Elon Musk wants direct democracy on Mars. Will it work?

At SXSW today, Elon Musk suggested that direct democracy might be the best way to govern on Mars. Direct democracy isn’t a bad place to start, and it’s encouraging to hear one of the gods of Silicon Valley voice a commitment to democracy (here’s looking at you, Mr. Thiel). But direct democracy probably isn’t enough to prevent us from getting into interstellar fist fights. The first time a Texan found himself on a new planet with another human, for example, this happened.

There are some sticky questions about governance on Mars with some non-obvious answers that Mr. Musk might consider next. And Mr. Musk, if you’re reading this, I’d be more than happy to help work out some answers to some of them, too.

What are we optimizing for? This might seem like an easy question, but it isn’t: Freedom, human dignity, human flourishing, and equal protection under the law don’t always line up nicely.

Does Mars need a constitution? Direct democracy might be great for some things, but what if, when under threat of war from another colony, people vote directly to abolish direct democracy and empower a single leader? Or if the majority decides to throw a couple of folks out of an airlock because they said something the majority thought offensive?

Matt Damon, right before Texan Matthew McConaughey gives him an interstellar butt-kicking.

What does Martian foreign policy look like? If Martians want to regulate who comes to Mars, will they be allowed to? If they want to, would they even be able to? Absent the use of force reinforcing a mighty large three-dimensional wall, Mars will likely end up carved up similarly to earth. What does intra-Martian foreign and immigration policy look like? And what of the relationship between Mars and various governments on earth?

Does Mars have a currency? No doubt this week’s SXSW attendants’ eyes will light up at the question and its seemingly obvious answer: Blockchain! But as my colleague Jonathan Lewis pointed out recently, cryptocurrencies exhibit the same power law distribution as fiat currencies; the existence of a ledger may prevent certain kinds of cheating, but it doesn’t answer questions of (re)distribution, issuance of multiple currencies, or what to do with the goods and services that Michael Sandel argues money can’t buy.

Given that Mars will likely be populated with humans, moving us to Mars will reintroduce—not do away with—the sticky questions that faced the framers of the US Constitution. These are just a couple of them. When we land on Mars, we get the best shot since the founding of the US at designing how humans will interact with and govern each other. The US got a lot of things right, but we missed quite a lot, too. If we take a beat to look at the past, we’ll be able to build a better future–how about a round of beers or breakfast tacos to discuss, Mr. Musk?

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