Pilgrim colonies in outer space will fare better under the liberal order of capitalism than socialism. Both forms of social organization require some form of governance: various rules regulating or prohibiting behavior and a system for adjudicating violations. Socialist pilgrims would be subject to central decision-making in all or most social affairs, as well as common property ownership and equally-shared rewards from effort of any kind. These are the classic conditions under which a tragedy of the commons can be expected, which would jeopardize the very survival of the colonists. In contrast, capitalist pilgrims would be subject to rules defining property rights; individuals would be free to make various production decisions and contract freely with one another, and perhaps only a portion of the rewards for effort would be shared equally via taxation. In other words, a great deal of the governance that takes place under capitalism would be of a private nature, just as it is on Earth in the advanced economies.
The authoritarian impulses of mission sponsors and planners might hold sway for a time, but they will ultimately clash with the long-term survival imperative. That might give way to a “discovery process” whereby authorities elect to conduct experiments to test various forms of social organization and degrees of individual autonomy. Rand Simberg has a pretty good idea about what those experiments would turn up. In “Socialists in Space“, he covers the history of the U.S. space program as a “command” model. A shift toward more private space activity is still underway, of course, but the power of competition and private enterprise to reduce costs is already evident. The subtitle to Simberg’s article extends that point: “Opening a frontier is hard. Its even harder when you’re a socialist“. He cites the cogent example of the pilgrim colony established by the passengers on the Mayflower:
“When the Plymouth Company adopted the settlement’s initial economic rules, it stated that “all profits & benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means” were to be placed in the common stock of the colony, and that ‘all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.’ In other words, to use a phrase from a subsequent century: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
About half the settlement died of starvation in the first winter. It was only after the colony changed its rules to allow people to keep the product of their own efforts, for their consumption or for sale, that they finally had the first bountiful harvest. This wasn’t a unique event; many of the early English settlements, including Jamestown a few years earlier, had to learn the lesson the hard way.”
Lest you object that many Native American civilizations lived for centuries under harsh conditions despite their collectivist forms of governance, it is something of a myth that those tribes always treated property as common. In fact, as Terry L. Anderson wrote in 1997:
“... while there were exceptions that led to the tragedy of the commons, generally American Indians understood the importance of incentives. Property rights, supplemented by customs and traditions where appropriate, often produced the incentives that were needed to husband resources in what was frequently a hostile environment.”
Simberg goes on to discuss the kinds of necessities, or actually opportunities, that are likely to arise in space. Entrepreneur-capitalists will exploit these more successfully than socialist workers ever could. That includes uses of extraterrestrial materials, agriculture, manufacturing, and terraforming solutions. There will be successes and failures, but the efforts will be diversified and the probability of success, and survival in an environment of extreme scarcity, will be improved by the superior structure of incentives for agents having ownership. There will be some dependency on the mission’s sponsoring organization for a considerable period of time, which might dictate certain “terms of trade”. Nonetheless, a liberal order is ultimately the surest way to make a colony prosper on any body or man-made structure in the universe.
We have seen repeatedly that the most effective means of achieving common objectives like ending privation, or indeed, survival, is individual liberty. Freedom and voluntary trade unlock growth in prosperity, thus providing the means for achieving broader social objectives (like the colony’s survival) and the provision of public goods.
For the foreseeable future, it is likely that missions into space, from launch to arrival and initial encampment, will be central planned, but the planning need not be the responsibility of any national government. Again, private space missions are a reality and are growing as a share of launches and payload. After all, the Mayflower itself was a private merchant vessel. The transit itself involves a singular overriding goal: to reach the destination safely, which is subject to high risks of catastrophe and thinly-tested technologies. Thus, it’s reasonable to expect a command structure to be more effective in transit than a crew of autonomous decision makers. Like the Mayflower, passengers will have limited freedoms while on board and during the initial stages of their settlement.
That may differ for more extended the missions. Just as there are likely to be greater benefits from personal autonomy in permanent settlements on moons and planets, the same would be true on multi-generational journeys to other star systems.
International treaties regarding activities and claims on resources in outer space are an area of controversy, according to Simberg. Some hope to use treaties to collectivize space, demanding “collective property rights” and equity in the use of extraterrestrial resources. I wrote about related topics last year in “Space, Property Rights, and Scarcity“, quoting a few uninformed comments by purported experts on space law about scarcity, capitalism, and the “global commons” theory of rights in outer space. Fortunately, there is considerable resistance to their socialist designs. Harvesting resources from outer space will be greatly encouraged by private incentives, much to the benefit of all mankind. And successful colonization of other worlds demands liberalized social arrangements that rely on private incentives. Fortunately, as Simberg says, the “current administration has repeatedly stated that space is not in fact a commons“.