, but Ceres is mine. All that water (possibly more than the Earth) plus cheap energy requirements to get it anywhere in the solar system, especially dry places like the Moon and Mars = centuries of profit for me and mine.
2.22.2007 11:11pm
happylee:
Fear not, the greens will figure out a way to pass a law making human action on the moon, mars, etc. illegal because it would 'change' the 'natural' condition of the planet and endanger some rare form of lunar rock that has a greater right to exist than some puny, carbon-spewing human.

That said, the question is what one's definition of property rights is, and how someone goes about attaining the right to a specified piece of property. Most folks think that some king/elected leader proclaims sovereign ownership over the land and then generously sells title, evidenced by royal/democratic deeds to individuals. Others modestly suggest that property rights can exist whether the sovereign agrees or not. So, for example, if Billybob launches a space mission and successfully settles and uses 10,000 acres on the moon, it's his fair and square, unless someone else got there first.

The US Gov't's failure to recognize true property rights is one of the many reasons we still have forestry and cattle ranching issues in the west, to name a select few unresolved problems resulting strictly from sovereign policy.
2.23.2007 1:00pm
Colin (mail):
the greens will figure out a way to pass a law making human action on the moon, mars, etc. illegal because it would 'change' the 'natural' condition of the planet

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy has an interesting discussion of the ethics of terraforming. Come to think of it, there's some material about the transition of Martian real estate from public to private hands, too, although that's not his focus. Terrific novels if you're at all interested in the subject.
2.23.2007 4:31pm