Mars: Who Should Own It

by | Jan 20, 2004 | SCIENCE

If you want to see the development of Martian civilization in our lifetime, then make Mars private property-now. Make it possible for Martian explorers to keep the fruits of their labors, and fruit aplenty will spring from Martian soil.

Suppose the US Government made the following declaration:

The first person to land on Mars, and to live there some specified minimum duration (such as a year), and to return alive owns the entire Red Planet.

Objectivist philosopher Harry Binswanger recently proposed this policy (without specifying a required duration of stay) and defended it on moral grounds. But Dr. Binswanger made this defense to illustrate a more fundamental point, which is: Mars must be recognized as property-not some time in the future, but now. This is more important than the details of the specific rule for establishing initial ownership of Mars.

I am going to argue in favor of Dr. Binswanger’s specific proposal.

Cartoon by Cox and Forkum

Before judging the morality of this proposal, let us examine its meaning-and its possible consequences-in concrete terms. If this declaration by the government were made, what would happen?

Here’s one scenario.

The government makes its announcement. Robert Zubrin [founder of the Mars Society] runs to the telephone. He calls every wealthy person he knows, to try to raise money for a mission to Mars. Other Mars enthusiasts do the same. Wealthy individuals interested in Mars receive many phone calls.

Concurrently, the leading aerospace companies call emergency meetings with their senior executives. This emergency is not a disaster, but an opportunity. The companies call in leading Mars experts to try to get a handle on the options and the prospects.

One leading Mars expert produces a detailed plan of how to accomplish the first manned mission to Mars, complete with a detailed schedule and budget: 10 years, and only $10 billion. He presents the plan to potential investors. How can he miss? That cost is only about 2% of what NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency) said it would cost 15 years ago. And for only $10 billion, his investors will own an entire planet.

The investors laugh. This planet we will own, they ask, is it Earth? No? Well, then, how much is it worth? The investors explain to the Mars expert: Owning Mars-getting all the way to Mars and back-is getting to first base. In order to have a successful venture, a venture to invest in, the property must be valuable.

How valuable? $10 billion? Hardly. A successful, manned Mars mission, according to the most optimistic estimates, would take a minimum of 10 years from planning to completion. Venture capital firms, in order to justify their high-risk investments, seek a minimum of 10 times growth in their investment over five years. And they want to be able to “cash out”-to sell their initial investment if they want to. Assuming that the $10 billion would be spent smoothly over the 10 years (i.e., tying up the capital an average of five years), means that after the successful mission, Mars would have to be worth at least $100 billion in order to justify the investment of $10 billion. A hundred billion is almost $3 an acre.

Now, even after a successful, manned Mars mission, why would other investors pay the original venture capitalists $100 billion for Martian land? (Why would they even pay $100 million, or one million?) The land would be almost completely undeveloped. For anyone to invest in such a risky proposition, there would have to be a reasonable chance for the land to be worth at least 10 times as much five years later-one trillion dollars, 15 years after the beginning of the original project.

That’s almost $30 an acre. Today, you can still buy range land in New Mexico for $40 an acre. And that is with Earth’s atmosphere included, and substantially lower transportation and energy costs.

Moreover, the risks facing a financially successful Mars mission are much greater than those facing other new ventures, such as an Internet company. First, there can be only one winner of the race to Mars. Second, there may be cost overruns. Third, the mission could fail. Even one failed launch could mean a two-year delay (waiting for the next launch window), which would mean billions of dollars just in the cost of funds.

So the investors laugh. But that’s not the end of our scenario.

The Mars experts, and others, do more thinking. They think of ingenious financing methods-for instance, selling TV broadcasting rights, merchandising, etc.-which reduce the amount of investment capital needed. And they do much more thinking on how to make use of Martian land-not just in theoretical generalities, but in the form of specific plans. In other words, they think more carefully about the long term.

But the problem is very difficult. And for a while, it seems little progress is being made. But beneath the surface, a shift is occurring. In 1999, about a thousand zealots attended the Mars Society convention. Maybe a few thousand more people were actively thinking about how to explore and exploit Mars. Millions more followed the action as spectators, on NASA’s Web site. Formerly, when these millions went to work or to school, or when they were in the shower, they were thinking about how to make a fortune in computers, or on the Internet, etc. Now, with the chance of owning and exploiting Martian land a real possibility, their shower-time thoughts turn to new directions for getting rich.

One engineer thinks of a process for manufacturing computer chips that benefits from the combination of sparse atmosphere and the availability of energy and water on Mars. Another thinks of a way to build nuclear power plants on Mars and then transport the energy back to Earth. Many others think of viable ideas that seemed fantastic a year earlier.

In short, there is a shift in the allocation of resources-specifically, in the one most precious resource of all: time spent by human minds. Millions of creative individuals-among them many geniuses, motivated by the challenge to create and the opportunity to profit from their own creation-start thinking about Mars and swell the ranks of today’s Martian pioneers. As brilliant and determined as Bob Zubrin and today’s Martian pioneers are, millions of determined people can accomplish millions of times more than thousands of determined people can. The increase is far greater than the proportional increase in population; in fact, it’s exponential because of the exchange of knowledge in a politically free, division-of-labor economy.

Next, the patent office is besieged by patent applications for processes designed to operate on Mars-power generators, water drilling systems, construction techniques, communication systems. But the patents can be fully secured only after they have been proved out on the surface of Mars. This, in turn, gives the inventors a reason to want to own land on Mars (to prove out their inventions), which gives them a reason to want to invest in ventures to own Mars or to purchase options to buy Martian land from those ventures. And, of course, if the inventions make sense, all of Mars would be more valuable.

Now another curious thing happens. A director of a major corporation not even in the aerospace industry asks its chief executive: What’s your Mars strategy? Companies begin to realize: If they don’t have a Mars strategy, a strategy for exploiting Mars, their competitors might. Companies in every industry assign task forces, allocating even more mental resources, to think about Mars just as they think about the Internet today.

All this thinking pays off. Viable plans for exploiting Mars are developed. Several ventures, seeking to be the first to own Mars, gain the financing they seek. How do investors protect themselves from the risk that a competitor will beat them in the race to own Mars? By investing in several competing ventures. Some ventures even do partial stock swaps (of 10 or 20 per cent of their respective stocks) to protect each other.

These racing ventures are not merely ventures in one mission of space travel. They are ventures in long-term real estate development, because that’s the only way for them to make their investment pay. Owning property makes the owners think long-term, in pursuit of an ultimate pay-off, instead of thinking of short-term programs like the Apollo moon program.

Returning to our scenario, this long-term real-estate development includes ongoing systems of economical transportation, communication, energy production, construction, tourism, entertainment, and many other things that millions of enterprising profit-seekers think of. Their investors and business partners include venture capitalists, speculators, and potential builders of all the above systems, some of whom invest in return for land rights, energy rights, broadcast rights, travel rights, and other property rights that will enable them to build these systems.

The structures of the competing ventures vary widely. One is an aerospace company that plans to sell parcels of its land to the highest bidders once its mission is successful. Another venture is a real estate firm that contracted with an aerospace firm to complete the first mission in return for half the proceeds of the subsequent land sales. Another is a joint venture among an aerospace company, an oil company (planning to drill for water), a construction company, a manufacturer, and an entertainment company. And so on.

Some members of the public worry about the idea of one company owning an entire planet. While there would be nothing wrong with such a situation, that situation is the opposite of the plans of the racing companies. No one company has anywhere near the resources to exploit the land of a whole planet on its own. Each company plans to sell and lease pieces of property to the highest bidders, in order to recoup the huge investment needed to win the race, and then to develop the land that it does choose to keep. Each company, rather than planning to forbid others from exploring Mars after ownership is secured, plans to promote further exploration by others as much as possible-because the more that other explorers find, the more these others will be willing to pay for the land.

As the race continues, some ventures drop out, others join forces. Eventually, one venture wins the race, owns Mars, sells much of its land, and makes a good profit. The venture also goes on to build a space airline servicing the new Martian landowners. Some of these landowners profit from their Martian ventures, others do not. The ones who do badly sell their land to others. In a short time, the free market sees to it that Martian land accumulates in the hands of those who make the best economic use of it.

The buying, selling, and exploiting of land is greatly facilitated by clear, objective titles to ownership, registered by the us government and enforced by virtue of its jurisdiction over the owners back on Earth.

Because there is one initial owner of the whole planet, there is no bickering, fighting, or deception over who has the right to which claim over what boundaries. Such fighting was a great problem in the settling of much of the land of the United States. Also, there is no room for subjectivity, corruption, and political intrigue over what constitutes the earning of a title-as there was in the implementation of the Homestead Act of 1862. (For example, what constitutes working the land and building a home?) The rule for initial ownership is unambiguous: get to Mars, stay for a year, and return alive. Period.

Buyers of land from the initial owners are not daunted by the need to pay for the land. For example, a company that buys 100 square miles of land to build an industrial complex and surrounding city would much rather pay $3 an acre, in other words $200 thousand, or even three hundred dollars an acre ($20 million), than be concerned about whether the government would approve their own land claim some time in the future, in the face of competing claims. Twenty million dollars is a grain in the regolith compared to the other costs of such a project. In general, the cost of buying unbuilt-on land is a minuscule fraction of any Mars project’s budget.

In return for enforcing clear property rights, the government charges a modest yearly fee, not to exceed a ceiling set at the time of the government’s initial declaration. Also, any Martians wishing to have their contracts enforced by the government would pay a small fee per contract for that service. These fees would be voluntary and very low, since they would cover the expenses only of protecting property rights.

United States citizens on Earth are taxed nothing for Mars. Only those Earthlings who expect to profit in some way, financially or otherwise, invest their time and money in Mars. If their investments fail, only they suffer. If they succeed, some of the rewards of developing Mars are theirs.

Thanks to the recognition and enforcement of objective property rights, a productive Martian civilization begins and thrives.

That was scenario 1. Here is scenario 2. After the government declares that the first to land on Mars, live there a year, and return to Earth alive owns the entire red planet . . . nothing happens for a long time. No one creates a financially viable venture. Ten years go by. Twenty years. Fifty years. Mars remains dormant . . . for 100 years, before someone finally launches a mission. But when it finally does happen, it is because the economy and the technology base have progressed to the point that exploiting Mars is a profitable proposition. And then, as in scenario 1, a mission to Mars will not be a one-shot, short-term Apollo program, but the start of a long-term, sustained effort to build a thriving Martian civilization.

That’s a look at the future. Now let’s look at the past.

Some might argue that recognizing ownership of all of Mars by the first explorer is out of line with our past history of recognizing land rights, that it grants too much to the first explorer. For instance, by the Homestead Act of 1862 a settler had to work his plot of land for five years before owning it outright. And Lewis and Clark were certainly not awarded the entire half of the continent they crossed en route to the Pacific.

Would the first explorer of Mars be getting a better deal than Lewis and Clark or the homesteaders? Let ‘s examine the facts.

The original budget for the Lewis and Clark expedition was $2,500. In the same year, the price the us paid for the Louisiana Territory (which was only part of the land Lewis and Clark crossed) was more than $23 million (if you include certain French claims and interest on purchase bonds). In other words, the value of the land that Lewis and Clark crossed was already worth on the order of 10,000 times as much as the budgeted cost of their mission.

In contrast, a mission to Mars costs on the order of $20 billion to $200 billion. The planet Mars, far from being worth 10,000 times as much as the cost of a mission, is today not even worth the cost of the mission itself. After a successful mission is completed, Mars might be worth much more, but that would be due to the successful mission. The increased value would be the achievement of the successful mission.

Suppose the $2,500 budgeted for the Lewis and Clark mission were paid in the form of land instead of cash. That would come to about 100 square miles of Louisiana Territory, out of the total size of 900,000 square miles. Would anyone have objected to such a payment? (Actually, Lewis and Clark and their colleagues were eventually granted more land than that as a further reward for their success.) But observe, ownership of Mars is not out of line with such a payment because Mars today is worth less than the cost of a mission.

Now compare Dr. Binswanger’s Mars proposal to the Homestead Act of 1862. Suppose a Mars mission costs $10 billion over 10 years. Including the cost of capital (not even considering the high risk factor) that’s $20 billion, which is the equivalent of about one million average man-years. Now each homesteader had to work five years on his land; but during those five years, he was also supporting himself. The million man-years investment in a Mars mission is generating no food and shelter and so must come out of savings. Assuming a high savings rate of 20%, we have the equivalent of one million people working for five years. That’s each person working five years to own 56 square miles of Martian land compared to each homesteader working five years to own his choice of a quarter of a square mile of farmland in the middle of the us. At the end of his five years, the homesteader had productive land with a home on it. At the end of his five years the Martian explorer has 200 times as much land, but it is barren terrain to say the least. Who has the better deal? The Martian still has to pour tremendous amounts of capital into his land to have a chance of getting anything out of it. And what percentage of his 56 square miles is prime land, even by Martian standards?

As we can see, Dr. Binswanger’s proposal does not amount to handing over riches to the first Martian explorer. If there are any riches to be had, they have yet to be created. It would be different if Mars were already worth $20 billion or more, or if a trip to Mars and back cost only a few hundred thousand dollars. But, as the numbers stand today, owning all of Mars as a reward for getting there and back is not a better deal than was received by Lewis and Clark or the homesteaders of 1862.

Now we are ready to address the moral issue of Dr. Binswanger’s proposal. In my judgment, it comes down to this: Whoever implements the concept of getting to Mars and living there turns a virtually worthless ball of rock into something of substantial value, into real estate. Initial ownership of that real estate is a just reward to the one who creates its initial value.

The traditional, Lockean view of recognizing initial ownership of land is based on the idea that the initial claimant must make some use of the land, and must make some actual physical improvement to the land such as building a home, cultivating the land, constructing a mine, etc. This was the idea behind the Homestead Act of 1862.

This view, while a monumental advance at the time of Locke, because it established a solid philosophical basis for private property, is not exactly right, in my judgment. Rather than the essential issue being the physical changing or improving of land, the essential issue is endowing value to the land. And such value may be endowed, not only by a physical improvement to the land, but by a preceding improvement of knowledge about and access to the land, proved objectively by physical demonstration. In other words, it is the explorer, not the homesteader, who may be the creator of the initial value of a body of land. And the creator of the initial value is the rightful initial owner.

It has often been said, even by vocal proponents of free enterprise who claim to hate government subsidies, that while private citizens are good at settling or homesteading, the government is good at exploring. They argue that we have always needed the government to do the exploring, to pave the way for the private settlers. My reply is: Recognize private property for exploring, and you will see that private citizens make better explorers than do government employees.

The only possible objection I can see to awarding ownership of Mars to the first successful mission is if the whole of Mars is already, today, worth more than the cost of a mission. So the government could declare: “If anyone objects to the securing of all of Mars for the authors of the first successful mission, let that person or private organization make a bona fide offer of $30 billion today for ownership of Mars.” I don’t think anyone would make an offer anywhere near that amount. If someone did, that could be considered a fair payment to the federal government for the groundwork that was done by NASA with the initial unmanned missions to Mars. The government should then accept that payment (or the payment of the highest bidder) in exchange for recognizing the private ownership of Mars.

Either way, Mars would be recognized as private property and that is the essential requirement, both morally and practically, for the exploration and exploitation of Mars.

Here then is Dr. Binswanger’s main point: Much more important than the exact rule for initial ownership is that Mars be owned-that it be property-not some time in the future, but now-not merely as a just reward and incentive for settlement, but as a just reward and incentive for initial exploration. Once the rules of ownership of Mars are clearly established, then private citizens will have the assurance that their moral right to keep the fruits of their labor regarding Mars will be protected.

And speaking practically, as my scenarios illustrated: Regardless of who owns Mars initially, the free market would ensure that pieces of Martian real estate would quickly end up in the hands of those who could make the most productive use of them. Indeed, even if tomorrow the government picked a name out of a hat and declared, “You, John Doe, now own Mars,” we would be far better off than we are today-because the next day, John Doe would sell parcels of his land to the highest bidders, and we would be back on track with my earlier scenarios. (The only drawback would be that John Doe would have received an unearned windfall; the money he received should rightfully go to those who develop Mars.)

This private-property approach to Mars exploration is the only approach consistent with capitalism. The best definition of capitalism was formulated by Ayn Rand:

Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.1

Ayn Rand also writes:

The right to life is the source of all rights-and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.2

Until Mars is turned into private property, the only alternative means of exploring and exploiting that planet is through the forced service–in other words, the enslavement–of others: either the explorers who develop land that is later expropriated from them or the taxpayers who are forced to pay for that exploration.

A capitalist, private-property policy is not an alternative moral policy for the exploration of Mars; it is the only moral policy.

If no private organization wants to explore Mars in the absence of government financing, then-unless there is a valid military need-Mars should not be explored.

The proper, moral purpose of government is to protect the rights of its citizens-the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-and the right required in order for these other rights to be secured: the right to property. It is not the proper purpose of government to launch its own ventures in religion nor (on the same principle that requires the separation of church and state) to engage in business, art, charity-or science. It is doubly wrong when the government in fact violates the property rights of its citizens by spending the money earned by those hard-working citizens on such ventures.

As a capitalist and a lover of technology, I judge the nasa space program and a nasa mission to Mars to be morally a far better government expenditure than welfare-state programs such as Medicare, public housing projects, etc. At least NASA is creating something of value that benefits all Americans, instead of just taking money from producers and giving it away to non-producers. And I idolize American astronauts and NASA engineers for their heroic achievements. But we will never know what these same heroic achievers would have accomplished if NASA had been a private company with a chance to own the moon-and if all the money the government spent on NASA had remained in the hands of private citizens and had been invested in other equally heroic ventures that we will never know about; we will never know about these other ventures because they were not allowed to happen-because the money needed to finance them was taken from their rightful owners.

Suppose NASA’s budget for sending a man to Mars had been approved in 1989. Suppose the project had been successful, and suppose it ended up costing less than half what was budgeted-say, $200 billion instead of the budgeted $450 billion. Suppose an American astronaut had walked on Mars in 1999. Would that have been a good thing?

Two hundred billion dollars is about 10 million average man-years of work. Let’s suppose the average person earns 20% more than he consumes in necessities and pays out in taxes. That means that the equivalent of five million Americans would have had to work 10 years to generate the wealth to send a man to Mars. Five million Americans… in complete indentured servitude. Yes, these taxpayers would have accomplished NASA’s grand plan. But what of their own plans? What about their plans to start computer companies, telecommunications firms, Internet companies. Many of those firms would not exist today. And think about your own plans over the last 10 years. Your plans to buy a house, to have a child, to buy a musical instrument for your child or for yourself, to go to graduate school, to start a school, to produce a movie. The money you spent on those things would probably have been taxed away from you instead. The money you borrowed or raised for those plans would probably not have been there for the raising. The job you’ve had would probably not have existed. The booming economy of the past decade might well have been a bust. Sure, going to Mars is a noble plan. But many people have had, and continue to have, their own noble plans. By what right can you force people to give up their own plans in order to serve yours? By no right.

And what would happen to Mars after a successful government mission to land there? Probably the same thing that happened to the moon after the Apollo missions: nothing-unless the government continued to spend billions of dollars for the next steps. Not unless private citizens have property rights will they have reason to invest their time and money, as they did in the first scenario I described. Not until there are property rights can people plan long-range for productive use of the property.

In order to have a productive, thriving, civilized Mars, property rights must be secure. But how can Martian pioneers stand up for their own property rights, if they advocate violating the property rights of others?

Analyzing the history of American railroads, Ayn Rand wrote: “One of the statists’ arguments in favor of government controls is the notion that American railroads were built mainly through the financial help of the government and would have been impossible without it.”3 If it is the government that gets to Mars, the government will forever take credit for it and will forever claim this excuse for denying property rights on Mars as on Earth.

I say to the lovers of freedom who would be pioneers of Mars: If you let the government be the first explorers of Mars, you are setting yourselves up for failure.

In short: No good can come from non-military government exploration of space. Any good that seems to come from it, such as a successful mission, is paid for by the loss of other goods-the plans of millions of individuals-that are quashed. And even the Martian pioneers-the supposed beneficiaries of government financing-will find themselves ultimately controlled by the government.

Dr. Zubrin has said that our civilization needs a new frontier, a new challenge to keep us progressing. New frontiers are important, but I have a different view of the causal chain involved. Frontiers have always existed and always will. The land of America existed all through the Dark Ages. It was a frontier waiting to be explored, but not until the Renaissance did that exploration begin. And once the principle of property rights was expounded by John Locke and carried through by the Founding Fathers, that exploration thrived as never before. I say: Defend individual rights, defend individuals’ rights to their own property, and those individuals will always discover new frontiers to explore and own.

If you want to see the development of Martian civilization in our lifetime, then make Mars private property-now. Make it possible for Martian explorers to keep the fruits of their labors, and fruit aplenty will spring from Martian soil.

This article is an edited version of a speech and paper presented to the Mars Society ( on August 14, 1999 in Boulder, Colorado. It was also published in The Intellectual Activist, September 1999.



1 Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (The New American Library, New York), 1967, p. 19.
2 Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (The New American Library, New York), 1964, p. 94.
3 Ayn Rand, Capitalism, p. 102.


Ron Pisaturo is a writer and philosopher. He has written a screenplay, The Merchant of Mars. Ronald Pisaturo is the author of A Validation of Knowledge, The Longevity Argument, The Merchant of Mars, and Masculine Power, Feminine Beauty.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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