Freedom Above or Tyranny Below

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This was written in 2004. It's a follow-up to "For a Free Frontier: The Case for Space Colonization."


A few year ago, I penned “For a Free Frontier: The Case for Space Colonization.” It did spark some comment and I didn’t realize at the time how many others had already tried the same thing. Regardless, I believe it’s time to revisit this issue, especially given the US President’s endorsement of a more ambitious manned space flight program with a lunar base and a manned landing on Mars. Space tourism, too, is poised to take off – no pun intended – perhaps building a private space infrastructure from which space settlements might grow.

Linking space settlement to freedom is not atypical in libertarian circles, even if there are not a few libertarians who readily dismiss the idea because they believe that space exploration, travel, and settlement are currently impractical and likely to remain so for a long time to come. Others also believe that space settlements would basically be more like military outposts – either because only governments would really put their elbows into the effort or because of the nature of settlements. The latter brings up the possibility of what some have called “airlock despotism.” This means that the essentials for life, such as breathable air, would be in even shorter supply in a space settlement. The impact, too, of people’s actions on each other would be much more quickly felt. This would lead, they argue, to strict rules just to survive in space.

No doubt, airlock despotism might become a real problem, but it’s diffuse and unlikely to be a means of centralized control. In fact, it would only push would be space settlers into being selective about the kinds of people they shack up with. At worst, it makes more for local tyranny – not global tyranny.

Many others, including those not of the libertarian persuasion, claim that there’re enough problems to keep us busy on Earth. A few people have even told me it’s time to get it right here on Earth. They claim we only have one world and we should learn to take care of it before searching for other places to live – and presumably to mess up. The simple answer to these people is that having only one place to live is a problem in and of itself. Should some catastrophe overtake humanity or even just our civilization, there’s nowhere else to go right now. That’s sort of akin to living on the Titanic and saying there’s no need for lifeboats, no need for other ships or even ports of call until we’ve perfected seamanship to a degree never seen before. I’d prefer to have the added insurance of space settlements. It’s a good idea even for those who would never want to live off Earth.

Add to this, space settlement is not just about finding another place to live. Among other things, it’s about moving out into the universe. As someone once put it, space is like almost the entire universe. Our planet is but a tiny speck. To look at space settlement like moving to a crummy apartment in another part of town is, to me, completely the wrong attitude to take. (L. Neil Smith made the same point in his “Why Aren't We There Yet?”)

Core Thesis

My chief argument about why space settlement for libertarians and other freedom lovers was actually toward the end of “For a Free Frontier: The Case for Space Colonization.” In a nutshell, it has to do with the nature of space itself making personal liberty much easier to attain and maintain than on any planet. I would like to revisit this argument, since I believe it’s one that none of my critics have managed to counter and for the most part it has been ignored.

This argument is that space enhances freedom because it enhances mobility and stealth. Unlike the surface of the planet, with space there is no edge. It is virtually infinite, so increased mobility in space means an increased ability to move away from any power centers. (This happened on Earth as well. "Edge societies" tend to be freer than central societies. America comes to mind, but other cases include Iceland during its anarchic phase and Anglo-Saxon England.1 The problem is, though, that eventually, the central powers either expand out into the edge or the edge societies themselves become new central powers. The former happened in the case of Iceland and the latter in the case of America.)

It’s not just the mobility factor, but the mobility combined with the three-dimensional movement in an edgeless volume. This introduces high costs to those who would track-down anyone fleeing centralized control. In simple mathematical terms, unless the fleeing parties tell you where they are, you have to search ever more space. To give an idea of how much, think of hiding a moving encampment on Earth. The surface of the Earth is about 185 million square miles. That might seem like a lot, but, chances are, if an existing powerful government wants to find that moving encampment, it will, given enough time.2 Increases in mobility – faster aircraft, faster ships, vehicles able to travel over rough terrain – and advances in detection technology – better spy satellites, better surveillance equipment, un-piloted drones – will only make this task easier.

Imagine instead, that using the same level of technology, the government in question had to search the entire volume of the Earth. That would be about 237 BILLION cubic miles of space to search. That’s a much larger space to search. (The surface can still be considered a space. Let’s not quibble over geometrical terms. The point is searching the volume would be much harder – several orders of magnitude harder – than searching the surface or just the thing sliver of volume around the surface. Let's also leave aside the fact that anything in that volume will probably be on an orbit.)

Let’s transfer this example to space. Imagine having to search the entire volume that contains the Earth out to the Moon’s orbit. That’s 240 thousand miles out. The volume is some 51 quadrillion cubic miles – over 200 thousand times the volume of the Earth. Note the Earth’s radius is about 4 thousand miles while the radius of this volume is 240 thousand miles – in other words, only 60 times the radius of Earth. The difference is that the volume varies with the cube of the radius. That’s a lot more space to search, but unlike Earth, this volume has no clear boundary. In fact, there is no physical limit to movement of the kind there is on the Earth’s surface. This is not to say space settlements can violate the laws of physics, but their freedom of movement is much higher.

In this context, they are not constrained to that space. One can easily imagine, e.g., that a central government would get better at moving about in space and at tracking settlements and spacecraft. However, settlements and craft that don’t want to be tracked can just move farther out. No matter how good the technology, it still faces the same geometric problem: the increase in distance increases the volume of space by the third. Put another way, double the distance one can move around in a given time and someone tracking you must monitor not twice as much space, but 8 times as much. The geometry is against the central power, against the would-be controller. (This applies to pirates and criminals as well. So, law enforcement would be harder overall. This can rightfully be seen as a downside.) Space, thus, is on the side of those who don’t want to be monitored or controlled.

Naturally, this does not guarantee that space settlement societies will be perfect in every respect, but higher freedom of movement and a higher de facto ability to secede will allow social and cultural evolution to move more in the direction of freedom because individuals and small groups can break away from larger political and social units. Even merely the higher potential for such secessions will likely make the larger units more tolerable of dissent, diversity, and experimentation. It also ruins the chances of individuals or small groups that desire to wield power over larger ones. Lacking any centralized machinery of power, there will be not as much destructive outlet for the power-hungry and the busy bodies.

The Future on Earth

Some might look at this from the angle of the potential for freedom in space alone. This is, after all, my main point – that freedom will be greater in space. However, the other side of this is that freedom on Earth is very limited. The more transportation and monitoring technology progresses on Earth, the more limited freedom will be barring no outlet into space or no other checks on centralized power. Over time, even cultural and constitutional checks erode. Absent any external shocks to the world-system on Earth or off world expansion, there seem to be only two paths that will be taken. Either the level of freedom will rise and fall as governments rise and fall or it will reach a steady state. In either case, the total amount of freedom is likely to be a lot less than even now – and now is hardly ideal. This is because there are no checks on governmental power save for the stark ones that governmental power must not be abused to the point that people either openly rebel or to the point where society generally declines. (Even rebellion or a general decline and collapse only amount to a temporary period of decentralization of the worst sort before centralization gets back on track.)3

Settling space solves this problem because it will not only allow people to move away from power centers, but will also provide an external shock to the system. This shock will likely not topple existing governments, but it will act to check their power. Why? Those governments that are less exploitative, less controlling will likely have better economies, more immigrants, more talented people and this translates into stability and stronger militaries. Absent an external shock of this sort, the disaffected have nowhere to turn to and there’s no competition.

The space frontier, too, unlike any terrestrial one is inexhaustible. It will be the ultimate edge society, since the edge is highly mobile and practically infinite. Once settlements are established in Earth orbit, people will eventually migrate beyond there out into the solar system, then out into the galaxy and beyond. There is no physical limit to movement, save the need for energy and time.

Looked at this way, the option to settle space is not some pie in the sky dream, but likely the best option for the future of humanity and the future of civilization. In other words, those interested in freedom in the long-range, in the survival of humanity, and in the survival of civilization should think seriously about space migration and settlement.


1. See David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to Radical Capitalism on Ancient Iceland and Bruce L. Benson’s The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State on Anglo-Saxon England.

2. Granted, even now, many people can slip through the cracks, but this marginal existence is only because existing governments don’t see these people as threats or sources of more power. As time goes by, there will be less and less chance to live on the margins – and certainly that sort of lifestyle is not one to build a society or civilization on. At best, in any time, only a few can achieve it.

3. There is another possibility on Earth that might act as a check on centralized power: mass proliferation of weapons on mass destruction, including not just the traditional trio of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons but nanotechnological ones as well. (Erwin S. Strauss first brought this to my attention.) Mass proliferation doesn't result in stable society in which freedom can flourish. Should it come to pass – and there’s reason to believe it will – it moves us toward the extinction of humanity and possibly all live on Earth. Why? As weapons become ever better as well as ever easier for small groups or lone individuals to produce and to use, the size of the Earth does not change. In space, one can always move away from potential threats. On Earth, there’s a limit and only one biosphere. Mass proliferation is, in my view, yet another argument for space settlement.

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