How would you govern Mars?

Summary: Good government is hard. Given the chance, how would you improve it? Below you will find one idea I like, to hopefully get a fruitful discussion started.

I started writing this in February, just as the Pandemic appeared on the horizon, and titled it “How would you govern Mars”, hoping to get your attention (Of course Elon Musk beat me to it, but he is good at building hype after all). So now that I have your attention, here goes:

Government sucks. Demonstrably so, just watch the news. There may be some countries that are doing better than others, but most of them are either very rich (Switzerland, Norway, Singapore), and/​or very small.

What I am interested in is how one would have to design a robust system that governs the day to day interactions between people, and that is able to evolve and adapt, and thus capable of serving the people now and in the future.

I’m not so much interested in any particular detail, and more in a method of how to identify and overcome newly arising issues (Not so much an updated reissue of the Ten Commandments, and more a system that generates useful commandments on demand). I’m, also not necessarily limiting this to “laws”, and instead want to include “unwritten norms” and “culture” as well.

The system should be applicable to any (large, >>150) group of people, that wants to bootstrap a community. Possible examples would be the mentioned colony on Mars, or the Moon; an independent seastead floating somewhere in the Pacific; or maybe an existing country overcoming its former government (e.g. “The Capitalist Republic of North Korea”, or “The Anarchic Free State of Portland”).

By way of example, I’ll start with listing a few high-level, long-standing issues that I think should be solved sooner rather than later. I’ll also outline one idea that may address some of them. Then I would like to hear your opinions on what the important problems are, and how you would do it.


Inequality: More unequal societies just do worse in general (I am not going to give an example/​reference for this one. Instead I kindly suggest that you travel to new places once in a while)

Winner takes all: A special case of inequality. Exists on many levels (Country, state, corporation, personal)

Rules-as-written versus Rules-as-intended: Sometimes people do “bad” (e.g. negative-sum) things, without violating any laws (e.g. Martin Shkreli raising prices just because he can).

Responsibility: Powerful people commit crimes, and just walk away with no consequences (Neither legal, nor to their reputation) (one of a limitless number of current examples would be Kelly Loeffler). On a related note, I’d like to mention the concept behind the german word “Schlitzohr” (literally: “torn ear”, meaning: “crook”). It refers to a visible form of punishment, that marks a dishonourable person for life, thought to have been inflicted by ripping out their guild earring.

Opaqueness: “Us down here” can neither see, nor influence what “Those up there” are doing. This perceived powerlessness erodes social capital, and trust in institutions. (see: conspiracy theories galore)

Polarization: People want to win and “destroy” their opponents, instead of finding a solution, or making a compromise. It’s hard to see the “big picture” nowadays. Simple solutions presented by demagogues are often preferred. (e.g. immigration is a complicated issue, but a simple wall will solve it.)

Basic human needs: Their definition has shifted over the ages (as it should), but it is seldom kept up-to-date, or enforced. (Access to water is a human right? Good luck if you live in the Third World, or in Flint.)(How about access to air on Mars?)

Centralization: A few large, sluggish entities fare worse than many smaller ones, particularly in response to external stress. (This is true on many levels, e.g governments, corporations, creatures) (see also: Moloch)

Coordination problems: Well this is a big one. For now I just mean the tragedy of the commons, and particularly externalities of everyday goods (Does the price of beef include the costs incurred by deforestation, pollution, etc.)

Legislation: When a new country is founded, people normally start writing a new version of “Our Constitution” (read: the best thing that humanity ever created). In practice, this means they just copy and paste an ancient text, and change a few things that they themselves are particularly interested in. Writing “normal” laws is barely better, even in the best case. (e.g. The Brexit deal mentions “modern” Netscape software. These people had years to come up with something, and in the end they invest as much time in finding a solution as a failing sixth-grader invests in homework). In the worst case, you end up with legislation written by lobbyists.

I think most people would agree on the “direction” of the required solution in each case. In my opinion, many of these problems are related to Law-thinking (as opposed to Toolbox-thinking) that in practice just went wrong somehow. To me the failure mode seems to be:

  • See a moral ideal

  • Write it into law

  • Spectacularly fail to uphold it

  • Fuck it and not even pretend to try anymore, while saying otherwise. (see: Simulacrum levels)

So instead of a perfect, top-down solution, here I want to present one possible just-good-enough solution to work on some of these problems.

Legislation-as-programming: A programmer invests as little time as possible when solving problems (or so I’m told). However, unlike a “lazy” politician, they are being “efficient”, which means they neither write from scratch, nor do they copy just any old program. They instead import a library. A thematically grouped, prepackaged chunk of tested and mostly bug-free (or at least maintained) code.

My mental model right now, is that of laws being written and debugged just like code. Collaboratively, and using a version control system and wiki (let’s say e.g. GitHub).

Why is this not a thing? While certainly not trivial to implement, this paradigm of legislation-as-programming certainly has advantages.

  • It could help improve transparency, because things can be easily packaged (e.g. thematically: tax law, or locally: laws in a given municipality), referenced, and documented

  • It improves participation (e.g. like Wikipedia did for encyclopedic knowledge)

  • It can be “patched” more easily

  • It would reduce bloat and simplify things, because it makes things comparable, and only the fittest implementations would survive.

  • At the same time, it would allow for “forks” a simple, general method for people to propose changes.

  • “beta-versions” could be adopted (e.g. locally) to test their feasibility, before more widespread adoption

  • Most importantly (and most complicated), it would allow for (somewhat) automatic tests (e.g how does this “patch” affect how much taxes I have to pay)

  • Laws could be tagged, organized and cross-referenced a myriad ways. (For example, it should be easy enough to find out that a certain type of law was only ever sponsored by a certain party, or that a certain class of law was only ever invoked in court in favour of oil companies)

One particularly elegant idea (in my mind, at least) is a kind of community-curated news website but with a twist. Let’s say a mashup of some parts of reddit, kickstarter, wikileaks and bellingcat.

  • As the news happens, it gets posted (e.g a powerful person or entity does something semi- or illegal, gets caught, but gets away with it)

  • People upvote the most interesting stories (“sunlight is the best disinfectant”)

  • The laws in question that may or may not have been violated are cross-linked from the GitHub repository

  • Then people discuss the facts in a civilized manner (just kidding) ** If everything turns out to have been legally and morally okay, then things just die down ** If they were legal, but morally wrong, then someone may author a patch to fix the loophole, so similar things hopefully never happen again. ** Alternatively, people may post crowd-sourced bounties of the type: “Any information related to the case that is presented here, which is used in court, and that helps secure a conviction, is eligible for its share of this bounty”. ** If things were clearly illegal, then a court should be able to handle things, and depending on how things turn out, the case may reappear in the news again.

I feel like this method takes humanities worst instincts and channels them into a (somewhat) better direction. It’s certainly possible that it could degenerate into public show trials and vigilante justice, but at least it feeds the need for transparency and participation (both in the selection of important topics, and in their resolution), which will help build trust in the institutions.

One thing I like, is that this same procedure could be adopted for fictional events (e.g. which laws would be applicable if a president tries to preemptively pardon himself? There are none?! Well let’s get to fixing that right away). People could be rewarded for finding (and disclosing) “bugs”.

Similarly, it could be adopted for real events, but applying fictional, that is “forked”, versions of laws. A campaigning politician would invite you to run your own test (e.g. the question of if you will have to pay more or less taxes) on his version of laws. And a crowd-sourced comparison of the differences between versions, should quickly find any hidden funny business.

Assuming that one could build a bare-bones version of the above, my hope is that it could be used to bootstrap the rest. If things function well enough, then a community might form organically (see: Wikipedia), and if not, then it wasn’t a good enough solution anyway, no harm done.

Okay, so far the introduction to my attempt at de-Moloch-ification. I would be happy to hear your ideas, and comments. Is anybody aware of other attempts at creating a robust, more direct form of accountability? Or do you think it wouldn’t work at all? What would you change, or how would you do it instead? Which tools are best suited? Which ones already exist (or can be repurposed), and which ones still have to be invented?