Space: The Long Arm of The Law Really Isn’t That Long

by Thomas Knapp
Space: The Long Arm of The Law Really Isn’t That Long

Note: Inspiring essay by Thomas. The real effect of space colonisation will actually be felt here on Earth. In part, ruling classes are empowered by the lack of easy means of exit. Once people can run away to the Asteroid Belt, ruling classes will have to choose between lowering taxes and regulations and general oppression and losing their most productive victims. The rest of us won’t need to move an inch off the ground to feel the benefit. I suspect this is what helped make England free in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries, and America free until the end of the 19th century – the ability of the put-upon to go elsewhere. I suspect this didn’t work so well for the French and Spanish because their colonies were centralised despotisms from the start. SIG

“The biggest challenge to getting functioning space hotels and moon colonies might not even be, you know, building them and subsisting in space,” writes Jason Koebler (“The First Space Colonies Might Be Illegal,” Mother Jones, May 15). “Instead, it might be navigating the tricky international legal framework governing off-world ownership.”

Koebler’s concerns, which he hangs on the hook of talks at last week’s 33rd International Space Development Conference, have to do with the existing treaty framework between nation-states, prohibiting national territorial claims in space but not addressing the growing “private sector” space movement. In order for space settlements to proceed apace, Koebler posits, “[T]he [US] State Department or some other national body is going to have to strike a deal with other nations — and other nations that want to do this are going to have to strike a deal with us.”

But Koebler’s concerns are, in a word, irrelevant as regards both government and “private sector” space colonization plans.

The states most likely to lead the way into space on a permanent habitation basis — the US, Russia and China — are de facto superpowers who won’t think twice about abrogating the 1967 Outer Space Treaty or other agreements the instant they see advantages in doing so. And the corporations planning “private sector” projects will almost certainly leverage the protection of the states from which they operate to proceed equally unfettered.

What I find more promising, though, are the likely outcomes once humans have established permanent habitations off of Earth. “[T]here is enough wiggle-room in the language of the treaty that spacefaring nations can sign memoranda of understanding with each other to allow specific commercial activities,” writes Koebler. But there’s a lot more wiggle room in space itself to get away from nation-state memoranda and corporate “human resource” policies.

It’s likely that both Earthbound nation-states and corporations will encourage the populations of habitations far from Earth to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. It’s neither cheap nor trivial to ferry people and supplies back and forth between Earth and low orbit or the Moon, let alone Mars or the moons of Jupiter or Saturn.

And the instant those off-world habitations are self-sufficient — that is, once they are capable of providing their own shelter, air and air pressure, food and water without depending on the long and tenuous tether to Earth — odds are they will begin to feel limited (at MOST) obligations to their previous nation-states or corporate bosses and will start doing … well, whatever they damn well please.

They won’t be smack up against other societies contending with them for scarce resources, at least not for awhile. Nor will their old political and corporate bosses have the means to enforce any discipline upon them which they consider inimical to their own prosperity. They will feel free to innovate and to invent new modes of social organization, or to give second tries to old ones which failed on Earth the first time around.

The distance between Jolly Old England and its 13 American colonies in 1775, and George III’s ultimate failure to impose his will upon those colonies, is instructive … and that distance pales next to the distances involved in space colonization and the means of transportation available. The long arm of Earth law will not be able to effectively reach them. And that means there will be no “space colonies” absent the ongoing consent of the colonists.

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13 responses to “Space: The Long Arm of The Law Really Isn’t That Long

  1. Paul Marks

    Sadly Hollywood is already trying to justify violent attack on people living in space – justify with standard “social justice” and “health care is a right” stuff (as in the recent agitprop Matt Damon film).

    I find the attack on “corporate bosses” in the article odd – is Thomas saying he prefers individual billionaire owners to companies with lots of shareholders?

    After all space travel is expensive – it will require large scale resources. Large scale business enterprises are the alternative to government doing it – yet Thomas seems to be treating the two options as if they were much the same sort of thing.

    After all Joe Soap is not going be building his own space ship or living in some habitation he built himself (log-cabin-in-outer-space will not work).

    Either the space ships, and space stations, and colonies on places such as Mars are going to be government owned – or they are going to be owned by “capitalists” (either individual billionaires – or companies with lots of shareholders). If someone does not like that, they are free to go outside and take their helmet off.

    As for the American War of Independence.

    The real problem (and I think Thomas will agree here) was Parliament (not George III).

    The British Parliament would neither allow the colonies to be represented or give the idea of taxing them.

    Either would have been fine – either seats in the House of Commons (perhaps only two per colony – as with English counties) or no taxation from Westminster.

    But the British Parliament (at least the majority of it) wanted it both ways (no seats for Americans – and yet the right to tax).

    Not acceptable.

  2. Paul Marks

    For many years libertarians have been thinking about “free cities”, or islands (natural or artificial) to act as libertarian enclaves.

    However, it should be kept in mind that such places are not for “the poor” to escape “exploitation” by “the capitalists” – quite the reverse.

    They are for “the capitalists” (either as individuals or associations – such as trading companies) to escape Social Justice exploitation by “the poor” (or, more commonly, by people claiming to speak for the poor whist not actually being poor themselves – the old trick that goes all the way back to Pericles).

    Outer space is no different (as the vile Hollywood agitprop people have guessed) – it is a matter of trying to get away from the evil that is “Social Justice” (and all its subsets – such as “racial justice”, “gender justice”, “third world justice” and so on).

    Getting away from the ideas that income and wealth belong to “the people” – and should be “distributed” on the basis of “fairness”. And getting away from the idea that it is for the state (or “the people” in the “anarchist” version of collectivism) to tell people who they must employ (and on what terms) and who they must trade with (and on what terms).

    The whole “Civil Rights” “anti discrimination” tap dance.

    “Social justice” and “anti discrimination” edicts being two things that libertarians fundamentally oppose.

  3. Thomas, I’m in general agreement here. There is a strong argument that the greatest limit on power is the ability to walk (or sail, or blast off) away from it. That ultimately caused the communist states to fail was that there was somewhere else to go, for instance (even if it was a potentially fatal journey to get out, as with the Berlin Wall).

    I also think that any hope of Earthbound nations attempting to maintain hegemony over colonies on Mars, etc, will indeed be a rerun of the American Colonies experience. Once people are born in the new colony, they start to feel more American or Martian, and in the end inevitably will secede.

    How it will all play out in detail though we cannot know- the future is radically unpredictable and all that. It makes me very sad that I will be long dead by the time it all happens.

  4. Paul Marks

    Ian (and Thomas) – yes AGREED.

    The right to secede is basic – it is the difference between a free Union and forced Empire.

    If Scotland can secede from the U.K. – then why can not Texas secede from the United States? If most people there wish to do that.

    “Slavery. slavery, slavery…..”

    Slavery ended in 1865 – what is this “blood guilt”?

    Like the children who called out “you killed Jesus” to my late father.

    Actually it was the Romans and it was two thousand years ago – you pieces of shit.

    And what about Wisconsin – there never was no slavery there.

    But when the local GOP (irony there) put in that platform that in “extreme circumstances” Wisconsin had the right to secede – the left went nuts.

    Various college professors accused the Republicans of “treason” – and demanded action against Governor Walker (even though he had nothing to do with writing the platform).

    And what are they saying? That in extreme circumstances Wisconsin does NOT have the right to secede?

    Even if (for example) the Federal government levied a 90% income tax or ordered that every brown eyed person be shot?

    A Union (of the Earth and Mars – or of the United States) where there is no right to secede – is unacceptable.

  5. “I find the attack on ‘corporate bosses’ in the article odd — is Thomas saying he prefers individual billionaire owners to companies with lots of shareholders?”

    I have no problem at all with companies with lots of shareholders.

    Corporations, however, are creatures of the state from top (state charter) to bottom (state-created limited liability). The only real question at any given time is whether a corporation is an arm of the state or whether a state is an arm of the corporation.

  6. Paul Marks

    A common mistake Thomas.

    Actually corporate law (including limited liability) developed in Church law (not Royal law) in the Middle Ages.

    For those who rejected private Law Merchant (which also developed a body of law concerning these matters) the Church courts (not the Royal courts – which did not have a clue about business matters) were the port of call.

    If one made a contract with a trading company (or a guild – or whatever) what was at stake was the assets of the group (NOT the private assets of each member of the group). If one wanted to deal directly with an individual one could – and the that individual’s personal assets were at stake.

    The state later got involved – for example Judge Mansfield incorporated private Law Merchant into government law in the late 18th century. There were also important Acts of Parliament in the 19th century.

    By the way – if people want to pay higher prices (in order to avoid limited liability) they can.

    For example insurance – Lloyds “names” were exposed down to their shirts (and lost them).

    Of course – people want to be PAID for that level of risk.

    If people reject the old trading company principle (that the money at stake is the money put in the “trading pot” – NOT everything the traders privately own) then they have to pay higher prices and have a reduced choice of goods and services.

    But it is up to people themselves.

    By the way……….

    One point I AGREE with is that these things should be out in the open.

    In the old days a limited liability enterprise had to make it clear WHAT IT WAS.

    Now the letters “Ltd” (for “limited”) and “Inc” (for “incorporated”) are missing – and that is wrong.

    If one wishes to trade with the Ford Motor Company one should know that this does NOT mean that one is entitled to the private assets of Mr Ford personally (and all the other shareholders – say some old lady in no-where-ville who suddenly loses her house because she owns one share in the Ford Motor Company).

    Putting the letters “Inc” after the name does not seem too much to ask.

  7. I have no problem with limited liability by contract between parties.

    Limitation of liability to tort victims who have in no way consented or contracted with the tortfeasor, on the other hand, is entirely a function of state privilege.

    Corporations as they exist today with their state-conferred artificial personhood and state-conferred limited liability are creatures of the state and could not exist in a free society.

    Joint stock companies could, and they might contractually limit liability with their customers, etc. and their investors might purchase portfolio insurance or whatever to protect them from liability claims. But that would be a very different thing.

  8. Paul Marks

    Thomas can certainly attack the way that government statutes have distorted companies (“corporations”).

    For example bankruptcy law is much too lax – for example when General Motors went bankrupt all the assets owned by corporation should have been put up for sale [so that creditors at least go something0 and they were NOT – and this was declared totally “legal”. So General Motors continues (with its bailout – and debts wiped out) killing people with its defective cars – till it eventually goes bankrupt again (which it will) at some later point.

    I am not asking for every little old lady who owns a share of General Motors to be destroyed – but “General Motors is bankrupt – here is the NEW General Motors” is unacceptable. If something is bankrupt the company H.Q. should be sold, and the managers (as well as the shop floor staff) be out of a job. The name of the company to be MUD. Certainly the factories can be bought by another enterprise – but it must really be another enterprise (not the same bunch back again).

    Also company law (at least since the 1960s) has systematically undermined shareholder (owners) in favour of corporate managers.

    No surprise that the “new” head of GM has in fact worked as a manager at the company for many years. But it is more than that – it has become harder and harder for ordinary shareholders to get rid of managers (due to the complexity of regulations “insulating” bad management from the owners) – indeed highly paid specialists (costing a fortune) emerged in the 1980s to help shareholders get rid of bad managers (something that was easy in the 1950s – not requiring “junk bond kings” and the like).

    Also the percentage of shares owned by individuals has collapsed – due to tax law (individual shareholders are taxed far more than person funds and the like).

    For example, in Britain in the early 1960s most shares were still owned by individuals – now only a small fraction are.

    So one gets hired managers responsible to hired managers (at pension funds and the like) with no real OWNERS in the loop.

    The Financial Times newspaper and the Economist magazine think this is all wonderful – but I think it stinks.

  9. Paul Marks

    The above should have read “Thomas, one can certainly” – I left out the “one”.

    However, (all the above being said) there is still something deeply disturbing about the American attitude to companies (“corporations”) – an endless diet of Hollywood films and television entertainment shows (ironically made by companies) and endless novels and newspaper attacks (and false education in schools and universities – presenting companies such as Standard Oil as basically baby eaters) has left the population with a weird hatred of companies.

    This has, in turn. led to some of the highest rates of company taxation and worse levels of company regulation in the Western World.

    Ironically this has FORCED companies to lobby politically for wavers and loopholes – the alternative is a crushing burden of taxes and red tape.

    However, the loopholes and wavers are not enough – having one’s HQ outside the United States is becoming more and more attractive (and only a demented company brings back money into the United States – even money that has already been taxed abroad will be taxed again if it sent to the United States).

    The logic of this situation is that companies will become less and less important in the United States.

    Alternative methods of organising a business (such as partnerships) will become more important in the United States – as they are less taxed and less regulated than corporations.

    However, that will concentrate wealth in FEWER (not more – fewer) hands.

    Buying some shares in a company is a lot less difficult than becoming a partner in an important enterprise.

    To be a partner in an important enterprise one must bring something very important to the table – that can mean special skills or judgement, but more often it means cold hard cash.

    People with a lot of money (which they are willing to put at risk) are, by definition, high net worth individuals (or families).

    Of course there will always be individuals who create an important enterprise from nothing (starting off poor) – but it is a lot harder for such people if the can not (de facto) sell shares.

    They may well have to look for wealthy partners. As the alternative (building up a business with DEBT rather than equity) will get tough when the fools paradise of government induced “cheap money” ends.

    If a borrower had to pay REAL SAVERS for their money (at a real interest rate) financing an enterprise via debt would look a lot less attractive.

  10. Julie near Chicago

    There’s the argument, or point of view, that it’s really not accurate to speak of shareholders who only provide the money as “owners” of a corporation; rather, they’re in the position of investors in it, more like creditors than anything else. They give the company some of their money with the understanding that they will receive dividends out of the profits (if any), akin to getting interest on a loan except that the amount of the dividend will vary according to the success of the firm.

    If shareholders vote only by choosing to place some of their funds with the company on these terms, there’s no reason I can see why the shareholders are justly held liable for third-party injuries, since they have no direct say in the running of the business; except insofar as they pay indirectly if the management or staff proves dishonest or irresponsible in a justly-actionable way, by losing out on dividends and by reduction in the value of their stock. The agents of the company are the members of the Board of Directors, which hires the agents of management and sets general objectives and policies for the company. Management then hires the rest of the staff and determines working policies intended, one hopes, to achieve the Board’s goals while following the spirit at least of its general policies; the non-management staff members are also agents of the company. If the company commits some offense (criminal or civil), it should be these who are held responsible.

    The discussion then shifts to the question of personal liability of corporate employees (including the Board) in their capacity as shareholders. It does seem reasonable to fine the responsible parties, but the fine would be based on the seriousness of the harm resulting from the wrongdoing and not to the depths of the parties’ pockets. Also, that would be apart from any criminal proceedings properly speaking, such as theft or fraud.

    Ancillary but important: The other fact of which the general public seems to be downright unaware of is that many non-business groups are in fact incorporated — they are corporations even though theoretically most are non-profits. Churches, unions, individual writers, towns, foundations, colleges and universities including the non-profits, hospitals; except for the writers most of these are incorporated I believe…. “Corporations” include all these and more. Presumably the people here all know this, but how many of us keep it in mind when we complain about “the Corporations”? And the public at large seems unaware. Had to point this out recently to a family member, pushing 50, who was dreadfully upset by the Citizens United decision.

  11. Paul Marks

    Yes Julie – if a company is an “artificial person” then so is a UNION.

    And I do not see people lining up to say that UNIONS should be forbidden to donate money (or time) to political matters.

    By the way the anti “Citizens United” crowd have proved themselves total hypocrites – by denouncing rich INDIVIDUALS donating money to politics.

    The senior Senator for New York (and the Majority Leader of the Senate – Harry Reid of Nevada) have gone an anti “Koch brothers” bender – they are even suggesting that the First Amendment be junked to “keep the Koch brothers out of politics”.

    Why not just a “Bill of Attainder”? Then they could have Charles and David Koch executed without bothering with charges”or a trial.

    But not George Soros and the other billionaire contributors to the “Tides Foundation”.

    On the tort law thing……

    Again – I do not see how an individual person who owns a few shares is responsible for the mess caused by corporate managers.

    One might as well say that every individual UNION member is financially responsible for every bad thing the UNION does.

    A union thug burns down a business?

    Then you Mr Smith are financially liable.

    “But I had nothing to do with it”.

    The Union ordered it – you are a member of the union, therefore ………

    Sorry – does not make sense.

    It is like saying every member of a Church (the first Corporations) is responsible for every bad thing the Church does.

  12. “Yes Julie – if a company is an ‘artificial person’ then so is a UNION.”

    “Artificial personhood” is conferred on corporations by the state.

    It is not conferred on unions by the state.

    It would be just as bad if conferred on unions as it is when conferred on corporations. But it is conferred on the latter and not on the former.

    And for the record, even though I think electoral politics is a stupid thing to spend money on, I oppose any limits on any spending on it by any non-government entity.

  13. Paul Marks

    Simply not true Thomas.

    For example the powers of unions were granted in Britain (by the STATE) by the Acts of 1875 and 1906.

    And in the United States by (for example) the Wagner Act of 1935.

    Unions (far MORE than companies) are the creatures of the state.

    Without government help unions (as opposed to Friendly Societies – Fraternities) would be unimportant and “Collective Bargaining” would not exist.