Property Rights in Outer Space, Revisited

The last time we discussed this subject was almost a year ago: How Not To Enter the Space Age. It was one of our off-topic Curmudgeonly rants against the derranged idea of declaring outer space to be some kind of “commons,” owned by all mankind.

We said that if the wealth that is probably out there is going to be discovered, mined, and brought to Earth where it’s needed and will benefit everyone, then all the misguided babbling of bureaucrats, diplomats, and politicians has to be ignored. Who is going to invest the resources and take the risks inherent in exploring and developing the resources of the solar system? Some bloated, corrupt, and utterly worthless committee of the United Nations?

We found a new article on the subject at PhysOrg. It’s titled Antarctica may hold the key to regulating mining in space. Oh yeah — and the Seventh Planet holds the key to your happiness. Well, you know we didn’t like this article, so brace yourself for what’s coming. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us, and a large quantity of Curmudgeonly commentary:

Our current era may go down in history as the century of space exploration and off-Earth resource exploitation. But there are still considerable policy hurdles to overcome in terms of how we regulate such activities.

Regulation! What kind of mentality functions like that? It’s like saying: We’re glad you and your bride are so very much in love. But who will regulate the manner of your relations, and the frequency thereof? Anyway, then we’re told:

As we turn our eyes to the skies, we should also look south to Antarctica to gain some insight into governance matters in outer space.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Let’s read on:

This year has already seen significant challenges to existing international space law. Not least, the US Congress passed the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015. This bill radically revises elements of the original Outer Space Treaty (OST) from 1967, under which any resources returned to Earth from space were considered the property of all humankind, thus could not be owned or sold. The bill alters this so that private companies and states can maintain property rights over any resources brought down to Earth. It opens up outer space to venture capital and ensures that US private companies can obtain a title over any asteroid resources obtained in outer space.

Wow — that’s great news! But it’s nothing like the Antarctica model. We continue:

International law identifies Antarctica and outer space as two of four global commons (the others being the high seas and the atmosphere). Both have been defined within international regimes as spaces outside the territory of nation states and beyond the normative inhabitable zones of the human species. In both instances the current governance regime were outcomes of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) (1957-1958).

It’s also true that virtually no economic benefits are being derived from any of those “global commons.” Maybe there aren’t any to be found in the atmosphere, but there must be resources under the seas. Why would anyone want the rest of the solar system to be similarly unproductive? Here’s more:

It is not unthinkable that in the near future, with intensified national interest in mineral and biological resources, Antarctica could potentially become another commodity frontier. For example, today there are a few hundred research organisations and companies from at least 27 states undertaking biological prospecting in the Antarctic. Yet it is unclear – and contested – who owns the microbial diversity that exists outside of national territories. This points to the kinds of issues that may arise as mineral prospecting operations begin on asteroids, the Moon or other celestial bodies within the next few decades.

More importantly, who in his right mind would invest in such a venture if he couldn’t benefit from it? Yes, it’s true that mining companies will go out there and explore in the hope of generating profits. But so what? There will also be benefits for the rest of humanity. Everyone understands what happens to prices when needed materials are scarce. The opposite happens when resources are abundant — everyone benefits! But if no one has the incentive to get out there to explore, then why would anyone bother? The PhysOrg article dimly recognizes this:

It may be difficult to think the OST [Outer Space Treaty] will effectively calm down political anxiety over outer space resource exploitation. This is because the potential economic benefits of space exploration are likely to become a main driver.

Ah yes, the “problem” of economic benefits. So what’s to be done? Moving along:

On the other hand, if the aim is to safeguard and protect extraterrestrial space, to maintain it as one of the four commons for humankind under international law and to defuse political tensions, Antarctica may well continue to provide a model for international collaboration in space.

There’s the issue. Will the bureaucrats and diplomats yield to the grubby reality of economics, or will they cling to the “lofty” goal of declaring that the resources of the solar system are the common property of all mankind? Another excerpt:

Important questions remain unresolved: is the principle of res communis [thing owned in common] – through which space is understood to belong to all humankind – successfully ensuring that the exploration of outer space is given a fair go? The OST states clearly that the exploration and use of outer space must be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.

[…]

Or, on the contrary, is the OST effectively limiting expansion and innovation in outer space exploration by being vague on property rights, the “use” of outer space, and hindering capital expansion beyond Earth? In this case Antarctica may not be the best model, as it bans mining activities altogether.

Oh dear — this is such a difficult question! One last excerpt:

These are more than economic and legal predicaments. They represent a philosophical dilemma of how we project ourselves as species in to the future and into the solar system. … For the time being, Antarctica may still provide a model to keep in consideration.

In our humble opinion, if the bureaucrats and diplomats really care about the future of humanity, then they need to get out of the way. Free enterprise and property rights are the answer — the only answer.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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20 responses to “Property Rights in Outer Space, Revisited

  1. The resources of the solar system will belong to whoever gets there and stands on them, extracts them, and finds a market for them.

    Science fiction has explored all of this going back most of a century. The most likely scenario, as has long been explored in fiction, is that once people can live independent of Earth, they will do so and there will be little that the bureaucrats can do about it.

    And it is wise for those bureaucrats to remember that anyone who can move freely around the solar system can also send packages via gravity express to selected addresses on Earth. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress explored this theme in some detail.

  2. Conflict is inevitable. Humans are naturally greedy.

  3. DavidK says: “Conflict is inevitable. Humans are naturally greedy.”

    Shocking news. However, the US has considerable experience in opening up new territories, and setting rules for how people should make claims, which become recognized property. The same principles can be applied out there.

  4. ” Free enterprise and property rights are the answer — the only answer”

    Who sets the regulations for property rights in outer space. Who decides which property rights are valid. who enforces these property rights?

  5. Flakey asks: “Who sets the regulations for property rights in outer space.”

    We do, at least for American companies. The other civilized countries will behave similarly. We can have treaties to recognize each other’s claims. If some bandit outfit wants to engage in piracy, we’ll know what to do if they show up back on Earth with their stolen goods.

  6. So your suggesting public tax dollars be used to ensure that no part of outer space could be designated as a public holding?

    Exploiting resources in outer space is a ways off anyway. It will be interesting to see if anyone ever realizes that militarizing space will be so expensive as to leave little left over to subsidize free enterprise.

    It could be glorious and noble adventure or it could be primates stick to the same old plan and wreck space. The latter appears to be the pattern so far.

    p.s. No public legal public stake means no regulatory bodies, that has always worked well historically.

  7. Oops got a little too public in my p.s. 😦

  8. Charles Deetz ;)

    CS opines: “Will the bureaucrats and diplomats yield to the grubby reality of economics, or will they cling to the “lofty” goal of declaring that the resources of the solar system are the common property of all mankind?”
    He’s worried about bureaucrats and diplomats, while forgetting his enemies who have the ultimate power to decide on their side? I think Hambo will declare it all god’s and mine it for gold walls for his museum.

  9. Dave Luckett

    Maritime boundaries, that is, the boundary between what are the territorial waters of one nation and what are the “high seas” common to all, were originally set at a “three mile limit” because that was the range that shore artillery could effectively cover. Even that didn’t happen until the third decade of the nineteenth century. Later, those boundaries were by general consent extended, from much the same cause.

    So we now have China building actual islands in what is called the South China Sea, which was always before thought of as international waters, claiming the islands as its own sovereign territory, and further claiming the waters around them and the sky above them. Despite the Chinese pretences, it’s blatantly obvious that these are unilateral and novel claims, never made before. How are we to dispute them? Ask the UN to rule?

    That’s a joke, right?

    China has made the claim, and only force majeur will cause its abrogation. Nobody in his right mind advocates war with China over a few hundred acres of sand bars and augmented reefs in the South China Sea, no matter what the implications. So here we have a principle to extrapolate from: what validates a claim is the pragmatic power and will to make and enforce it.

    I suspect the same will apply in space, if we get that far. Nations will claim as sovereign territory the orbitals and extraterrestrial bodies that they create and/or place facilities on, plus whatever volume they can actually dominate, and those claims will stand unless they are relinquished or forcibly negated. That is, space and extraterrestrial bodies will be treated as terra nullius, land that belongs to no-one. My own nation treated the territory it now occupies as coming under that description, despite the inconvenient fact that it was inhabited. But space is uninhabited, so far as we know. Treating it as terra nullius is justifiable.

    And what happens when the territory thus claimed becomes over time the beloved birthright, the inheritance of a people who see themselves as different from those who never left the Earth? People who produce products that they wish to trade for their own profit, who have a culture that they wish to enjoy, a society independent of the nation that first sent settlers thence? What possible outcome can there be but independence; new nations, new peoples?

  10. robert van bakel

    I would like to know when ‘Space X’ and these other private space ventures are going to pay the dividend owed to the US Taxpayers. Their technology was developed and largely made safe in the 60s and 70s with US and Soviet public moneys; when are they going to pay for this largely freely handed over expertise.

    Today NASA, the ESA and Japan and Russia are involved in exploring the solar system, problems of origins cosmology, and identifying interesting phenomena in space; the Hubble is nonprofit, and the eagerly awaited Webb platform is tax payer funded.

    Tell me? In what way have private enterprise deserved any rights or indeed respect in any aspect of future space discovery, or exploitation. When these brave pioneering souls in private enterprise start actually innovating, instead of ripping off stale bureaucratic institutions, such as NASA, then they can come to the table.
    Oh yeah! I do believe the ‘Manhatten Project’ was another bureaucratic mess organised by private innitiative, no wait a minute. The 1950s were also the years where the govt built a highway system private capital balked at. The power grid is largely falling apart as it was built by the govt, sold to private companies and never maintained.

    Apart from these and many others Sensuous, I do enjoy your show.

  11. As said the owner is the one who get there and holds it.
    Like to see how they get the USS MAINE out there to enforce some BS rule.

  12. Our Curmudgeon notes

    the US has considerable experience in opening up new territories, and setting rules for how people should make claims, which become recognized property.

    And Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Black Hawk et. al. wouldn’t disagree with that statement–though they might not think the fact a laudable one…

  13. Our Curmudgeon analogises:

    It’s like saying: We’re glad you and your bride are so very much in love. But who will regulate the manner of your relations, and the frequency thereof?

    Methinks this a flawed analogy, unless you wish to argue against legislation (which is far from universal) against marital rape.

  14. robert van bakel:
    “Their technology was developed and largely made safe in the 60s and 70s with US and Soviet public moneys; when are they going to pay for this largely freely handed over expertise.”

    Elon Musk at SaceX is risking his own capital on the venture and paying taxes on the profits, as are other companies involved. And it’s not just the rocket technology that’s involved; the precise control necessary to guide those rockets would be impossible without the micro-miniturization of electronic circuitry developed mostly by private enterprise.

    If we are going to pay dividends to those who made modern rocket technology possible, we owe a huge debt to the heirs of Robert Goddard and Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky; Marconi, Maxwell, Hertz, Newton, Eratosthenes, Archimedes, and the list goes on and on…

  15. Who is going to invest the resources and take the risks inherent in exploring and developing the resources of the solar system? Some bloated, corrupt, and utterly worthless committee of the United Nations?

    No, it’ll be some bloated, corrupt, and utterly worthless private consortium.

  16. Actually, at this point it’s most likely that no one will, even if space is made a weightless Wild West utterly without regulation or law.

  17. “Free enterprise and property rights are the answer — the only answer.”
    Property rights demand bureaucracy and governmental control – so much for consistency.

    “the US has considerable experience in opening up new territories”
    and that experience teaches us that the original owners of those territories saw their property rights violated over and over again. So here we see SC pleading for bureaucracy and governmental control, because exactly those failed when new territories were opened.
    So the question remains why SC opposes bureaucracy and governmental control regarding child labour and environmental pollution (free enterprise and property rights weren’t exactly sufficient to clean up European rivers last few decades) but supports them regarding property rights. Consistency would mean a nice free for all, relying on a survival of the fittest regardless of the consequences. Is a free enterpreneur not strong enough to defend its property rights? Then it doesn’t deserve to exploit them.
    Or maybe SC is just advocating his favourite dogma.

  18. How about regulated, or “semi-free” enterprise, as we seem to have in the US? We have pollution control laws and other regulations, but they don’t prohibit entrepreneurs from making a buck.

  19. My point is, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.

  20. retiredsciguy says:

    How about regulated, or “semi-free” enterprise, as we seem to have in the US?

    There have always been rules. The first two centuries of the US couldn’t have been the nightmare that some would have us believe. Millions came from Europe to be part of it, and when they got here they wrote home to encourage their friends to come too. That’s inexplicable if the anti-free enterprise version of history were correct. The negative reactions we hear whenever anyone mentions free enterprise sound like extremist union propaganda from a century ago. To those who understand economics, the instant reaction of “child labor!” is similar to the creationists’ reaction to evolution: “promiscuity, perversion, murder!”