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.