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Adam Smith Inst - Privatize space to boost discovery and alleviate poverty

International treaty outlawing property rights in space is unfit for modern world

  • Recent technological progress makes space ownership debate more pressing
  • The time has come to shift away from a national to an individual focus in space
  • A clear system of property rights in space would present vast benefits to humanity

A new report, Space Invaders: Property Rights on the Moon, from the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) 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.

The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty (OST), which remains in place as the vanguard of space regulation, forbids 'national appropriation' and also, by effect, individual appropriation in space. Although major players in space exploration have recently called for change—with some nations pushing unilaterally for it through domestic legislation—there has been little movement on the ownership question since the OST first came into effect.

Report author Rebecca Lowe takes inspiration from renowned English philosopher John Locke and American political economist Henry George in setting out a detailed framework for how property rights could best be applied to celestial bodies. In an extended case study, the paper explains how rents paid on plots of moon land could be leveraged to benefit the whole of humanity through alleviating poverty on Earth, as well as democratising space travel. 

Under the proposed system, individuals would compete against each other for plots of land on the moon (that have most likely been initially acquired by, or assigned to, particular nations). This competition would consist in paying ‘rent’ for such plots at a rate determined by supply and demand. Rent rebates could be given for improving the condition of land or providing for urgent human needs. Governance would currently depend on international agreement.

The paper concludes by arguing that proceeds from moon rents could be used to democratise space travel, meet current urgent needs and fund future space exploration. It also offers a way of addressing traditional concerns with property rights such as the ‘first come, first served’ problem and the overriding moral priority of addressing urgent human needs.

Rebecca Lowe, report author and former director of FREER, said:

“A clear, morally-justified, and efficient system for assigning and governing property rights in space would present vast benefits that go beyond financial rewards for people who would become owners. Such a system would incentivise responsible stewardship of space, as well as opportunities for new scientific discovery, democratised space exploration, and much more. The creation of such a system is long overdue—progress on this issue is frozen amidst complex legalistic uncertainty. It’s time to find innovative ways to move beyond that.”

Daniel Pryor, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, said: 

“Property rights play a key role in boosting living standards, innovation and human dignity here on Earth. The same would be true if we applied this logic to space, which presents a unique opportunity to start afresh when designing effective rules of ownership. With more countries and companies competing in the space race than ever before, it’s vital for us to move past the outdated thinking of the 1960s and tackle the question of extraterrestrial property rights sooner rather than later.”

Notes to editors:  

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact John Macdonald, | 0758 477 8207.

Rebecca Lowe works on political and economic research issues as a consultant, is the former director of the FREER think tank, and has just finished writing a PhD thesis on moral property rights. 

The Adam Smith Institute is a free market, neoliberal think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world.


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