Mars, utopia, and the frontier

Stanley Kurtz, taking a rare break from same-sex marriage, went to a debate recently about Mars colonization and its feasibility:

A couple weeks ago, I attended a fascinating debate on the exploration of space. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, and one of the foremost advocates of the exploration and colonization of Mars, was pitted against Robert Park, a leading critic of manned space flight, famous for debunking bad science. I?d call the debate a tie. The quirky, brilliant, and charismatic Zubrin had powerful arguments, detailed information, and articulated an inspiring (but too thinly supported) vision. Park was a smart, taciturn, curmudgeon whose hammer blows of skepticism frequently hit home.

At one point in the Mars debate, host and organizer Adam Keiper (see Keiper?s, ?A New Vision for NASA?) put the question to Zubrin that I raised in, ?Mission Worth It?? Is Mars like Everest (a place too hostile for anything but exploration), or like California (a place we could colonize in significant numbers). Zubrin?s answer was unsatisfactory. He drew an analogy to the colonization of America that begged every question about cost, practicality, and timing. Zubrin?s five hundred year colonization time line turns his vision into a de facto fantasy.

I came away from the Mars debate still seeing colonization as a sort of libertarian heaven. I used to think libertarians, while giving short shrift to the social preconditions of liberty, were at least a hard headed lot. But the libertarian fascination with Mars increasingly strikes me as a quirky (if harmless) utopian fantasy. If anything, the radical precariousness of a Martian colony would necessitate a high degree of human interdependence. The Mars fantasy strikes me as a way of pretending that, if we could just wipe the slate clean, the necessities of social life which continually emerge to frustrate libertarian hopes would somehow disappear. Isn?t this just Marx in reverse?

Leaving aside Kurtz's natural conservative inclination to say "bollocks" to anything he either doesn't understand or is different from tradition which leads him to pooh-pooh Zubrin's reasons without explanation, I feel that his last question and assertion need some follow-up.

It would seem from his post on the corner that Kurtz thinks libertarians believe in a utopian Mars where everyone will get to be independent and there will be no state by nature, and everything will be as prophesied by Rothbard and/or Friedman- and so he seems to think that since initial colonization will be inevitably precarious and deadly, and thus require great interdependence, that this somehow negates the utopian vision.

First, why should interdependence be a problem for libertarians? Aside from a caricature of hard-core Randians/Objectivists, libertarians are neither anti-social nor strict do-it-yourselfers. Most of the libertarians that I know are rather gregarious and fun-loving, and in any case their libertarian beliefs derive more from a desire to be left alone to interact with people as they please than to separate from society.

Secondly, and speaking for myself, the reason I support Martian colonization is on the general grounds that liberty thrives on the frontier, and that human society does best when there is a frontier to interact with the ancestral land. Innovation is spurred, trade blooms, opportunities abound, and more importantly, there is space to go to help make a new society when you don't like the one you're in. To an extent, America is still the World's frontier, as it is the place most non-Americans go when they want to get away from wherever it was they were born; America is vibrant, young, and constantly re-inventing itself with countless subcultures and communities. But America isn't a true frontier society anymore, and for those of us fortunate enough to have been born here, where does one go when even America is too staid and developed to suit? Well, the old answer is new again- leave for the frontier, which would now be Mars.

Contra Kurtz, I have no illusions that the initial Mars colony would be stateless, anarcho-capitalistic, or probably even minarchistic in composition as some state would come to Mars, one way or the other. But I do know that frontier societies are both harder to control from the mother country/state, and more inclined to respect the individuals upon whom you depend to survive, than are developed and settled states. A Martian state would likely be freer in the short and long run than a Terrestrial state, just as the newer parts of the world tend to be freer than the older, such as the difference between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Eastern US vs. Western Europe, Western US vs. Eastern US/WestCoast, etc.

The hardship of frontier life forges individuals who can pull their own weight and get along with others, because both are necessary simply to live another day. Those who can't work or get along with others either die, or would get sent home- with the net result being strong selection for a strong moral basis for the new society. Far from giving short shrift to the social preconditions for liberty, those advocating colonization of Mars take it into explicit account. It's not Marx, in that everything will be great if only..., but rather a belief that it'll be many steps in the right direction.

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Because it is necessary for

Because it is necessary for the project of liberty on Earth to survive, and because humanity needs a frontier, period. We don't have one now, and we're all hurting for it.

Yes, the initial colonization is going to be done with tax dollars, and yes, the state is going to be involved in some manner, but any colonization effort will be profitable in the long run, simply because it will open more space for people to live. Wherever people can live, a living can be made (a tautology, yes, but it just so happens to be true). How the ball gets rolling, in that sense, is trivial compared to the question of "whether it will be done."

Recognizing that the state

Recognizing that the state would come to Mars, and in all likelihood arrive their first, is recognizing that the expense of the endeavor is not necessarily borne willingly. If a sovereign individual(s) can arrive first, financed through voluntary donations or investors, I would be more apt to consider the colonization of Mars as feasible. If it cannot be accomplished profitably privately, why should it be accomplished through taxation, unprofitably?

i don't think its trivial,

i don't think its trivial, brian. by the time these things take on a life of their own, the costs will be staggering. if you enjoy seeing your hard earned money inflated away, because it isn't going to come from productivity, its going to come from the printing press, then fine. when the inevitable 'bank run' occurs on the $US peso don't be surprised. in fact it'll probably happen far before any serious testing gets underway. this whole idea is going to have to wait until the baby boom led crash in the welfare state is over and peoples fantasys of infinite wealth through the printing press are washed away. it'll happen' just not under this kind of imminent collapse. all those old people are going to burn through 'freebies' like a SaturnV booster.

I think we're talking past

I think we're talking past each other.

Spain initially colonized the New World, and eventually went bankrupt (for a variety of reasons, though colonial expense and upkeep was a non-trivial component). The New World settlements were still there.

If a permanent presence on Mars is established, then that is that- the ball is rolling, the settlement will continue and issues of cost are mooted- because people always try to go to other people, to trade and to live.

The Mars Society has, right now, a relatively inexpensive method to kick start a permanent presence on Mars. Which means that it can be done, the only problem then is making sure it is done.

And frankly, the expense issue *is* trivial. What is the combined value of North America? Compared to the adjusted real cost of the first English colony? Or of Columbus' initial colonization efforts? The return on the investments (even including all costs up to independence) has been many orders of magnitude greater.

Developing a true new world would also yield a tremendous return on investment. Just get the people there- that is the most important step.

I can't believe you guys are

I can't believe you guys are arguing about the costs and benefits of colonizing Mars. Isn't there some kind of comic book convention you should be at right now?


Just wait 'til the Chinese

Just wait 'til the Chinese and Russians beat us there.


RAR!!! $*(%&@#&$(@*#*!!!((@*#@$%$&$&&@!

The Anglosphere must colonize space, or we're doomed. Chinese culture dominating space? Shudder to think...

OTOH, Chinese culture is so insular and statist (with over a 1000 years of history as proof) that I could take solace in the "historical inevitability" of Anglospheric domination of space...