Mars Society "Martian Constitution"
Sat, 1 May 1999 11:01:01 EDT

I recently posted here (ExI's "LawNode" mail list) an inquiry concerning the Mars Society and its "Law and Governance Task Force". I received one private, off-list reply that proved to be quite prophetic in characterizing the Mars Society as being essentially a "Kim Stanley Robinson fan club", with all that that implies about a statist willingness to engage in authoritarian social engineering. I posted a neutral inquiry to the Mars Society list a week or so ago, asking about general attitudes there regarding central planetary-scale control, and the role of the state in the kinds of Martian settlement envisioned there. Not surprisingly, the focus of the discussion was the "Martian Constitution" featured in the Robinson novels. The following is a post I sent to the Mars Society law and governance list this morning:

Rather than responding in detail to each of the interesting posts regarding a possible Martian constitution (a task that would take all day, I'm afraid), I'll offer my observations here in thematic terms.

First, the physical circumstances under which Martian political entities would be formed will obviously strongly influence their character. Will colonies be heavily dependant on Earth for resupply, or will they be largely able to support themselves? Will Mars offer resources to Earth that will be considered strategically important to Terran governments? How easy will immigration be in physical terms? Will Martian political entities be created in a technological milieu that creates a significant economic surplus, or will colonists at that time be largely concerned with simple physical survival and will they consist largely only of the technicians necessary to support life at Mars? And will early Martians be traditional humans at all, or will colonization only become a reality at a time when the human animal is subject to more or less complete biological reengineering?

The importance of each of these factors separately and all of them together should be obvious. To look at just a few of these factors, consider that a Martian constitution formed by a small group of highly educated, largely technically- and scientifically-oriented people (perhaps made up in significant part by people with a military background) (i.e. the sort of people who currently characterize humanity's cadre of spacefarers), significantly dependant on a constant and expensive channel of resupply from Earth, would be very different from one formed by a larger, more diverse group of humans whose technology liberates them from economic dependance on Earth.

Consider that humans have maintained an outpost in Antarctica for three generations now but, except for relatively minor questions of local governance, have made no attempt to establish any sort of unique or independent cultural and political identity. Contrast this with various groups of European colonists in the New World in a previous era: Able to support themselves and having reached a critical level of cultural breadth and self-sufficiency, they asserted independence and expressed a new synthesis of the elements of their cultural heritage.

I believe the bare physical circumstances of establishing a human presence at Mars provide limiting values for some of these parameters. I am a space enthusiast (see: and a near-extreme techno-optimist (see: and, but I try to also be a realist. Even if the most clever plans of the Mars Underground are realized, human presence at Mars will be a very limited and tenuous proposition with current and next-generation technologies. Employing technologies I see as likely through 2020-2050, human outposts at Mars will be just that; scientific research installations very much like ones we now find at Antarctica. There will only be two types of people at such installations: Scientists and technicians to support the scientists. They will be employed nearly 100% of their time with the task of learning about Mars and staying alive, and they will be nearly completely dependant on costly resupply from Earth for crucial support for their survival.

To the extent that there will be a political element to the lives of these first-generation Martians, it will likely be more akin to the politics of a scientific institution or a high-tech military base than of a general parliament. The first Martians will be more concerned with grant money than taxation and issues relating to plumbing supplies will probably predominate over questions of general human rights. The cut-throat competition within academia and stereotypes of testosterone overload notwithstanding, PhDs and test pilots tend to be among the portion of the human population least in need of rules of governance, because they are self-selected and institutionally sifted for intelligence, cooperativeness and critical rationality. Far more than the "First Hundred" will be further filtered in a way that ensures that few true political problems will arise at Mars that will require a real constitution.

(A personal aside: I've known a few graduates of the U.S. Navy's nuclear
submarine corp, both officers and enlisted men. A more intelligent, well-educated, rational and cooperative lot it would literally be impossible to find, IMHO, because of the unique screening process to which they are subjected. I believe they probably provide a good example of the kind of people we'll see in the "First Thousand").

All of this having been said, I do believe quite firmly that there will be a "population explosion" of immigration to Mars, perhaps as early as the first part of the second half of the 21st Century. This will only be possible, however, once the technology for comfortable and secure self-sufficiency has been developed. In my mind there is one key to this technology, the kind of advanced molecular nanotechnology (MNT) envisioned by Eric Drexler in his books "Engines of Creation" and "Nanosystems" (see:, a citation I'm sure I need not offer to this list).

This opinion leads to the conclusion that we will not see a steady curve of socio-economic factors underlying Martian settlement. Early scientific exploration by humans in situ will be just barely possible with the most clever engineering before MNT, and significant emigration to Mars and other extraterrestrial points will be relatively inexpensive once a "mature MNT" is developed. This is a very different profile than was presented by the technological milieu of 16th-18th century technology and the settlement of the New World, where there were no significant discontinuities of settlement between the first explorers and the formation of new and independent polities. In the historical experience, a slow, steady improvement of technology and growth of global trading infrastructure supported a steady stream of immigration to the New World and a fairly continuous development of colonial economic and cultural self-sufficiency and independence.

These points lead to some conclusions for me about the physical parameters that will influence the formation of the first real Martian (and other extraterrestrial) polities. The first "government" at Mars will be extremely local and will concern the minutiae of life in small, isolated scientific and military installations. I imagine that the kind of ad-hoc democratic behavior characteristic of well-educated, rational modern people will generate a host of small "institutions" for the governance of things like duty rosters, assignment to hazardous activities and the consumption of rare and expensive "luxuries" like open living space and the occasional leisure activity of amateur entertainments and like. To the extent that larger political and legal issues may arise, they will almost certainly be dealt with as such matters are dealt with now in similar circumstances, through a case-by-case application of "home country" laws and institutions. (See, for instance how "flag" law is applied to ships at sea, a general military code of justice is applied in foreign military installations and general "home country" law is applied in offshore oil installations). To the extent that minor property rights issues or the unlikely and exceedingly rare criminal issue might arise, the early scientific settlers would almost surely look to a case-by-case application of the laws of their home countries -- almost certainly through the mechanism of courts and governing bodies on earth. (As much as I'd like to think that I could get an early ride on the strength of offering my legal services, I believe I'm more likely to represent an early Martian settler via telepresence, something I already do with my international clientele.)

A very different situation will be presented by the settlement of Mars with advanced molecular nanotechnology and a mature genetic science. From a society characterized by tiny, isolated scientific installations, tens of thousands and then millions of people might descend on Mars, but with the technology to be independent from Earth and each other, except in terms of information. I see this discontinuity as being not only possible but highly probable for reasons of simple economics: Before MNT, it will cost a lot to get to Mars and stay there and the only return on the investment will be scientific knowledge. Mars is, by definition, at the bottom of a gravity well far from Earth. The only reason to go there is to be there. This will be true after a "nanotech revolution", with the only difference being the cost and ease of getting there and staying there. So who will go to Mars after the development of MNT? Two kinds of people: Tourists and "ideological settlers", people who want to leave Earth and start a new life for strong personal and philosophical reasons.

So I conclude that any real, distinct "Martian constitution" will almost certainly be formed in the physical circumstances of a recent overwhelming technological revolution and by people who move to Mars for two very different sets of reasons and ones not typical of the motivations of average citizens of Earth today: On the one hand (1) commerce in the form of (a) operators of resorts and "high-tech wilderness travel" businesses and (b) settler-oriented business (land speculation and development and infrastructure supply) and, on the other hand, (2) ideology in the form of
(a) settlers intent on forming communities with specific ideological and
philosophical identities and (b) high-tech hermits.

Now, what sort of polities might grow out of such physical circumstances? Let me first say that I have a lot of respect for Kim Stanley Robinson and his three books, especially for the depth of knowledge about Mars evidenced there. But I have a fairly harsh judgment of the "futurology" upon which the books are based and the political ideas and projections that one finds in the story line. I share the idea that there will be a sudden, large wave of settlement of extremely diverse types of people and that the greatest conflicts will center around terraforming. However, as I try to explain above, the physical circumstances of the settlement of Mars will be very, very different from what Robinson projects. IMHO, there is a near-zero probability that significant numbers of people could ever find themselves at Mars without the physical wherewithal to be self-sufficient and independent. Accordingly, given the wide disparity of motivations for emigration we will likely see, environmental issues seem to be essentially the only ones that would require any kind of planetary-scale governance. Unless the early settlers in a post-nanotech era make the mistake of creating government for its own sake (which creates a group of people whose product is legislation), there will be no ECONOMIC constituency favoring planetary governance for any purpose other than regulating the planetary environment.

Some of the ideological settlers will very likely have a planetary-scale utopian vision they would seek to impose on all immigrants. But there will likely be multiple such global ideologies, and just as many, if not more, of the ideological settlers will hold values antithetical to any kind of broad universal social construct. In such a circumstance, it seems most probable that a minarchist polity would develop whose primary function would be to oppose any sort of attempt to establish a global social order. Thus I see the most probable planetary constitution to be one which only prohibits inter-group use of force and establishes and maintains whatever global environmental consensus might be reached. Given the economic independence possible with a mature molecular nanotechnology, I see very little chance that the diverse groups that will descend on Mars will accept anything more elaborate as a planetary government.

Having said all of this, I agree with Robinson that the knottiest problem will be questions arising from terraforming. I find it unlikely that purist "Reds" will dominate the consensus that might be reached. Only aerologists and the most extreme "wilderness aesthetes" would hold such a position and they will be in a tiny minority. The vast majority of settlers will be fairly avid technophiles and adventurers, the kinds of people who are willing to "tinker with nature". (The discovery of indigenous active life forms might influence this factor somewhat, though it seems unlikely that it would forestall significant terraforming for long.)

Given the diversity of settler motivations, it seems probable that diverse approaches to terraforming would likely develop, with multiple engineered ecologies growing outward from different settlements. This would give rise to challenges of social order the like of which we have never seen before and which might make the conflicts between ranchers and farmers in the settlement of the American West seem tame. I will end this very long post by offering my own general view of how I think such conflicts would be best resolved. Given the complexity and unforeseeability of the development of a new and artificial planetary ecology, I think it is unlikely that a centralized planning bureau for terraforming could manage the process any better than an ad-hoc, "bottom-up" approach of multilateral spontaneous ordering. In this respect, I commend Virginia Postrel's recent book, "The Future and Its Enemies" (see: and as a view of how "local knowledge" and spontaneous social orders can provide satisfactory solutions to complex problems -- even ones as complex as managing the terraforming of Mars.

     Greg Burch     <>----<>
     Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                      -- Thomas Huxley