Property Rights in Space

by | Oct 17, 2023 | Space

A truly moral justification for property rights in space.

Last July, both Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson launched private rockets into space carrying human passengers. In September, Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent four civilians into space to orbit the Earth for three days. Musk has talked of colonizing Mars, and several companies are looking at mining asteroids and other celestial bodies. These efforts have provoked a debate regarding property rights in space.

Sadly, the debate is dominated by the wrong framework. Both those opposed to capitalists on the moon, and those seeking to establish property rights in space embrace the same fundamental premises. Superficially, the two sides appear to disagree. In fact, they are in agreement on the essential principles regarding property rights to celestial bodies and the resources that exist on them.

Not surprisingly, those on the political Left are opposed to the efforts of Bezos, Branson, Musk, and other space entrepreneurs. They oppose any effort to recognize ownership of anything in space. What is surprising is that an institute that claims to support free markets has advanced a proposal that would obliterate property rights, not only in space, but eventually here on Earth.

The outcome of this debate will ultimately determine whether we witness an explosion of technological developments that transform science fiction into science fact, or whether the private space industry barely gets off the launch pad.

Many view the topic in terms of politics and economics. While politics and economics are relevant to the discussion, the fundamental issue is moral. The fundamental issue pertains to what justice means and demands.

Justice means granting to each individual that which he has earned or deserves. It means admiring a person’s virtues and denouncing his vices. It is an injustice to grant undeserved benefits or impose unearned penalties. Any discussion of property rights in space and on Earth, must be cognizant of the demands of justice.

In this essay, I will examine the positions of those on both sides of the debate. I will first look at arguments put forth by Leftists against allowing the private development of space. These arguments will sound familiar because they are the same arguments used against capitalism here on Earth. I will then look at a recent paper from the Adam Smith Institute titled Space Invaders: Property Rights on the Moon. The paper purports to offer a way to establish “morally-justified property rights in space.” However, the paper embraces the same fundamental premises as Leftists. What it actually proposes is not the establishment of property rights, but their obliteration. Finally, I will propose a truly moral justification for property rights in space.

The Celestial Commons

Leftists regard space as a part of the “celestial commons.” Space, they claim, belongs to all of mankind and private interests should not benefit from what belongs to everyone. Any wealth generated from activities in space should be shared with all of mankind. The celestial commons should not be “enclosed” by establishing property rights in space.

Senator Bernie Sanders has criticized the efforts of both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Frankly, it is not acceptable…that the two wealthiest people in this country, Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos, take control of our space efforts to return to the moon. This is not something for two billionaires to be directing; this is something for the American people to be determining.

According to Sanders and his fellow travelers, since space is the province of mankind, anything done in space should be democratically controlled. Presumably, demagogues like Sanders would be elected to oversee space activities.

The Left has long been pushing for the democratization of the universe. In the 1960s, underdeveloped countries formed a coalition in the United Nations called the Group of 77. This bloc hoped to “spread the economic benefits of the commons more equitably, with special attention to less developed nations.”

For these countries — as well as for the nervous US business interests that opposed them — their plan to “socialize the moon,” as some put it at the time, was the first step toward a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power in human society.

In 1973, India proposed an amendment to the Outer Space Treaty (which currently governs space law) “that called for equitable sharing of space benefits, particularly with developing countries.” These proposals are nothing more than an attempt to redistribute wealth.

Leftists believe that recognizing property rights in space will lead to more wealth inequality. The masses can only gaze up at the stars while a small number of wealthy individuals will be traveling among the stars. Property rights in space

could mean the concentration of even more wealth and income in the hands of a few powerful corporations and the most technologically advanced countries. At the same time, and for the same reasons, the prospect of preserving the final frontier as a celestial commons presents an opportunity to fight for a more democratic political economy.

The Left’s focus isn’t on developing the vast potential offered by space. Instead, its focus is on controlling the efforts of those who are successfully venturing into the final frontier. They want to use that control to require an “equitable” distribution of the wealth generated from the “celestial commons.” And that gets to the moral premise underlying the Left’s position on property rights in space.

A Duty to Sacrifice

Beginning with its position that space is a part of the “celestial commons,” the Left argues that we need “democratic use of celestial resources for the benefit of all.” Property rights in space would allow “a few exorbitantly wealthy billionaires” to profit from space, while most of mankind is denied a share of the wealth. Since space is owned by all of mankind, the argument goes, the wealthy have a duty to sacrifice the values that they create and share them with all.

To the Left, individual achievement is a myth—“You didn’t build that”—because success is a consequence of collective action. When individuals like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson demonstrate the folly of such a position, the Left seeks to shackle and control them. To the Left, individuals should not pursue their own happiness. Individuals should serve the “collective good.” Self-sacrificial service to others is the Left’s moral framework.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a consequence of this framework. Need supersedes any other consideration. According to this framework, an individual’s (or nation’s) need gives him a claim to the efforts and property of others. The wealthy and the productive have a moral duty to sacrifice for the needy.

This has long been the Left’s position regarding the distribution of wealth here on Earth. They now want to apply that creed to space. The Left wants space entrepreneurs and innovators to labor, not for their own benefit and happiness, but for the good of mankind.

The Left does not believe that individuals earn values by their actions. Instead, an individual’s mere existence is a sufficient claim to the values that life requires. Despite the rhetoric of the Left, this is a gross injustice. It means awarding unearned benefits while imposing undeserved penalties upon the producers.

To the Left, individuals do not exist as independent entities, but only as a part of the collective. Individuals should not be free to act on their own judgment in the pursuit of their values and interests. They should only be allowed to act as the collective approves and only in service to the “public interest.”

The Left’s argument against property rights in space is not surprising given its position on property rights on Earth. What is surprising is the position taken by the Adam Smith Institute. The website for the organization states that the institute works “to promote free market, neoliberal ideas through research, publishing, media outreach, and education. The Institute is today at the forefront of making the case for free markets and a free society in the United Kingdom.” As we will soon see, what they propose varies little from the Left’s position on property rights in space. They too, believe that we have a duty to sacrifice.

A False Framework

In 1967, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed the Outer Space Treaty. While the treaty states that no country can claim sovereignty over outer space or any celestial body, it says nothing about what individuals may do. With a growing number of private companies making successful launches into space, pundits and organizations are speaking up about property rights in space. Unfortunately, the debate is dominated by a false framework.

The Adam Smith Institute recently released a paper titled Space Invaders: Property Rights on the Moon.  Written by Rebecca Lowe, a consultant and former director of the FREER think tank, the paper promises to provide the foundation for “morally-justified property rights in space.” Unfortunately, it fails to do so. Instead, what it proposes is not the protection of property rights, but their complete abrogation.

Lowe states that her paper follows a “Lockean-inspired rights-based liberal viewpoint.” Despite this claim, she rejects one of the key ideas in Locke’s defense of private property. She writes that a problem with a ‘first come first served’ approach is that it offends against the particular principle of equality that is prized by classical liberals.” In agreement with the Left, she states that the wealthy will be better able to be first to explore and exploit space. And this is unfair.

Rather than allow individuals to claim ownership through the use of land on the Moon, she proposes that all nations be allowed to acquire ownership of Moon land. Each country would then decide how that land could be used and if/how individuals could acquire ownership.

Lowe embraces Locke’s proviso that individuals can claim natural resources as their own property, so long as ” there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” When it comes to property, Locke has many virtues, but this is not one of them.

Locke doesn’t specify what is meant by “as good.” Nature’s resources are not distributed equally. Some land has fertile soil, contains valuable minerals, and has access to water, and some land has none of these resources. An individual who acquires a better parcel of land is not leaving “as good” for others. It is metaphysically impossible to leave “enough and as good” for others.

Further, the idea of “as good” depends upon an individual’s values. One person may value access to water more than the presence of minerals and vice versa. Any rational discussion of “as good” requires recognition of the diversity of human values.

Lowe writes that her “framework depends on the idea that all human beings have the equal potential right to acquire space land.” Lowe’s proposal ostensibly provides individuals with an opportunity to exercise that right. Morally, all human beings already possess that right. Whether or how we exercise that right depends upon our own ambition, creativity, and resources.

Because it is founded on a false framework, this is not a defense of property rights in space. It is a mechanism to arbitrarily distribute Moon land, regardless of what individuals or nations have done to earn it. It ignores the nature and source of property. Property is not created by international treaties. Property comes into being by using natural resources to create values. Lowe’s proposal does not protect the individual’s freedom to produce and trade, i.e., the right to property.

In terms of essentials, Lowe’s proposal agrees with the collective ownership proposed by the Left. And the reason for that agreement is her embrace of the same moral framework as the Left.

Shared Premises

While purporting to offer the foundation for “morally-justified property rights in space,” Lowe’s proposal actually is an abrogation of property rights. In terms of essentials, her paper is founded on premises shared with the Left.

First, Lowe accepts the Left’s claim that space is a “celestial commons.” This gives rise to her plan to allow all nations to acquire moon land, not because of any actions on their part, but because they are a part of mankind.

Second, and most significantly, Lowe claims that the validity of property rights are subject to certain conditions, including:

  • The urgent needs of an individual can help to justify their ownership of needed things;
  • The urgent needs of an individual can invalidate another individual’s ownership of surplus things.

Lowe does not tell us what “surplus things” means, but she implies that it is anything more than what is required for sustenance and shelter. According to this framework, more productive individuals should not be allowed to keep their “surplus,” but must share their property with others. Those who produce more than they need have a duty to sacrifice for the less productive.

These conditions relegate property rights to temporary permissions that can be removed at any time. Like Leftists, Lowe argues that need supersedes ownership rights. She writes that,

If it becomes the case that someone in urgent need has the capability to access a piece of moon land that will serve to meet their needs, then their claim over that land will defeat the claim of someone who is not in urgent need…

According to Lowe, and the Left, need, not one’s actions, constitutes a valid claim to property. This is not a case for property rights. It is an argument for their destruction, and it is based on a shared premise with the Left. To the Left, an individual’s property and life belong to the collective, which may dispose of both as it chooses. Lowe agrees because of shared premises.

Lowe proposes that would-be Moon colonists compete for use of the land. They would pay “’rent’ into a fund that works to enable other individuals on Earth to compete against them for these plots.” In other words, those who actually create values in space must fund those who have not created values.

While Lowe calls her proposal an “individualistic framework,” her argument is founded on shared premises with the collectivist Left. The consequence of that premise is not property rights in space, but their annihilation.

Property Rights

“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.

“Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.” – AYN RAND, “Man’s Rights,” The Virtue of Selfishness

A truly moral justification for property rights in space must include an identification of the nature of property and property rights. If we aren’t clear about what it is that we are defending, then our arguments will lack clarity and be unconvincing. Property rights, whether in space or on Earth, must be grounded in reality.

We use the term property in regard to many different things: land, a home, an automobile, jewelry, money, and much more. Each of these things is a material value. They are something physical that sustains or enhances our life. Further, we own these things and have control over their use and disposal. Property is a material value that is owned.

Nature does not provide us with ready-made material values. Clothing, shelter, computers, televisions, and every other material value must be created. The raw materials provided by nature must be transformed into human values through thought and effort. Property is created when material values are created. Those who create values are the rightful owners of their creations. The creators of property have a moral right to use and dispose of their creations as they deem best.

Property rights protect our freedom to create, use, trade, and dispose of material values.

Until a resource has been transformed into a material value, its proper status is “unowned.” What is often called “the commons” represents unowned resources. There is no moral justification for declaring that unowned resources belong to all mankind. Every individual has a moral right to use unowned resources to create property, to sustain and enhance his life. And when he creates material values, they are his to use and dispose of according to his own judgment.

We easily recognize the fact that the hunter owns the game that he shoots. We recognize that the fish caught by a fisherman are his to use and trade. In both instances, an individual has transformed that which is provided by nature into a human value. They have created property. The same principle applies to space innovators.

Only physical force can restrict our freedom to create material values—property. Only physical force, or the threat thereof, can prevent us from creating, using, and disposing of property. If someone sticks a gun in our face and demands our wallet, he has prevented us from using and disposing of our money as we desire. If we are threatened with jails or fines for producing or trading certain values, our own judgment is negated. When we are prevented from acting as we think best, our freedom to create values is restricted.

When we create values, we are acting in our own self-interest. We are taking action to sustain our life, not that of others. This is a truly individualistic framework.

Morally, the right to property is grounded in the metaphysical fact that we must create the values that will sustain us. Before any value can be consumed. It first must be created.

The Freedom to Create Values

Every human being has the moral right to take the actions necessary to create material values. Of course, many governments do not recognize this right, and individuals can be restricted in their freedom to create values and sustain their lives. The discussion of property rights in space is dominated by the premise that individuals should not have the freedom to create values. This premise is shared by both “sides” of the debate.

We previously saw how both the Left and alleged defenders of the free market argue for restrictions on individual efforts in space. Both “sides” of the debate agree that individuals should be permitted to act only as the collective deems appropriate.

When an individual creates property, he does not deprive others of anything that is rightfully theirs. When Apple created the iPhone, the company did not prevent Samsung, Nokia, and other companies from producing their own smart phones. The same is true when an individual removes a resource from nature to create values. His action does not deprive others of the freedom to use nature’s resources to create similar values or other values.

In regard to space, every individual possesses the moral right to explore and exploit the moon, asteroids, and other celestial bodies. Every individual has a moral right to create values from the resources found in space. The success of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos in doing so does not prevent others from engaging in similar actions. Musk and Bezos cannot stop anyone from creating values on Earth or in space.

The freedom to create values is the essence of property rights. It is a recognition of the fact that life requires the creation of values, and the creation of values requires thought and effort. Those who exert the mental and physical effort to create values have a moral right to use and dispose of those values as they judge best. It is a matter of justice.

Justice means granting to others that which they have earned or deserve. The creators of property have earned ownership of the life-sustaining values that they have created. Justice demands that we recognize and respect their right to their creations, i.e., grant to them that which they have earned.

It is a perversion of justice to declare that the creations of innovators belong to mankind. Mankind is not sending rockets into space. Musk and Bezos are. Mankind is not trying to figure out how to colonize Mars. Musk is. The achievements of the innovators belong to them. Those who can and do have a moral right to their creations. Those who can’t and don’t have no claim to the creations of others.

If we truly wish to make the vast potential offered by space a reality, then we must protect the freedom of innovators (and everyone else) to create values.

A New Framework

The new framework presented here rejects the premises that dominate the discussion of property rights in space. It rejects the premise that the “celestial commons” belongs to all of mankind. The “celestial commons” is unowned. It is a vast resource that is open to every human being to explore and exploit if they are able and willing to take the necessary actions.

This framework rejects the premise the achievers have an obligation to share the values that they create with all of mankind. Morally, the creations of the producers are theirs to use and dispose of as they choose. Producers have earned the values that they create, and justice demands that we recognize that fact.

This framework rejects the premise that the use and exploitation of space should be democratically controlled. Those who can and do have a moral right to act according to their own judgment without requiring the permission or consent of others.

This framework rejects the premise that individuals exist to self-sacrificially serve others. Individuals have a moral right to pursue their own personal happiness. Each individual has the right to choose his values and the means for attaining them, so long as he respects the freedom of others to do the same.

This new framework is founded on the premise that each individual has a moral right to act on his own judgment to create the values that his life requires. It is founded on the premise that each individual rightfully owns the values that he creates. It is founded on the premise that each individual should be free to act by right rather than by permission.

The Moon and other celestial bodies have existed since long before human history. Nobody—not one single human being—has successfully used these resources to create life-sustaining values. To do so would be a remarkable and unprecedented achievement. Those who do so have no obligation to share their creations with anyone.

If we truly want to realize the vast potential offered by space exploration, then we must protect the freedom of the innovators and achievers to create values. We must protect their freedom to act as they think best. We must protect their right to the property that they create, on Earth and in space. To protect property rights, in space and on Earth, we must adopt a new framework.

A Unilateral Declaration

Contrary to the claims of most individuals who comment on property rights in space, an international agreement is not necessary to establish those rights. Neither a treaty nor an international body to oversee space is appropriate. What is needed is a unilateral declaration regarding property rights in space. What is needed is a statement that rejects the existing framework and establishes a new, moral framework.

That declaration can be made by any nation choosing to do so, though it will most likely come from a nation in which efforts are being made to explore space, such as the United States. This declaration should have two key provisions.

The first provision is the identification of the nature of property and the morality of property rights. This must include an explicit rejection of the premises dominating the discussion of property rights in space, as well as a statement identifying the proper framework.

The second provision is a statement that the issuing government will protect and defend the property rights of its citizens. If a foreign nation or any individual physically interferes with a citizen’s freedom to explore or exploit space, the issuing government should act to protect the property rights of its citizens. This is done on Earth, and it should be done in space.

The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 was a step towards a unilateral declaration. The act was passed by the United States Congress with bipartisan support. According to Wikipedia, the “law explicitly allows US citizens and industries to ’engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources.’” Unfortunately, the law says nothing about the moral right of individuals to create values.

Certainly, there will be those who object to a unilateral declaration. So? A rights-respecting government does not concern itself with what others think and approve of. Its concern is the protection of its citizens’ rights, including the freedom to create values.

In this regard, the Declaration of Independence serves as an illuminating example. The Founding Fathers did not seek international approval of their cause. They acted on their own judgment. They clearly articulated their position and the reasons for it. Their bold statement inspired others around the world to seek greater freedom.

The world’s approval is not needed for a government to protect the rights of its citizens. What is needed is certainty in the morality and justice of doing so.

Space does not belong to mankind. It belongs to nobody. Let us recognize this fact and protect the freedom of innovators to venture into the final frontier. It is a matter of justice.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

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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