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Rights in outer space are an area of unsettled international law, particularly the topic of exploiting resources in outer space. Today there is some consensus that assignment of mineral extraction rights to private firms will enhance the promise of these resources for mankind and expedite future space exploration. However, I happened upon two strikingly misinformed comments from otherwise learned individuals who might have known better had they ever taken a basic course in economics, or had they applied a little basic logic to the subject matter. Both comments were made in defense of a strict interpretation of the “global commons” theory embodied in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Under that dubious interpretation, the establishment of private property rights on celestial bodies would be prohibited.

I first stumbled across the following from Roy Balleste, a law professor at St. Thomas University, in “Interstellar Travel and the Mission for Outer Space: A Human Rights Perspective“:

Any policy designed to explore future possibilities in outer space should avoid the plundering of resources through excessive claims of property rights, which causes scarcity and all its failings. If the focus of space exploration is on resource acquisition, i.e., property rights, then resource management will become as important as the exploration itself. The scarcity of resources is also known as the ‘tragedy of the commons.’” [my emphasis]

This poor guy is mixed up! He footnotes Susan J. Buck as a source for these ideas, but I won’t even bother to research Ms. Buck’s work. Belleste did quite enough to raise my pique. Before I say anything else, I’ll first note that the tragedy of the commons occurs only in the absence of defined property rights to scarce resources. “The commons” means that a resource is owned in common. When use of that resource is at all rivalrous and unpriced, common ownership leads to competition for use and ultimately to overuse. Contrary to Balleste’s implication, assignment of property- or use-rights helps to resolve this difficulty.

As a first approximation, it’s probably fair to say that Belleste, in his gut, thinks of scarcity as want of things belonging to others, or perhaps things that are beyond the reach of the state. Surely he knows that scarcity is fundamental to the nature of mankind’s existence. That’s the reality that gives rise to “the economic problem”: how can society allocate scarce resources to best meet the needs and unbounded wants of its people.

Individual property rights establish the basis for voluntary trade, pricing, and incentives for production and conservation, providing for a decentralized and efficient solution to the economic problem. The prices established under such a regime are an accurate reflection of the true scarcity of resources because they balance demands and available supplies. When valuable resources are difficult or risky to exploit, it is secure property rights that provide the incentives for entrepreneurs to go to work, unlocking the benefits of those resources only to the extent that they are “economic”. Risks are taken in exchange for the possibility of future profit that might be earned through trade with willing buyers. This is true whether the raw resources exist deep in the ground, in outer space, or in the fertile minds of entrepreneurs. Far from causing scarcity, property rights are actually necessary to manage efficiently in a world of scarcity. As already noted, a further implication is that property rights encourage conservation: only those quantities are extracted as needed to satisfy demands and minimize waste, and through market prices, those demands are themselves tempered by the physical limits and costs of extraction.

Attempts to solve the economic problem in the absence of individual property rights require a central decision-making authority. How can such an authority hope to know or keep abreast of changes in individual needs and wants? And how can that authority maintain adequate information on the requirements of productive endeavors? Without individual agency, incentives become inoperative and prices don’t correctly signal the degree of scarcity across innumerable resources, including each individual’s time. Thus, these centrally-made decisions take on an arbitrary and coercive nature. It’s no wonder that central economic planning meets with such consistent failure.

Belleste undoubtedly resents inequality, and whether you believe that redistribution of wealth is just or an unjust violation of property rights, the real damage is how it erodes prospective returns to talent, hard work, and risk-taking. Indeed, the exercise of confiscatory power creates risk, for then the rewards of any productive endeavor are subject to the winds of politics and the whims of politicians.

The second quote that caught my attention was this doozy, courtesy of William Hartmann of the Planetary Science Institute:

The capitalist system works as advertised only when the resources are effectively infinite…”

Um… no. There can be no question of what “works best” in the absence of scarcity, for then there is absolutely no economic problem to solve. Why bother? Infinite resources imply that prices are zero, and that talent, effort, and risk-taking are unnecessary. As we know already, conditions of scarcity are what gives rise to the economic problem for which capitalism provides a benchmark solution: an efficient allocation of resources that does not rely on coercion by the state.

I still plan to address the topic of rights in outer space in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that exploiting resources that can be extracted from asteroids, the moon, or other planets for the benefit of mankind is likely to require private incentives. In fact, President Obama signed a bill authorizing rights to resources extracted in outer space, yet there is still some debate as to whether that is permissible under the Outer Space Treaty. Even stronger incentives, however, would be established by granting permanent rights to mine or terraform particular tracts on celestial bodies, presumably as an incentive to those who reach them first.