How to Colonize Mars

Media photograph the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft as it launches to the International Space Station

First-stage explorers to Mars will likely include those with strong ideological motivations and those with little or nothing to lose on earth.

Plans to colonize Mars have made some recent progress. In the realms of science and engineering, Elon Musk published a paper with the ambitious title, “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species,” which elaborates on certain technological, but also societal, dimensions of Mars colonization. In another context, Musk mentioned that direct democracy might work as the political system for a Mars colony.

Plans to colonize Mars raise heretofore unasked questions about state formation. Human history is replete with new political systems replacing old ones, whether by revolution or conquest, but examples of explorers in virgin territory introducing new political systems at large scale are nonexistent. Until now, the question was rarely discussed because it was irrelevant. Yet theories about and experiences with direct democracy, especially in Switzerland, may hold innovative and productive potential for a future Mars colony and seem to confirm Musk’s instinct that direct democracy is the right approach for interplanetary explorers to govern themselves.

Self-Government on Mars

The challenge of political formation on Mars is the challenge of self-government. For reasons of distance, governing Mars from Earth is impracticable. According to Musk, travel to Mars will take approximately twenty-six months. Under conditions of a two year delay, government by interplanetary coercion becomes impossible. By necessity, if for no other reason, the residents of Mars must govern themselves.

Yet there are other reasons beyond necessity for Martian self-government. Self-government corresponds well to the kinds of people apt to travel to Mars. Musk’s paper contains an interesting thesis: not everyone would want or could afford to go to Mars. Some individuals would likely obtain financing, and others might be employees of a company or a nation-state with the mission and means for interplanetary travel. Naturally the travel involves a huge amount of risk, but as Musk notes, labor and job market conditions on Mars might prove attractive. The population of explorers will include a great many scientists, engineers, and other technical specialists, adventurers, pioneers, and explorers, and probably a handful of the very wealthy and their attendants. First-stage explorers to Mars will likely include those with strong ideological motivations and those with little or nothing to lose on earth. Many of these people will be risk-takers, and some will tend to be innovative initiative-takers.

The new, complicated, and extraordinary challenges on Mars will demand a political system that facilitates a social order as agile and adaptive as the pioneers who are a part of it. Constant learning, exploration, and experimentation will be essential in the face of original technological and social problems. Entrepreneurial and organic political organization in the form of a direct democracy will maximize the potential of pioneers to meet these unique challenges. Direct democracy also has the potential to dilute tensions resulting from the diversity of the colonists and their potentially divergent or conflicting loyalties and interests. Much more so than on earth, the borders between private and public, between economy and state, and between social and political, will disappear. Very few political systems can balance all of these factors. A direct democracy can probably balance them best.

Defining Direct Democracy

Direct democracy has both narrow and broad definitions. Narrowly, direct democracy equates to its unique techniques of government such as public ballots, plebiscites and referenda. More broadly, a direct democracy reflects a fundamental political culture of self-government, broad public awareness, and buy-in. No contemporary terrestrial state of any significant size is a pure direct democracy under the narrow definition, since all populous jurisdictions must employ certain aspects of representative democracy in order to manage the number and variety of challenges that large communities face. But under the broad definition, in a political culture of direct democracy, such as in Switzerland, even the use of techniques of representative democracy are meant to reinforce the culture of direct democracy.

For that reason, Switzerland employs certain techniques of direct democracy, such as public ballots on changes to the constitution and on hotly-contested laws. But it also employs techniques of representative democracy such as the separation of powers between branches of government, where the use of those techniques reinforces the Swiss culture of direct democracy. Thus scholars consider Switzerland a hybrid or semi-direct democracy.

Federalism is another key component of Switzerland’s direct democratic culture. This vertical separation of powers between the federal, state and semi-autonomous sub-state entities is a core element of Swiss direct democracy.

Part-time public service also reinforces Switzerland’s unique direct democratic culture. Many political functions are executed by part-time officials, public servants who also maintain another job even while they hold government office. In fact, Switzerland is famous for adhering to this principle with its militia approach to manning and training its armed forces. The aim is to keep up the connection between the political system, the economy and civil society.

Another primary element of Swiss political culture is a system of obligatory consultations. Government and parliament have to publish draft laws to obtain public comment. Everyone is allowed and welcome to respond, from experts to ordinary citizens. This process reduces uncertainty through its openness and transparency.

Democratic Participation Safeguards Reflection and Inclusion