Mars, and the possibility of societal reinvention
Tyler Cowen has written a very Cowenesque Bloomberg column on governance questions related to Mars. The issues it addresses—Will humankind need to tolerate the institution of contractual servitude in order to attract a workforce to Mars? Will it be settled by religious zealots?—are not pressing, but they are interesting. And they remind me of a few thoughts I’d had recently after reading Paul Krugman’s newsletter dispatch on the economics of Mars colonization. Krugman’s general assessment is a settlement-skeptical one: without extensive trade (with Earth), Mars wouldn’t be a very economically appealing place to live unless it was home to a very large population, sufficient to support a complex and innovative Martian economy:
Now, given access to world markets, even small countries can have full access to the benefits of modern technology; life in Luxembourg is pretty good. But unless we actually invent the Epstein Drive or something, the realities of transportation costs mean that Musk’s hypothetical Mars colony would have to be largely self-sufficient, cut off from the rest of the solar system economy. And it wouldn’t have enough people to pull that off with anything like a modern standard of living.
As I said, I see Musk on Mars as a teachable moment, an unintended thought experiment that helps remind us of the positive aspects of international trade. Yes, there are downsides to globalization, especially to rapid change that can disrupt whole communities. But you really wouldn’t want to live in a world without extensive international trade. And you really, really wouldn’t want to live on another planet, cut off from the globalization we’ve created on this one.
Now, I am perfectly happy to concede that we are probably at least a century away from a world in which even a moderately populous Mars colony is economically well integrated with Earth. But if we’re just having fun here, I would make a few observations in response to Krugman’s piece.
One is that a large share of the value embedded in traded goods is intangible: consisting of knowledge of particular technologies and techniques. Your iPhone, famously, is designed by Apple in California even though it is produced along supply chains that exist largely in other countries. So while the economics of shipping bulk commodities to and from Mars are daunting, to say the least, the considerably greater ease and speed with which information can flow back and forth between the planets means that there is at least potentially room for Mars to export valuable intellectual property (and, to the extent that normal Earth-rules apply, to earn foreign exchange with which it can purchase imports, although goods imported from Earth would be really expensive and slow to arrive).
To become a competitive exporter of valuable intellectual property, it would need to play host to highly specialized teams of innovators. Why would said innovators choose to locate on Mars, though, given the hardships associated with living there and the cost of importing necessities? Well, they might locate there because an organic innovation cluster emerges among the weirdos who settle the place, which could not easily be shifted back to Earth. Economic ecosystems which have a lot of specialized and often tacit knowledge can be really geographically persistent—think of Silicon Valley or financial centers like New York—because they’re made up of networks of people and institutions which have a particular culture. Transplanting that special something is hard (because everyone has to agree to move) and risky (because the transplanted entity may lose something valuable in its interconnections or habits of behavior and mind as a consequence of relocation). So what starts on Mars might well stay on Mars.
But Mars might have other competitive advantages which favor certain sorts of innovation. Maybe the innovator isn’t a team of people (or isn’t just a team of people) but also includes powerful AIs which, for safety reasons, are banished from Earth. Or maybe the innovation being undertaken involves trifling with things, like genetic engineering, which have been heavily regulated down here. Or who knows, maybe the Terran NIMBYism has gotten so out of hand that Martian real estate is a steal, even after exorbitant trade costs are taken into account.
What all of this gestures at, though, is something of value in both radical exploration and in trade, which tends not to be captured by the typical economic model. Think, for a moment, about the civilizational return to the colonization of the land that would become the United States. A quick note: colonization of the New World was of course associated with some of the worst tragedies in human history, including the genocide of indigenous Americans and chattel slavery. I don’t mean to trivialize those evils, and to be very clear, I am not in the lines that follow engaging in any sort of moral arithmetic which sums to net gains for humankind such that the harms done to indigenous Americans and enslaved people were in some sense a “price worth paying”. I merely mean to say, from the perspective of long-lived economists assessing, ex ante and ex post, the effects of the United States, which of its contributions were likely to be/have been most beneficial?
Ex ante, a serious-minded economist would have found little to be enthusiastic about in the early migrations of disaffected British. He may have hoped that colonists would find rich veins of silver and gold, or he might have seen the potential of exports of agricultural novelties like tobacco. The colonists themselves, particularly those headed for New England, might well have been closer to anticipating how America would most profoundly change the world: as a place of radical institutional and cultural novelty, which enabled the achievement of unprecedented levels of human well-being.
I understand that America was built on many injustices and continues to fall well short of both its founding ideals and its potential; I anticipate your criticisms and I accept them. But consider. Colonial America was from its earliest days a place which allowed for cultural evolution and innovation that would not have been possible in the old country. It facilitated cultural admixture and gave rise to cultural and institutional innovations, including a precocious experiment with constitutional democracy. It was not a blank slate, exactly, but it provided room for social innovation that simply did not exist in older societies bound by age-old cultural and institutional constraints. It also provided room for migrants, who came in their millions, giving rise to a society which was and which remains truly unique.
I do not think it is a coincidence that it was in this strange place that the industrial technologies which emerged in the old world were transmogrified into new and wildly more productive forms, which in turn contributed to the emergence of the United States as the most technologically advanced economy in the world, which to this day is capable of generating incomes per person substantially above those of any other large, industrialized country. Other countries have caught up to America in many respects, both institutional and technological. But in many of these respects, American innovation blazed the trail: sometimes as an ideal to be copied and sometimes as a cautionary tale, but always as a source of inspiration.
It seems to me, furthermore, that there are many people who see in the erosion of American daring and its can-do attitude an ossification, caused by dysfunctional institutions or powerful entrenched interests or cultural stagnation, but at any rate bound up with American society as it exists today. It would be nice to think, and I still hope, that we can somehow find a way to revive ourselves and renew our institutions and achieve bigger and better things. But I don’t find it surprising or absurd that some of the people who are frustrated with our present lack of ambition and vision pine for a place beyond the reach of our tired societies.
I also don’t find it surprising that others see something perverse and anti-social in those desires. There is something perverse about them. And Tyler is right when he suggests that the people of Earth might find much which is objectionable in the cultures of the first societies to emerge off-world. But those societies may show us things that we didn’t understand to be possible: socially, culturally, economically. And in the very long run, it is quite likely to be those societies which most profoundly shape the future of human civilization—assuming that we have a long-run future. Stagnant cultures which see no short-run benefit to settling space don’t found interstellar civilizations. And whatever galactic empires there have been or will be must bear some cultural imprint from the truly odd or zealous groups responsible for getting a species off its home planet in the first place.