May 9, 2006 -- What do Britain's astronomer royal Martin Rees and Australian environmentalist David Leary of MacquarieUniversity have in common? Both are concerned that someone might be making profits on outer and inner space frontiers where there are no government regulators or bureaucrats to be found.
In 2002 Rees regretted the possibility that private companies might get to Mars before governments do and make it into another Wild West. Today Leary laments that six companies are selling products derived from the deep ocean and that eight other companies are moving in to make bucks at the bottom of the sea. Both of these examples illustrate the negative knee-jerk reaction to the highest virtues that humans can perfect: the competence and capacity to exploit the material world.
Mars could be a wild and free place: no regulators or bureaucrats to slow things down or screw things up.
Consider Rees's concern. The Red Planet right now is a dead, frozen desert with a thin, unbreathable carbon dioxide atmosphere. There are no Martian cities, no huge herds of magnificent Martian fauna, not even minuscule Martian insects. Initial human landings, even by private parties, will focus on exploration, perhaps finding microbes living near the polar ice or, more likely, only their fossils from billions of years ago. But eventually good capitalists will want to exploit that planet, to mine it, to establish settlements and, perhaps over centuries, to terraform it, giving it an oxygen atmosphere and making it a new habitat for humanity.
Yup, initially it could be a wild and free place: no regulators or bureaucrats to slow things down or screw things up, with private law governing prospectors and property rights.
Leary's concerns are more immediate. He found that private companies have registered 37 patents for deep-sea organisms. From the abyss, microbes are now used in cosmetics and enzymes in industrial processes. Other ocean-based efforts seek a bone-healing drug and artificial blood.
Most of these activities take place outside the jurisdiction of any government or international regulation in a lawless gold rush.
Great, let's keep it that way!
What's in store for us if the U.N. or other such disreputable parties get their hands on three-fourths of our planet's surface? Certainly what we get from the current Law of the Sea Treaty, which the United States has not signed. It declares that minerals on the sea bed belong to humanity in general and a substantial part of any profits created by entrepreneurs must be turned over to poorest countries of the world through a global tax scheme. Translation: producers will be allowed to create wealth only if they pay off the non-creators, in a protection racket administered by corrupt international politicians and third world dictators who will line their pockets by stealing what they could never produce from those who can and do.
At some point it will be necessary to have law in the oceans and on other planets; not laws to regulate and stifle but, rather, to protect the private property rights of those who invest their creativity and minds to create wealth.
In the meantime, let's celebrate those who risk great perils to produce oceans of profits.
Edward Hudgins writes on political and social issues. He is the editor of Freedom to Trade: Refuting the New Protectionism, Space: The Free Market Frontier, and two books on postal service privatization. His latest collection is entitled An Objectivist Secular Reader. He is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.