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Property Rights on the Moon:

Recent unmanned lunar missions sent by China, India, and Japan have reinvigorated the longstanding debate over property rights on the Moon. Sooner or later, one or several nations will establish a permanent presence on earth's satellite. At that point, we will have to decide whether there will be private property rights on the lunar surface, or whether the entire Moon will be owned by national governments or by some international agency such as the UN. This interesting article has some comments on the issue by Romanian space law scholar Virgiliu Pop, who is a strong supporter of private property rights (HT: Instapundit):

"Homesteading is likely to transform the lunar desert in the same manner as it transformed the 19th Century United States," he said. "Space is indeed a new frontier calling for individualism rather than collectivism, and its challenges need to be addressed with a legal regime favorable to property rights."

Much remains to be discussed and perhaps decided upon by various nations, of course, as space law evolves over time.

"Property rights are a useful engine and, in all likelihood, a precondition for pushing forward the development of the extraterrestrial realms," he said. "Securing property rights would be more beneficial to humankind, compared to the alternative of keeping the extraterrestrial realms undeveloped."

As Pop suggests, private property rights on the Moon would have many of the same benefits as here on Earth. They stimulate investment, innovation, and competition. Perhaps even more important, they prevent the wanton destruction and overuse of valuable resources through a tragedy of the commons. I previously made the case for private property rights in space in this post, raising several points similar to Pop's arguments.

Pop's analogy to the nineteenth century American West is telling. Overall, the privatization of federal land in the West was a great boon to American economic development; we would have been far worse off if all the land had been left in government hands. However, tragedies of the commons did arise in the West in situations where privatization was incomplete. For example, the buffalo were nearly exterminated by hunters when they were a common resource available to all takers; only the development of privately owned buffalo herds saved the animal from extinction. Of course, there are no animals on the Moon. However, there might well be other resources there that could be wasted through a tragedy of the commons exacerbated by a lack of private property rights.

Obviously, we do not yet know whether lunar property will have much economic value. But allowing private ownership is likely the best way to maximize such value as might exist. It also will give owners strong incentives to find new and potentially more valuable uses for lunar resources. Not all of the lunar surface need be privatized. Some will surely have to remain in government hands, in order to provide various public goods. At this point, however, it is highly unlikely that government will control too little of the Moon, whereas there is a danger that private ownership will be prevented entirely.

The time to consider these issues in detail is now. Government monopolization of lunar property will be much harder to prevent after it becomes firmly established than before. Once government control becomes the norm, powerful interest groups may well block meaningful privatization.

Chico's Bail Bonds (mail):
Lunar Embassy already owns all the surface of the moon. Lots are currently for sale. This is legal and not a fraud because the owner was the first to make a claim at the government office in San Francisco.

lunarembassy.com
12.12.2008 11:43pm
Samuel Chase (mail) (www):
There is a UN agreement that claims that no state can make property claims of the moon and that it will be used for the collective good. However, how effective any UN agreement is, is another issue in itself.
12.13.2008 12:15am
Pinkycatcher (mail):
I want a 100 acres of lunar property!
12.13.2008 12:16am
loki13 (mail):
I posted this yesterday in my ranking of the Volokh bloggers:


3: Ilya Somin: Reminds me of an incredibly bright fanboy. So wrapped up in the brilliance of his ideas that he fails to undersand their application in the real world. Still working on his theory that stronger Fifth Amendment rights would have protected the Rebel Alliance.


Hmmmm.... go figure.
12.13.2008 12:29am
MikeS (mail):
Time to reread Heinlein's "The Man who Sold the Moon".
12.13.2008 1:07am
A. Zarkov (mail):
The UN is acting like Emperor Ming, and I can speak with some authority on that.
12.13.2008 1:25am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
It seems to me that the problem with these arguments for private property rights on the moon is that lunar land would take much more common effort to develop than land on earth. A lot of this would have less benefit too-- most likely a presence on the Moon would likely be primarily useful from military and space-transport purposes, and unproductive by itself (about the only resource that is usable on the moon is "aggregate" which is definitely not scarce enough to justify shipping costs).

There are several other problems with large-scale lunar colonization, and quite frankly I just don't see it happening. Mars would be a better place for private property rights.

And I would absolutely oppose private property rights over L4 and L5..... Those areas really need to be held in common.
12.13.2008 2:23am
A. Zarkov (mail):
According to the Orland Sentinel, NASA has become a transition problem for Obama.
NASA administrator Mike Griffin is not cooperating with President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, is obstructing its efforts to get information and has told its leader that she [Lori Garver] is "not qualified" to judge his rocket program, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

...

Nearly four years ago, President Bush brought in Griffin to implement a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a prelude to going to Mars.

...

But budget problems and technical issues have created growing doubts about the project. Griffin has dismissed these as normal rocket development issues, but they've clearly got the transition team's attention.
Garver seems to have a weak technical resume having a Bachelor's degree in Political Science, and a Master Degree Science, Technology, and Public Policy, and evidently no publications record other than on policy issues. Of course such a background might be entirely appropriate for what's she's doing. On the other hand Griffin has advanced degrees including a PhD in Aerospace Engineering. To his credit he's skeptical about AGW, and has been criticized by attack dog Jim Hansen, who told us that people who are critical of AGW should be send to jail. Nevertheless Griffin's behavior does seem unnecessarily confrontational. I suppose he thinks he has no chance of survival in the new administration.

Ultimately time will tell.
12.13.2008 5:35am
Robbrl:
Ahh...once again our brave new future of space colonization.

First explain why, If you want to colonize anywhere, you do it on Mars or the Moon instead of say, the Sahara desert, which is a thousand times more hospitable to a nice life and a happy family.

Now of course "sooner or later" covers a long time, but let me go out on a limb here and predict that when and if this happens the world will not in any way resemble the world we live in legally or politcally or economically so this discussion will be moot.
12.13.2008 8:51am
MartyA:
Near mu home is a strip mall with a large tenant named the "Universal Title Company." I'm sure they wouldn't be handling titles all over the universe if they hadn't already solved this problem.
12.13.2008 10:42am
Sarcastro (www):
What has the space race ever gotten us? Indeed, what has exploring new frontiers ever gotten America?

Unless there are immediate short term gains in a program, I say we cut it.

Bye bye NASA, art and physics!
12.13.2008 10:52am
Brett Bellmore:

(about the only resource that is usable on the moon is "aggregate" which is definitely not scarce enough to justify shipping costs).


I think that betrays a certain ignorance of actual resources to be found on the moon. The first one that comes to mind, assuming we ever get fusion, would be He3, embedded in the lunar surface from the solar wind. Then, of course, meteoric nickel, and a good vantage for solar power.

The He3 being a resource is contingent on developments in fusion, and everything else is contingent on lower transport costs.

First explain why, If you want to colonize anywhere, you do it on Mars or the Moon instead of say, the Sahara desert, which is a thousand times more hospitable to a nice life and a happy family.


The Sahara wasn't uninhabited, last time I checked. Just thinly inhabited. Really, were we free to colonize uninhabited places on Earth, you'd go for Antarctica. Substantial mineral resources, and a 24/7 wind off the pole for energy production; There's the potential for some real wealth there, if the governments of the world hadn't agreed to prevent anyone from living there. They can't agree which of them gets it, but they do agree they don't want another player to appear.

The real appeal for colonization of outer space is the potential to escape current governments, but the Moon is too close to offer that. You'd need some kind of self-reproducing technology, to sustain the necessary infrastructure to population ratio, and you'd have to get out at least as far as the asteroids, if not the cometary belt, to avoid serious interference.
12.13.2008 10:59am
Horatio (mail):
Time to reread Heinlein's "The Man who Sold the Moon".

Actually, I was thinking of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. The Moon will "belong" to those who live there and defend it against Earth.

Simon Jester Lives!
12.13.2008 11:17am
corneille1640 (mail):

Pop's analogy to the nineteenth century American West is telling. Overall, the privatization of federal land in the West was a great boon to American economic development; we would have been far worse off if all the land had been left in government hands.

In other words, we would have been far worse if we had not stolen the land from its original inhabitants and redistributed it to private hearty salt-of-the-earth citizens, railroad corporations and land speculators. The argument is plausible--the US is probably better off because it instituted a private-property regime in the West--but we should call a spade a spade and not forget it was gotten by conquest.
12.13.2008 11:24am
Eli Rabett (www):

Sooner or later, one or several nations will establish a permanent presence on earth's satellite



Wanna bet?
12.13.2008 11:29am
David Warner:
"What has the space race ever gotten us? Indeed, what has exploring new frontiers ever gotten America?"

Sarcastro is my hero! I move that we immediately cede the moon to Sarcastro to dispose with as he sees fit.

On a serious note, the moon will be owned by the boys with the guns - nation states and perhaps the transnational organizations that gradually suck the power from their rotting carcasses.

Private property rights will first take root in the asteroid belt and only slowly migrate to the other planets/back to Earth.
12.13.2008 11:31am
David Warner:
Why space? See: eggs, also basket.
12.13.2008 11:32am
David Warner:
To Loki on Somin: check your voicemail, I think Polonius left a message for you.
12.13.2008 11:34am
David Warner:
"It seems to me that the problem with these arguments for private property rights on the moon is that lunar land would take much more common effort to develop than land on earth."

Common as in Intel or common as in the Nigerian government?
12.13.2008 11:35am
Horatio (mail):
Why space? See: eggs, also basket.

Amen - H. Sapien must get off this rock and colonize space. Anything less is suicidal for an intelligent species.
12.13.2008 11:47am
Sarcastro (www):
Eli Rabett determination of a winner of that bet might be tricky, for certain values of "sooner or later."
12.13.2008 11:52am
David Warner:
Horatio,

"Amen - H. Sapien must get off this rock and colonize space. Anything less is suicidal for an intelligent species."

Specieist! <-- unserious

Life has shown itself quite capable of getting where it needs to go. I fail to see where this case will be any different, which gives me hope that the post-Apollo ED episode is an anomaly.

A Green Solar System by 2200!
12.13.2008 11:54am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
David Warner;

Common as in Intel or common as in the Nigerian government?


Common as in US Government military bases?
12.13.2008 12:03pm
David Warner:
"US Government military bases?"

As epitomes of the sheer indefatigability of life, those are right up there with cockroaches. Perhaps I should have chosen Apple as my example to pander to the Proggies. I don't hate the military, but I'm no fan of its yet further expansion.
12.13.2008 12:16pm
Horatio (mail):
Specieist!

Absolutely
12.13.2008 12:17pm
Allan Walstad (mail):
Energetically, the Moon is difficult to get to and back because of the gravity well and the lack of an atmosphere for braking. Cosmic rays will kill you unless you stay underground (also one of the big stumbling blocks in the way of free-flying space colonies). It's possible you can extract He3 as mentioned earlier, but I'm pretty sure you'd have to process a helluva lot of rock.

I suspect the real struggle will be over property rights in resources brought back robotically in the form of small asteroids. As far as actually living on one's own property is concerned, eventually when large numbers of people living on other planets they'll get tire of being ruled by the old guard on Earth, and they'll rebel.

NASA is a classic example of a government agency outliving any substantial mission but being impossible to terminate politically. It was a mechanism by which to show up the Russians in the 60s by beating them to the Moon. One of the leftover Saturn rockets was refurbished as Skylab, a fine space station. Building more Saturn rockets would have been expensive but far less expensive than the shuttle turned out to be. Skylab burned up in the atmosphere because the development of the shuttle ran overtime (surprise) and there was no backup plan for re-boosting it before the orbit decayed.

The shuttle itself turned out to be a hideously expensive deathtrap, not all that suitable for launching satellites and space probes. The current space station is a pathetic white elephant. Why do these things exist? Pure politics. If the Chinese government chooses to impoverish its people on space spectaculars, so be it. Been there, done that. The actual practical uses of space at this time involve satellites no higher than geosynchronous orbit, and these can all be done by or contracted out to private firms. Military uses can be undertaken by the military.

It's common for space buffs (and big-science buffs generally) to argue for government funding to capture long-term benefits, even if the short-run returns are small or non-existent. The problem is, if the benefits are too long-term, then the financial and intellectual resources could have been better put to use building a wealthier, technologically more capable society that can accomplish the temporarily forgone projects more quickly and easily.
12.13.2008 12:27pm
Bama 1L:
I'm interested in learning more about Romanian space law.
12.13.2008 2:03pm
John S. (mail):
The "value" of space won't be fully understood until the first war to actively engage it as a battlespace, much like the value of airspace wasn't fully understood until WWI. After military advancements made the technology readily affordable, commercial aerial endeavors took off (excuse the pun).
12.13.2008 2:30pm
Brett Bellmore:

The problem is, if the benefits are too long-term, then the financial and intellectual resources could have been better put to use building a wealthier, technologically more capable society that can accomplish the temporarily forgone projects more quickly and easily.


I tend to agree; When it's space colonization time, we will colonize. Commercial traffic to space is already the majority of the traffic, and it's trending up; Eventually it will get high enough to naturally make one of the high capital cost/low lbs to orbit technologies that are on the drawing boards economically feasible.

Government is more likely at this point to be an obstacle than an enabler, as we've seen with the non-colonization of Antarctica.

It is, however, fairly annoying to have a government program which is nominally supposed to be doing this stuff wasting the money so ineffectually.
12.13.2008 6:02pm
MCM (mail):
Homesteading is likely to transform the lunar desert in the same manner as it transformed the 19th Century United States.


I can't believe this idea was just used in a serious context.
12.13.2008 6:35pm
David Warner:
Bama,

"I'm interested in learning more about Romanian space law."

Me too. A Roman Catholic space program would also be interesting.


MCM,

"Homesteading is likely to transform the lunar desert in the same manner as it transformed the 19th Century United States.

'I can't believe this idea was just used in a serious context.'"

So is your problem with the 19th Century transformation or doing it with the lunar desert? I can't believe that people think its perennially cool to say stuff like this:

"Everything that can be invented has been invented."

-- Charles Duell, Commissioner of US Patent Office, 1899
12.13.2008 9:22pm
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Maybe international agreements about Antarctica could be a model for international agreements about the moon.
12.13.2008 9:30pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"When in the Course of galactic events, it becomes necessary for one planet to dissolve the political bands which have connected it to another..."
12.13.2008 9:57pm
Michael Edward McNeil (mail) (www):
(about the only resource that is usable on the moon is “aggregate” which is definitely not scarce enough to justify shipping costs).

“Aggregate” is a buzz word which means almost nothing. In fact the lunar surface is made of elements, elements like “oxygen (O), silicon (Si), iron (Fe), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), aluminium (Al), manganese (Mn) and titanium (Ti). Among the more abundant are oxygen, iron and silicon. The oxygen content is estimated at 45%.” A relatively plentiful mineral, “Ilmenite (FeTiO3), most common in the mare regions, is the best source of in situ oxygen,” as well as providing titanium and iron.

Many more elements are available in great quantities but lesser proportions. Robot factories no doubt could make a wide variety of tools and products out of those elements.
12.14.2008 2:05am
Michael Edward McNeil (mail) (www):
(about the only resource that is usable on the moon is “aggregate” which is definitely not scarce enough to justify shipping costs).

“Aggregate” is a buzz word which means almost nothing. In fact the lunar surface is made of elements, elements like “oxygen (O), silicon (Si), iron (Fe), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), aluminium (Al), manganese (Mn) and titanium (Ti). Among the more abundant are oxygen, iron and silicon. The oxygen content is estimated at 45%.” A relatively plentiful mineral, “Ilmenite (FeTiO3), most common in the mare regions, is the best source of in situ oxygen,” as well as providing titanium and iron.

Many more elements are available in great quantities but lesser proportions. Robot factories no doubt could make a wide variety of tools and products out of those elements.
12.14.2008 2:06am
Michael Edward McNeil (mail) (www):
Sorry for the double posting. I got an error message back indicating (I thought) that posting had failed. Obviously that wasn't so.
12.14.2008 2:08am
Brett Bellmore:

Maybe international agreements about Antarctica could be a model for international agreements about the moon.


That's certainly the stuff of nightmares. I can think of no better way to assure that the Moon would NEVER be of use to anybody, except as an occasional night light.
12.14.2008 7:27am
Jay Manifold (mail) (www):
Arguments about specific material resources may turn out to be surprisingly irrelevant. The value of travel to, and colonization of, space for human beings may be quite high in terms of experiential or personally transformative economic activities, even if we never mine a single asteroid or build a single solar-power satellite.

Frederick Turner says it far better than I can. (4,500 words; reading time 11-22 minutes)

To return to the subject of the post, while I have some sympathy for the argument that "[t]he time to consider these issues in detail is now," it is not clear to me that any effective property-rights regime, whether favoring government-monopoly or private ownership, can be enforced, or even fully elucidated, until there is an actual continuous human presence on the Moon.

Having said that, although though the technical desirability of other locations (L4/L5, or for that matter L1/L2; near-Earth asteroids) is in some respects better than the Moon, I think the Moon is the best proxy for discussing this issue, simply because it is the only celestial body identifiable in the night sky by more than (at most) 1% of the population.
12.14.2008 7:28am
Joshua:
Another possible stumbling block is the degree to which the moon plays a prominent role in various and sundry religions and cultural traditions. (Islam comes to mind.) Would acknowledging private property rights on the moon be akin to stealing sacred ground? Would colonizing, mining or otherwise exploiting the moon amount to desecrating it? Given how the UN and many putatively secular Western governments are starting to favor anti-blasphemy restrictions on free speech, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to also oppose property rights on the moon on the same PC grounds of not offending anyone's beliefs.
12.14.2008 12:26pm
MCM (mail):
So is your problem with the 19th Century transformation or doing it with the lunar desert?


I have no doubt that we will be able to exploit the moon one day. I am also convinced it will bear no resemblance to any conceivable description of homesteading.
12.15.2008 5:32am
Scott J. Kreppein, Esq. (mail) (www):
I had a somewhat related post on my blog a few months ago, here. It's more a question of politics than law.

For a long time, property rights on the moon will likely be handled the way the they are in Antarctica (cooperative international scientific ventures). Only recently has private Antarctic property been developed, and that is being done under the purview of the UN. The antarctic situation will likely be a close analogue to what will eventually happen on the moon.

Although doubtful, our other major historical analogy is the discovery of the Americas. There were government funded expeditions; then privately chartered but still government affiliated colonies; then territorial conflicts, which led to a sense of national identity; then, in turn, revolution and independence.
12.15.2008 8:41am
David Warner:
MCM,

"I have no doubt that we will be able to exploit the moon one day. I am also convinced it will bear no resemblance to any conceivable description of homesteading."

Crystal Ball? Tarot Cards? Perhaps one of the missing Palantiri?

Scott J. Kreppein, Esq.,

I'm not so sure. Antarctica would be destroyed in any catastrophe that destroyed the Earth. Less likely the Moon, even less likely Mars, asteroids, etc... Thus there is an incentive to colonize those bodies with life, if not human life, that does not exist for Antarctica.
12.15.2008 1:37pm
Suzy (mail):
Corneille, I had the same thought. The American West is a somewhat strange analogy when it ignores the fact that land was taken by conquest. I would expect different nations to fight for their interests on the moon or any other place where they make competing claims to a territory or resource, just as they always have and always do. The question of private property rights seems secondary to this.

The same applies to the analogy with bison. There was a time when they were in fact a resource open for the taking by all, and nations or groups competed for it, or at some times enjoyed an abundance for all. This goes on for hundreds of years before the "American West" is settled, and the issue of hunting bison to extinction even arises. So I don't think it's private property rights vs. the dangers of common use, but some other aspect of the approach that was to blame!
12.16.2008 12:59pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Enforcing property rights demands one either have an overwhelming access to violence, or a monopoly on violence. Then one must have a way of delivering that violience on the miscreant. So, how do you enforce property rights on the moon?
12.16.2008 4:29pm

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