Space Law and the UN, Retro Edition

The UN Secretary General … circa 2050, Earth, talking with Kip who, along with Peewee, has just saved the Earth from invading aliens who were using the Moon as a forward base:

“Russell, I heard on your tape that you plan to study engineering – with a view to space.”

“Yes, sir.  I mean, ‘Yes, Mr. Secretary’.”

“Have you considered studying law?  Many young engineers to want to space – not many lawyers.  But the Law goes everywhere.  A man skilled in space law and meta-law would be in a strong position.”

“Why not both?”  suggested Peewee’s Daddy.  “I deplore this modern overspecialization.”

“That’s an idea,” agreed Mr. van Duivendijk.  “He could then write his own terms.”

A couple of notes on this classic juvenile sci-fi book by Robert Heinlein from the 1950s, Have Spacesuit Will Travel.  Already proposing joint degrees!  What’s “meta-law” supposed to be, anyway?  Do we like “to space” as a verb?  Does “the Law go everywhere”?

Lest we think this is pure juvenalia, however, earlier in the novel there is a fascinating passage, one that I read as a kid and always stuck with me right through law school.  The Three Galaxies “government” – a decentralized collective security apparatus, since, as Heinlein notes in detail, the heterogeneity of the cultures and planets and creatures represented precludes any deeper governance arrangement – puts the bad, Earth-invading aliens on “trial,” and decides to “rotate” their planet 90 degrees out of ordinary space-time.  Which, as Kip says, doesn’t really sound so bad, until he finds out that they don’t take their sun with them.  Then it seems even to Kip, more than justice really warranted.

But then Kip is surprised and horrified to find out that Earth is next on the list of Three Galaxy hearings, before a computer that represents all of the collected wisdom and voice of all the member planets.  Kip can’t figure it out – it’s unjust, what has Earth done to anyone?  How can it be on trial?  Says the computer:

“From three samples of the organism you call the human race I can predict the future potentialities and limits of that race.”

“We have no limits!  There’s not telling what our future will be.”

“It may be that you have no limits,” the voice agreed.  “That is to be determined.  But, if true, it is not a point in your favor.  For we have limits.”


“You have misunderstood the purpose of this examination.  You speak of ‘justice’.  I know what you think you mean.  But no two races have ever agreed on the meaning of that term, no matter how they say it.  It is not a concept I deal with here.  This is not a court of justice.”

“Then what is it?”

You would call it a ‘Security Council’.  Or you might call it a committee of vigilantes.  It does not matter what you call it; my sole purpose is to examine your race and see if you threaten our survival.  If you do, I will now dispose of you.  The only certain way to avert a grave danger is to remove it while it is small.”

A radical claim of moral relativism about justice, preventive war, collective security but disconnected from justice, hard-boiled cost benefit analysis, and the One Percent Doctrine … it should be clear now how Opinio Juris’s Chris Borgen, Glenn Reynolds, and I got to be the way we are.