Space invaders

Think tank: Adam Smith Institute

Author(s): Rebecca Lowe

February 10, 2022

This report from UK think tank the Adam Smith Institute looks at property rights on the moon.

This Adam Smith Institute’s latest paper, by Rebecca Lowe, consultant and former director of the FREER think tank, argues that creating a clear system of property rights in space could turbocharge scientific discovery and give all of humanity a greater stake in space exploration. Sixty years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to orbit our planet and John F. Kennedy spoke of the need to institute the rule of law to ‘man’s new domain’, property rights in space remain up for debate. But recent developments suggest this can’t and won’t remain a debate for long. The ‘national appropriation’ of space — or at least of its ‘physical domain’ — is outlawed by long-standing international treaty. Yet problems stemming from the idealism of the international approach, alongside various nations’ unilateral shifts of attitude and practice, as well as growing demands from firms and individuals to shift away from a national focus, leave this framework unfit for purpose, at least in practical terms.

Beyond this, a clear, morally-justified, and efficient system for assigning and governing property rights in space — in land, in other resources, in the vacuum itself, and in anything else that might be found — would present vast benefits. These include not only serious financial rewards for those who would become owners under such a system, and for the other direct and indirect beneficiaries of space ownerships. They also relate to the provision of valuable incentives for the responsible stewardship of space, as well as opportunities for new scientific discovery, democratised space exploration, and much more.

This paper primarily addresses the question of what a Lockean-type classical liberal rights-based approach to economic justice demands in terms of adjudicating problems of the individual ownership of land in space. But an implicit underlying question is what the answers to these problems offer to help us to assess the adequacy of ongoing approaches to property on Earth. In the final section of the paper, a framework is set out to enable individuals to attain morally-justified property rights in space, with a particular focus on plots of moon land. The general aim of this framework is to enable individual human beings to acquire and hold space land in such a way (i.e. in an exclusive and exclusionary manner, at least regarding its use) that will be to their benefit, and the general benefit of humankind, without effectively precluding other individual human beings, who hold an equal potential right to this land, from being able to do so themselves. Indeed, the system works in such a way as to increase the number of individuals who will be able to compete to actualise this equally-held potential right.