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The Setting

It is the near future (say 2060ish). Some entity (corporation, government, private venture, etc.) has elected to build the first permanent (as in intended to become self-sufficient) space colony.

You (student of history, sociology, and political science) have been asked for your suggestions as to how it should be organized.

The Question

What form incorporation and of government the colony should adopt?

Constraints and Assumptions

  • The colony will be composed of civilians with some former military.
  • The military people may or may not be still in service (depending upon whether it is government sponsored or not).
  • At least some of the colonists are also investors.
  • At least some of the colonists are hired experts.
  • Investors realize this is a long-term pay-off. They're satisfied with the colony working as a net loss in order to position this first colony as the defacto monopoly on space-based services and resources for future colonies.

Scoring

The investors want a government that ensures the following:

  1. Colonist "buy in" on decisions.
  2. Ensure critical colony functions are always performed.
  3. Encourage colonist creativity in finding new ways of becoming self-sufficient.
  4. Encourage colonist creativity in finding new ways of developing export trade ideas.
  5. Investors want to use this colony to develop more investment in other colonies and encourage other people to become colonists.
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  • $\begingroup$ Encourage colonist creativity in finding new ways of becoming self-sufficient. - Does this imply the colony will be on a (terraformed?) planet, not on a space station? new ways of developing export trade ideas - what kind of technology does your future have where this is plausibly worth doing? Wormholes? Space elevators? Constraints on remaining Earth resources? Rocket trade would be too expensive for shipping in bulk even from Mars and too slow for anything outside this solar system to trade inside a lifetime. $\endgroup$ – TessellatingHeckler Oct 29 '15 at 3:18
  • $\begingroup$ Definitely fission powered rockets. Possibly space elevators to some of the less challenging bodies (e.g. asteroids) but not to Earth. Investors realize that the colony is a money pit for the first 10 years or so. IMO the only way a space colony initially become financially viable is if they're supporting the terrestrial space infrastructure. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Oct 29 '15 at 3:29
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I suspect there will be a rather odd hybrid system.

Safety is going to be first and foremost on everyone's mind, so a very draconian safety regime will be installed so no one can accidentally or maliciously cause a system or cascade failure that will threaten the colony. The "crew" of technical staff which run the systems will be built and operated on military lines, with clear lines of authority and responsibility to ensure everything really is accounted for. In that sense you will be living aboard an aircraft carrier with a Captain who is the ultimate authority.

But not everyone will be crew, and even the crew will need to be able to express needs that are not directly related to safety. So there will be a sort of "town hall" democracy among the passengers and crew for what might be considered "non life threatening" matters, although even decisions reached by the town hall meeting will probably need to be approved by the Captain in order to ensure they don't interfere with the safety of the colony.

This system will eventually evolve as the ratio of colonists to crew changes, and systems become more autonomous and reliable, but the colony will always have a "captain and crew" with override privileges in order to ensure the colony does not inadvertently fall apart.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually while I mostly agree with you, IMHO you are missing something. The most critical attribute of a leader in a life threatening situation is that he is trusted by the people he commands. Such trust is easiest verified by electing the leader. This is why both the ancient Greek mercenary regiments and to at least some extent pirates would elect their leaders. Of course this was probably motivated by the ability of the men to vote with their feet (or daggers) against an unpopular leader. The colonists would have less of that, but even so the need for the leader to have the trust remains. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Oct 29 '15 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ No one elects the captain of an aircraft carrier, but his authority is absolute. While there may be mechanisms to "elect" the captain in a space colony, the captain will still need to have absolute authority and be the final arbitrator of all aspects of colony life. Your example actually answers the question, an elected leader of mercenaries or a pirate ship is still in charge, and no one in their right mind calls for an election in the middle of a battle. Voting with your feet or electing a new captain and quartermaster on a pirate ship was done in port if the cruse wasn't successful. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 31 '15 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ The authority of a captain of a warship is the authority of the state as enforced by armed soldiers and military discipline. While a space colony makes voting with your feet less practical the same is true of enforcing military discipline whether by armed soldiers or otherwise. So it really neatly fits neither precedent and could go either way (or in between), which kind of was my point. So IMHO the other alternative of elected official should be mentioned for completeness. Quick Google found that the Plymouth colony elected its militia commander. So election would be practical for colony. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Oct 31 '15 at 5:14
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Unless the colony is created by an international treaty, the national laws of the founding nation will apply. That means you have to consider two issues separately:

  • Who owns what in the colony? In a capitalist society, the owners will be able to make many decisions.
  • What is the citizenship of the colonists, and do they have a local representation?

The 20th century model proclaims a primacy of the state, especially in emergency situations. People and corporations don't pay taxes and obey laws purely out of the goodness of their hearts, they are compelled to do so. In democracies, this power of the state is checked and balanced by the ability of the people to elect the government. All the people, not the property owners.

The early 21st century model gives slightly more power to corporations. Multinationals structure themselves to minimize their tax burden and oversight, and they're playing nations against each other by threatening to move capital.

Unless there are big changes on Earth, the space colony will be governed from Earth. The law enforcement might be an U.S. Marshall or an UN deputy.


Follow-up for Jim2B: The Outer Space Treaty requires nations to supervise the actions of their non-governmental actors in space, yet it makes space the common heritage of mankind. A Charter Colony requires somebody who can grant a charter. That will keep the lawyers busy.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've always thought that a charter colony would be the way to go with this. The colonists are given (or buy) shares in the venture. So investors back home and colonists both have a stake in making the colony economically viable. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Oct 29 '15 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the UN. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Dec 21 '15 at 2:31
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I agree with o.m.and Thucydides to an extent. I think people always want to follow a leader, so there will definitely be one person in charge. I think the governance however, will depend a few factors. First and foremost, who paid for the station. If it's a corporation, a manager of some kind will be in charge appointed by the corporation. If it's a military installation an officer will be in charge put in place by the military and it would run very much like a military base. If it's some kind of joint venture, then like Thucydides said, it would be a weird hybrid. But even if investors funded the colony, they would probably form a corporation to handle everything so I would lean in favor of a corporate manager with security handled by a private security firm. If they have military on the colony I think there would be some head butting when duties are divided and the two leaders argue about to whom certain responsibilities belong.

Another important point is how big is the colony. Just a few people are more likely to want a say in how things are run. Six guys are not likely to risk their lives JUST because Frank said so. On the other hand, a huge colony might have all of the elements of the Earth, with different jurisdictions, unions, governors, maintenance organizations and a private sector with stores and such.

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  • $\begingroup$ If Frank is the captain, they you better believe everyone will risk their lives and do what Frank says. A mutiny might be excused after the court martial if it is shown Frank was clearly acting in a dangerous or irrational manner and endangering the command, but otherwise his authority is pretty much absolute. The captain, manager or overseer of a colony (or whatever other title they have) will be in the same position as a ships captain or the commander of an aircraft. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 31 '15 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ No you missed my point. What I meant is that a mutiny is more likely in a very small subset of people than it would if a leader had a whole police force and government at his disposal, especially if the leader is just one of a handful of people all equally qualified, like a group of six scientists. $\endgroup$ – ozone Oct 31 '15 at 11:29
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Initially

In the beginning, the colony will be a dictatorship or oligarchy. There will be one ruling body that will have been established on Earth. People who trust that ruling body will join the colony. People who don't won't. Note that some decisions may be made democratically from the beginning. But there will be a limited number of people responsible for colony safety in the early days. Otherwise they'll never get the mission off the ground.

Over time

When the initial dictator or a member of the oligarchy dies, the colony will have to make more decisions. Does Earth get to pick a replacement? Or does the colony? An oligarchy might even choose its own new member.

Eventually

If the ruler or rulers are picked autocratically, there will be increasing friction with the other colonists. Eventually there'll be rebellion. The rebellion may install a new autocratic government. In which case the same thing will eventually happen.

Eventually they'll establish a democracy as the cheapest way to handle the rebellion. Don't like your current government? You can change it -- without shooting all the current members. Eventually some prospective leader will decide that being voted out of office is more gentle than being deposed.

Personally, I think the time to introduce democracy is at the first change of government. I.e. when the first ruler leaves. If you're going to end up as a democracy eventually anyway, why fight it? But some people like doing things the hard way.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer suggests that democracy is some kind of natural, inevitable endpoint for systems of government, but history indicates otherwise. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Sep 9 at 17:39
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Assuming that all of the requirements stated in the question must be met, these are the features the government would need to have:

  1. The leaders must be elected by the people. That way, colonists "buy in" to decisions. That way, there is more consensus, and less violent power struggle which could endanger the colony.
  2. There must be an organization of some kind, made up of professionals who perform essential functions, such as law enforcement and safety. They will answer to the elected body of representatives, but will be selected based on merit, rather than elected themselves.
  3. The government (whether it's a colonial government, corporation, or whatever else) will sponsor an education system that teaches colonists practical skills relevant to maintaining and growing the colony (like engineering).
  4. Capitalism must be the economic system in place, and there must be a body of supreme, irrevocable, laws which protect capitalism from government interference. That way, people will be productive, since they have profit as their motivation. Also, the colony will pay for itself, and be self sufficient, since it will make money rather than relying on aid payments from Earth.
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The situation has parallels to a homeowners' association, whether for a co-op, condominium, or standard form of ownership. In particular, there are groups with different priorities:

  • The investors want to uphold their long-term vision for a good rate of return on the follow-on colony(ies).
  • The colony leaders want to grow and operate the colony.
  • The colonists want to live well IN SPAAAAACE!

Yes, some people will be in two or even all three of these groups. And other groups may exist too.

Initially

The colony governance would start out controlled entirely by the investors, either directly or through their representatives. The initial leadership will set up the control systems to ensure safety, consumables, and maintenance. As noted in other answers, these systems will probably tend towards the authoritarian / naval models. For comparison, an HOA/COA normally starts out controlled by the developer with the aim to sell the properties.

Over time

The original investors can't foresee everything (citation needed). Control will have to gradually transfer to colonist-selected leaders. These leaders will need to continue the established major systems -- so again, I think the naval model will continue to apply. And as this colony is to be the first in a series, the original investors will have a way to retain their voice (most likely by keeping a substantial number of board seats / command billets reserved for the investors & heirs).

Eventually there will be conflicts between the investors' long-term vision and the colonists' day-to-day desires. This is where a good HOA governance body balances the issues. (A bad HOA board is a discussion for another forum.)

Summary

I see the setup as a necessary mix of democracy, through a board of directors elected partly by the colonists and partly by the investors, and authoritarian, through the command staff (which need not be truly military). Adjusting this mix over time can provide lots of good stories.

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Which entity founds the colony matters: if it is a corporation the end result will be something like the India Trade Company. The Board of Directors decree and the employees obey. The only way to influence the government/corporation is to buy enough shares to create a strong voting block and be able to choose the CEO and the Board.

If it is the government it will follow the form of the native government. For example, an american colony in space would be a Territory, eventually being promoted to State. A chinese colony will have a communist party office sending the colonies' complaints to the Zhongnanhai and receiving instructions.

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Explore the constraints: limited space, limited land use, limited life support, limited people, limited options.

So you have a finite number of people who each represent a significant investment (from someone), prospecting on mostly useless land (unless your terraforming went "viral" already) and using up energy and resources.

There are analogies to European colonies, but remember the differences: Europeans landed and immediately started exploiting the land (And often the people) to survive and then to profit. There were real hardships but there was abundance all around.

Find either "the abundance" for your colony to be based on or find another strong motivation for being there, and you'll have the basic pattern to build from. Mining or religious reasons seem likely.

Then look at your constraints to take what started as government for a company town or religious enclave (Or other reason that I missed), and change it based on 1. Not being able to leave/breathe out there, 2. Not having nature or natives to deal with (no external security concerns) 3. extra value being placed on each person at the beginning (Their labor would be missed if something happened to them) 4. It's hard to build more houses/buildings

I don't see democracy or capitalism flourishing in this environment. I do see disagreements on the best ways to run things, and that has a ton of potential for conflict in your story. Good luck!

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