December 3, 2010

Who owns the moon?

By Who owns the moon?

Author: Luke A. Wake

Evidently someone has begun selling titles to prime real-estate on the moon. Seriously, Popular Mechanics ran a story on this a while ago. All of this raises the question, can anyone actually own the moon?

I could try selling a quitclaim deed to the Golden Gate Bridge, but that doesn't mean the buyer would actually own the bridge. That's because I cannot sell something that I have no right to in the first place. I don't own the bridge, so any title I might purport to sell is about as worthless as real-estate in Never Never Land.

In order to legitimately transfer a property to another person, I must have a legitimate right  to the property. But how does one acquire property legitimately? Presumably you bargain for it on the free market. For example, I own Black Acre, and I am willing to sell it if you will give me something that I value more in exchange. If we agree on a purchase price, we are both better off because you will own something that you value more than the capital you spent to acquire it, and I will acquire capital, which I need more than Black Acre. That exchange is entirely fair, and any distortion of this free-market process is inherently unfair. This is why Robert Nozick says that property justly acquired cannot justly be taken away.

But, what about the moon?

Surely if someone already owned the moon they would be free to sell it, or to give it away however they should choose. But, only twelve people have even set foot on the moon. So how can anyone claim to own it already? 

One could argue that the United States owns the moon, after all we mounted our flag on its surface first. Indeed, there is strong precedent in human history for nation-states making such claims. See generally: Imperialism and colonization of the new world. But, why would the mounting of a flag matter at all?

Well, the placement of a flag is clearly a symbolic act, which is meant to put everyone else on notice that you have asserted some sort of dominion over the land. This is why the United States mounted the flag when we took Iwo Jima from the Japanese in World War II, and why the French mounted their flag in Quebec and the Spanish mounted theirs in Latin America. Of course, placing a flag on someone else's property will not make it yours, because property justly acquired cannot justly be taken away. The problem with Imperial Europe's cunning use of flags was, of course, the fact that other people had legitimate claims to the land already. Obviously that's not the case with the moon, so perhaps the mounting of the American flag could be seen as an assertion of dominion over the lunar land.

Personally I think our lunar landing, and the mere placement of the American flag, makes for a rather weak case of American dominion over the moon. At most it suggests that we have claimed dominion over that spot on the moon. In any event, the United States has waived any arguments that it might have had for ownership of the moon with the ratification of the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits nation-states from appropriating the moon or any other celestial body. 97 other countries have signed this treaty, so it looks like the moon is free from any national claim of ownership.

So what about private parties? Can we claim the moon for ourselves? Can corporations invest in an enterprise to settle the moon and extract its resources? Well, the Carter Administration tried signing on to the Moon Treaty in the 1970s, which would have barred private ownership of the moon; however, the Senate refused to ratify the treaty. So there is nothing technically barring Americans from owning property on the moon. But how exactly does one go about owning something that has never been owned before?

This question has real world implications (back here on earth), because it goes to the question of how private property rights are created in the first place. The moon is like earth was before man asserted private control over it: It is in a state of nature. Its resources are available and common to all who might take the initiative to utilize them for some productive purpose. But, as John Locke explained in his Second Treatise on Government, the resources of the world become ours when we mix our labor with them. Some modern philosophers have explained that this is because we externalize part of ourselves when we exert energy to develop or to extract resources, thereby giving us a legitimate claim to assert ownership over property. These same principles would apply on the moon.

As such, it would seem that no one really owns property on the moon yet, because no one has taken the initiative to assert true physical dominion over the land. Until technology allows us to begin utilizing the moon's resources, it will remain in a state of nature. But with our human drive for innovation - to better our lives - it may be only a matter of time before mankind begins to appropriate lunar resources. Its only fair that people should be able to enjoy the profits of their labor when their investments in such enterprises finally pay off. At that point, the moon will be justly privatized.   

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