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Should America Rule the Heavens?

For a brief few moments America had the moon in its hands but it retreated and allowed a vast investment to be reduced to little more than eye candy
The Spacefaring Web 3.13
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Jul 11, 2003
My previous column, on military contractors in Iraq as likely developers of space infrastructure, set off a firestorm of controversy. Along with mindless ideological flaming and some equally mindless ideological praise, several readers wrote in to present thoughtful analytical challenges to my views. From various perspectives, they addressed the question, should America rule the heavens?

Perhaps the best, most thought-provoking question I've been asked in over two years of writing this column came from The Mars Society/San Diego's co-founder, Dave Rankin. Rankin directly challenged one of the fundamental tenets of this column, asking

"Rather than striving to create a space frontier where the established order can't apply its laws, might not future residents in space, at least Americans, be better off creating colonies where they enjoy the protection of the constitution and laws of their home country?"

Any intellectually honest attempt to answer this question must occasion a deep questioning of one's reflexive political views. The process is an uncomfortable one, almost enough so to excuse the analysis-free name-calling that passes for most political punditry, especially on the internet.

Rankin went on to write,

"It's telling to me that most of the serious, life-threatening problems with such corporations [as those cited in "The Closing of the Space Frontier"] take place in countries with little legal protection for their citizens (or "subjects" rather), or in the case of flags of convenience on freighters, basically on the open seas.

"I think individuals need to live in a society with strong government but a government that preserves ordered liberty and protects individuals from more powerful people or organizations while at the same time protecting the rights of individuals against the state."

There are good arguments to be made for encouraging and protecting a lawless phase of frontier development. They stem from a view that law is most effective when it codifies existing norms, rather than trying to create norms through coercive means.

For example, the Uniform Commercial Code sets legal standards for such things as trade credit, the rights of parties in shipping and storage, and the treatment of collateral in loans. The UCC codified and standardized business practices that had been evolving since the medieval Law Merchant grew up in the spaces around the laws of the Church and kings. Its standards are clear and widely complied with, and there is the sense that violators - writers of bad checks, overeager repo men - are genuine wrongdoers.

On the other hand, legislatures often try to create norms where none exist by taking sides in a moral debate. The former constitutional amendment criminalizing alcohol sale, possession and use remains the classic example. Others include laws addressing abortion, gay rights, school prayer and other social issues where there is no emergent consensus, no actual norm.

Emerging technology creates opportunities for such legislative gun-jumping. The prohibition on copying copyrighted works has criminalized a substantial minority of citizens who download music and movies. Legislative attempts to censor the internet, in the name of child protection in America or regime protection in China, are additional examples.

The challenge of a technological frontier is that it is, almost by definition, a place whose own customs and rules have yet to develop. The evolutionary production of norms in response to technological change, and their codification into law, is the engine of cultural development and growth. Every revolutionary technology produces social change in this way- unless crushed by pre-emptive action by the state.

Space, being a radically different environment from any in which we have lived before, holds the potential for equally radical evolution of our customs, norms and laws. I believe this process of change and growth to be valuable in its own right.

Further, from simple efficiency as well as justice, it seems best that those faced with new conditions should be free to develop the most effective cultural means of addressing them, rather than surrender that power to academics and ideologues developing laws without understanding the environment in which they will be applied.


My previous column suggested that some of the things that happen in lawless places are not so nice: labor violence, suppression of basic rights, the disappearance of dissidents. Ideological critics excoriated me for being anti-capitalist for that suggestion that people playing with wealth and power in areas of little accountability might not be saints.

NASA scientist and author Geoffrey Landis painted an infinitely blacker picture in his Hugo-nominated short story "Falling Onto Mars." Is Landis an anti-capitalist unpatriotic socialist ideologue? He thinks not.

"Ideologies are an excuse for people to avoid thinking. Once people adopt a political philosophy that has all of the answers, they stop thinking and start rationalizing. I find it difficult to take anybody's opinions seriously when it is clear that they started with the answers, and then worked backwards to select facts that would support their views, and ignore facts that don't. Most people declaiming their opinions succeed primarily in convincing me that they are too stupid to understand any viewpoint other than their own."

Rankin, actually thinking through his views in application to my article, came up with a principled and articulate challenge. I had a bit of a head start in replying: conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer's case for American hegemony, "The Unipolar Moment Revisited," in The National Interest No. 70, Winter 2002/03 (an abridgement is available online), provided the first challenge. While more bombastic than Rankin, Krauthammer also holds that American hegemony is in the best interests of human freedom and peace:

"America came, but it did not come to rule. Unlike other hegemons and would-be hegemons, it does not entertain a grand vision of a new world. No Thousand Year Reich. No New Soviet Man. It has no great desire to remake human nature, to conquer for the extraction of natural resources, or to rule for the simple pleasure of dominion."

What then is the purpose of American hegemony? Besides "narrow self-defense" against the threat of rogue states with weapons of mass destruction, he "identifies two other major interests, both global: extending the peace by advancing democracy and preserving the peace by acting as balancer of last resort."

For the foreseeable future, America will be, in the memorable French term, a "hyperpower." Any space settlement scenario must begin with that reality, must be grounded in that reality, and must be very, very clear on the consequences of that reality, without surrendering to the happy opium dreams of ideology, be it rightist nationalism or leftist cosmopolitanism.

Even in abstract space-future theorizing, a functioning "meta-utopia" of individual and communal self-determination requires somebody with the power and the will to crush tyrants and nihilistic saboteurs.

In the real world, for a long time to come, if anything is to fill that role, it will be American organs of state power, constitution and black ops teams alike, accountable official and deniable contractor alike.

Perhaps Rankin and Krauthammer are right, that American "benignity," to use Krauthammer's term, backed up with force and the will to use it, is the best practicable guarantor of civil rights and quality of life on Earth and in future space settlements.

Perhaps. My ideological and instinctive mistrust of the powerful, whether they draw their paychecks from corporations or from nations, argues otherwise. My reason turns towards arguments from several other readers.

Space Frontier Foundation Board member John Cserep and The Space Show host David Livingston both claim that the infrastructure companies I pictured so darkly offer a net gain for space development. Along with reader Mike Neame, they argue that the creation of space infrastructure is well worth a little violence and oppression.

Livingston wrote, "Let's assume what you wrote about actually materializes. Well, space would get developed. We would see infrastructure rise, we would see cost effective access. We would see uses for space beyond that which exist today though we may not like those uses or who is using it. But eventually control and access will change."

Neame built on that notion of change: "[t]ime and again colonies and empires have fragmented and broken away as opportunity presented itself. Colonies don't last, but societies do." He concluded, "So yes! Jack-booted thugs will prowl the stars! But, to be fair, if they get there first and take us with them, then others will follow, and more and eventually the thugs will be outnumbered. Tyrants don't last forever, but roads do."

I'm a firm believer in the power of the human spirit. Holding freedom as a core value, I do believe that in the long run it will triumph. I also agree with Livingston that, "[s]imply put, in the short term, we are not going to space," and therefore some means of kicking open the door to civilian space access must be found.

It may well be that the only path to space infrastructure in this century will be by way of the American military-industrial complex, just as the roads to trade between ancient Britain and Syria were laid by the Roman army.

It may well be that, just as the genuine horrors of the Industrial Revolution gave way to inconceivable prosperity and quality of life, likewise a similar brutal opening to the Space Revolution could give way to equally greater gains. It may well be that the costs of opening space by American hegemonic power will pale compared to the costs of staying Earthbound.

It may well be. But I challenge all of us to do better.

Livingston went on to write, "It is my opinion that the people in this country, as well as other countries, have clearly abdicated their national and personal power to figures in authority, to academics, to scientists, to others, to the news people and more. We need to reclaim the real power of the people if we want change in space or for that matter, in anything we do."

Revolution is bloody, awful business that almost always results in the most ruthless and ideologically blinded fighters clawing their way to power. People of open minds and good will rarely triumph when revolutionary forces break loose.

Rather than count on Providence, on a benign American Revolution for the high frontier, better we take charge of the process now, shaping alternatives to the cycle of imperial infrastructure building, unaccountable power turning to brutality, repression producing revolutionary backlash.

We can do better. The alternative to imperial hegemony is a robust republic of active citizens, protected from abuses of power by well-enforced normative laws of their own devising.

This is the vision that, I believe, unites my views with those of my distinguished critics. Yes, space infrastructure is worth building. How much more so, then, a society we can be proud to live in?

The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column 2003 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation ( ) Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at

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