Predictions for Law on Mars

It’s hard to think long term. It’s hard to anticipate what the world will look like in five years, or 20. And it’s even harder to predict what Mars will look like, and how it’ll be integral to our lives soon.

Space colonies still seem like a figment of Heinlein or Kubrick’s imaginations. They seem too strange to ever exist. But it’s likely that they’re coming, and when they do, we’ll need to figure out how to transmit the messy society full of murky laws we have on earth to yet another far-less-hospitable planet.

A recent SXSW panel with Berin Szoka of Tech Freedom and Peter Suderman of Reason covered these topics. Both panelists noted that sci-fi, the best portrayal we have of what daily life outside of earth would look like, focuses not on tech itself but how tech changes human interaction. Humans remain at the core of how we legislate, how we operate, and how we think of new systems.

With that in mind, here are some of their predictions (with my own sprinkled in):

First: Martian law will look similar to oceanic law. Given that oceanic law has dealt with space that’s difficult to divide up between nations, it’s likely that a similar rough format will be used to adjudicate space boundaries. Currently, a few laws govern space –– namely, material brought up into space by a given country remains governed by that country. They are responsible for its use, destruction, or repair. Similarly, people in space are the responsibility of the governments that put them there. In the same vein as oceanic law, nations can’t stake claim to territories of space or other planets (see: terra nullius or the idea that international waters must remain international, exempt from the sovereignty of any individual nation).

Second: the western democratic order “looks a little more fragile” than we might have predicted (claim Suderman and Szoka). With the rise of alt-right political influence and the decline of western economies, the idea that the east could rise over the coming decades isn’t too far-fetched. The western democratic tradition could either bounce back in the coming years, or we could see a sharp decline. With this could come the rise of China, Japan, and Korea, or perhaps just a system with less global hegemony and more multinationalism. This is likely to affect who goes up in space and who is creating space law and governance. If it’s not controlled by the democratic-biased west, the political systems set in place might look very different –– more similar to China or Russia, for example.

Third: as the nanny state rises on earth, it’s likely that a less regulatory society will be preferred on Mars. They’ll serve as foils for one another, and we’ll be able to self-select into the societies we choose: one more lax, preferencing agency, with the other preferencing more control, as well as the ability to provide basic services to those who want them.

Fourth: cumbersome licensing regimes will fall away as space technological innovation becomes too tough to regulate. When bureaucrats and legislators fail to understand an issue, it’ll be harder for them to meddle. Space exploration technology is likely to be an entrepreneur- and scientist-dominated field, making it more difficult for others to fully understand. It might simply be too high-level for bureaucrats or the general public.

And finally, secessionism will become more widely accepted as self-determination becomes a relevant issue for space colonists. At some point, colonists will grow dissatisfied by being subject to the laws and regulations of societies they’re not a part of. They’ll develop their own distinct identity and will realize that being beholden to those who don’t understand their way of life won’t make sense anymore. At some point, it’ll make sense for them to secede –– and this might pave the way for other separatists here on earth.

Liz Wolfe is managing editor of Young Voices. This blog post was inspired by a SXSW 2017 panel featuring Peter Suderman and Berin Szoka. You can follow her on Twitter @lizzywol.

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