I'm using this question about likely forms of government for a space colony.

What sort of legal and penal system might develop on such a colony?

This is a pretty broad question, so assume the following constraints and requirements:

  • The colony has a hybrid democratic/republic & military government structure
  • The colony has a hybrid capitalistic & socialistic economic system
  • The colony establishes laws regarding minimum colonist contribution to society
  • The colony permits exceptions to the minimum required contribution for certain socially desired/encouraged activities (raising children, security services, defense forces, etc.)
  • The colony permits colonists to "bank" their excess contributions as a reserve against unemployment and disability.

Essentially, I'm looking for how likely the colony will actually mete out a death penalty to colonists who consistently fail to meet their minimum required contribution. You can consider this minimum as "earning your air" type of problem. It really equals the minimum tax regardless of occupation.

OTOH, the colony guarantees certain positions will always earn the minimum and the people in those positions will always get the minimum necessary to survive. As long as there is enough work to do, there's no problems.

The problems will occur when either someone in one of these minimum pay positions fails to meet employment standards, someone has long-term disabilities, someone refusing to do even the minimum pay positions, or other issue like that.

On one hand it seems extremely cold hearted to execute a person for this failure to perform. However, on the other hand the survival of the colony is at stake. If too many people flout this law, then the entire colony could fail.

How likely is a space colony going to stick with capital punishment to rid itself of colonists unwilling or unable to "earn their air?"

Edit 4/11/2016:
I envision the colony as being a Lunar or Martian colony early in its establishment. They're doing just well enough to not need a military governing structure but they're still living on the razors edge of having enough resources for everyone to survive.

It may be possible for one to a small number of "lazy" people to not pull their weight, but they really can't afford a welfare state. There's not enough excess production of the essentials (air, water, food, power, etc.) for them support even a small but substantial percent of the population who can't or won't work.

I really intend for this to be a social experiment. I'm looking for reasons in favor of supporting them - with justification or killing them - with justification.

I think the level of commitment by the officials to executing those who won't or can't pull their weight to be on a graded scale. Clearly someone who is sick or hurt and has a high likelihood of recovery is worth keeping. So are children.

  • What about someone with high prospect of surviving but a low prospect of ever contributing to the colony again?
  • What about people perfectly capable of pulling their weight but refuse to do so?
  • What about people who are destructive of property (especially life support equipment) and or violent?

But they have to draw the line somewhere. Where is that line?

I am also viewing this question as a societal one - not necessarily as a dictatorial ruling form on high. The punishment for the crime of not working was set by the citizens of this society. I suppose I could see it working like this:

  1. If you don't "earn your air", then you're assigned to a work detail. The assigned work detail does the scut work that has to be done but no one wants to do.
  2. If you fail to appear for your assignment or don't get enough done, then you're demoted to a work detail that does dangerous work that has to be done.
  3. If the detail to which you belong doesn't meet its quota then they entire detail must continue doing these jobs until it does meet its quote.

I suspect then it is in everyone's advantage in the dangerous work detail to get the job done. And people who don't adequately contribute suffer "unfortunate accidents" at the hands of the others in the detail.

Such a system is obviously going to suffer from abuse and morph into something it was never intended to. But it may be quite an interesting transition.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't think any colony would execute people just for being lazy. You would just cut their access to luxuries. However, this is a good question if applied to murderers or rapists. What to do with people who are literally impossible to live with, when there's nowhere else to live? Maybe no death penalty, but exile - to an outpost somewhere? $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ If your colony needs people to work in order to function, then execution seems like the worst possible option. Also, could you provide some details about the space colony? Are we talking an orbital station, a generational ship, a bubble-city on a moon...? $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with Kys, the situation will define the alternatives. If you have an orbital station around an inhabited planet, the easiest way to deal with lazy people is sending them back to the planet. Also, you can send children back to the planet (what happens if someone has too many of them, they are mouths to feed and who do not produce) or import workers if enough people chose not to have children. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ I should add a point here: individuals do not exist for the society... society exists for the individuals. Individuals came first. We chose to cluster together because that is beneficial for us. Societies do not exist for their own sake. Society has — as its goal — to be for our benefit. Always keep that in mind, because when that gets inverted, that the individual must exist for the society, that's when you get places like North Korea or The Soviet Union. Those are / were not popular places to live in... $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ The big question — after your edits — is: why would anyone ever sign up for that hell-hole?! A meager existence, walking the razor-edge of barely being able to sustain themselves, without anything to show for it? People would not want to stay. They will move out at the first possible opportunity. It would be the equivalent of current urbanization, where people move away from a rural sustenance existence to become workers in the city. The only way you can make people stay there is if you either force them to stay, or offer the chance of a great reward. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 7:25

6 Answers 6


Based on the idea that your colony is labour limited, then most of the legal punishment would be built around the idea of indentured servitude. A non violent criminal or debtor would most likely be sentenced to work for a set period of time in order to fulfil the requirements for restitution and retribution (and possibly rehabilitation).

Violent criminals will have to be dealt with differently, either locked up in a secure facility (possibly separate from the colony itself) or dumped out the airlock, because the environment is too close and insecure to risk having them around.

The longer term effect of this sort of environment might be to create a social class of "Helots" who are legally enslaved by the state in order to work off their debt to society. Since the colony requires a lot of labour, there will be incentives to make laws stricter and enforce Helotage in order to have a captive work force that is fully employed at whatever is considered high priority in the colony. This also implies that there will eventually be a class of citizens who have avoided being indentured and are receiving the fruits of the Helots labour.

In the short run, this might even gain short term efficiencies, but in the longer run, a free market capitalist system will allocate labour much more efficiently through the wage and price mechanism.

And of course Helotage isn't the sort of social system which encourages cooperation and social harmony, the real Helots on ancient Lacedaemon were said to wish to "eat the Spartans raw", and the fearsome warrior culture of Sparta was developed to have a standing army capable of dealing with slave revolts. A colony which evokes along these lines may eventually have a series of concentric or separate compartments, with the Agoge housing the upper class "Similars", while the lower class perioikoi and enslaved helots are contained in separate compartments, with their labour allocated in accord with their levels of indebtedness or legal standing compared to the "Similars".


Legal systems do not exist for their own sake. We do not punish people "just because" or "we have always done so". Legal systems have one or several purposes.

You need to take a step back here and start thinking about why you have a legal and judicial system to begin with. What are you trying to achieve with it and what are the pros and cons of what you are doing in relation to your goals?

Law Enforcement is — generally speaking — fulfilling the following needs:

  • Protection. Hindering people from acting unlawfully.

  • Prevention. Making people not want to or need to act unlawfully. Deterrence, i.e. scaring people into not acting unlawfully, is a part of this.

  • Retribution. Exacting revenge on people that have acted unlawfully.

  • Rehabilitation. Giving treatment to people so that they will not act unlawfully again.

  • Reparation. Making sure that people that have been acted unlawfully upon are compensated for their pain and/or loss.

Dive into the science and philosophy of justice and law, and these are the founding principles you will find.

On Earth, sparse manpower is not really a very great issue. For the most part it is the other way around: we have too much of it, or of the wrong kind, and we cannot keep everyone occupied. Here it does not matter so much if we take people out of the work-force. We can afford that.

Your space colony is a very different place. There you cannot just put out a "Position available" ad and have someone fill the slot. This means that the priorities get shuffled around. You need to think about which of these principles are the important ones, and then weigh the outcome for applying these different principles against what your goals for the space colony is, or if they even matter. Is for instance retribution an important goal? Is the thirst for revenge something that needs to be considered here?

So to go into specifics: is it likely that capital punishment is a viable and good tool for achieving the space colony's goal? Eeeeh... probably not such a smashing idea because even if it is an excellent way of making sure that the cuprit never does it again, and while it does act as somewhat of a deterrent, it will be hurting the work-force. Also the rest of it will most likely not be all that keen on living under the Damokles sword. Tyranny is seldom a good way to keep people content and productive.

Into this then also comes other social contracts. What are the obligations of the space colony towards its denizens? Under what conditions can you enter the space colony? Under what conditions may you leave? What are your rights and what are your obligations? Add some further complications: how will the people react to the laws, their rights and their obligations? If people are born into this and they are for instance physically unable to leave, will they really be content with knowing that if they do not work they will be put down?

There is a great deal to take into account here and you have your work cut out for you. I hope that as far as law and justice goes, you have a little bit clearer picture of why we have those things to begin with.


It may help to look at alternatives and consequences in your world. What are the alternatives to execution? Can people be deported easily? Can they be forced to work? If so, are there menial jobs to occupy them?

You say that raising children is a socially desired and encouraged thing to do. This leads me to guess that your colony is labor-restricted rather than resource restricted. If this is the case, the general trend ought to be more toward accommodating/rehabilitating under-producing individuals.

But let's also look at consequences. When you say "earning their air" and talk about the colony failing if too many people don't contribute, that leads me to think that the colony is living fairly "close to the bone". How close is your decision. The greater the consequences of one person not contributing, the harsher punishments will tend to be. If fresh water is rationed and people are suffering hardship, they will tend to deal harshly with those who consume and do not produce. Particularly if there is a perception that the non-producers do so from selfish motives. What form this harshness takes will tend vary with the amount of deprivation that the average citizen is experiencing. People will take desperate measures when their well being and that of their loved ones is at stake. Imagine if your child had to go to bed hungry and would continue to go to bed hungry because the lazy (fill in the blank) people won't get off their fat behinds and do the minimum day's work. It would not be hard to imagine things getting ugly.

I believe that people are decent on the whole and that mankind as a whole continues to get more and more decent as time goes on. But we must remember that in historically recent times public executions were considered a form of entertainment. Given certain social pressures, it is not inconceivable that we could regress to that stage.


Your setting seems completely unrealistic.

You cannot have a space colony under normal circunstances governed like that. No one (at least, no one who you want in your space station) is going to sign in if they know that, if they suffer a crippling accident, they will be in the short list to being slaughtered. And, without reason, nobody that signed for a more reasonable environment will accept such a change. Even if the situation requires certains sacrifices (v.g. not having kids, or that medical care will not have the same level that in Earth), those would have been explained and accepted before anyone leaves Earth (both in the interest of your colonizers and your own interest).

Additionally your recipe of "if people does not appear to work send them to a more dangerous work" is a call for your population putting you in a space suit and ditching you outside the colony.

And, last but not least, if you are paying the considerable expense of putting someone off-world (both as their salary -think of off-shore oil drillers- and the cost of putting them in space), you most likely will have conducted an in-depth analysis of your candidates. You won't fill these positions as if you were hiring fast food workers. There are always surprises and individuals who end not fitting as well as expected, but those should be a very limited minority.

And, with the level of automation to be expected in such a station, you do not expect it to be much work to keep the life support systems... if you have a hydroponics stations, you need someone to get sure that water and light are available and within parameters, as long as there is water and light the plants will grow and adding more workforce to it will not help them growing faster. In such a colony, you expect that a lot of the workforce will not be used for survival but for building expansions of the colony, doing research, mapping resources for following colonization waves. To send a lot of people into space just to barely survive is a gigantic waste of resources. So, either you can keep your life support working without too much work, or you cannot keep it working (if it needs industrial supplies provided from Earth).

The only possibility to achieve a situation similar to the one you describe would be an unexpected emergency (note that the station should have been designed to deal with "reasonable" emergencies). V.g. due to war or other issue no supply ships are expected for a long, long time. The expectatives of each specific situation will weight a lot in the evolution:

  • if there is hope for relief it is easier to keep the community working together;

  • if people thinks the colony is doomed people will begin demoralizing, trying to hoard resources, fighting against each other; no laws that you can think of will stop that (but some laws may speed the process)

  • if the colony has lost life support capacity (so it may be viable, but not without reducing population), possible outcomes are execution by lots (if people trust each other enough to trust the fairness of the selection criteria) or civil war.

In relation to enforcement, though, the colony provides way more refinements than you imagine; in fact, due to the fact that nobody can reliably leave it, control is far easier than in Earth:

  • Someone breaks in a fight? Two weeks in detention, being allowed to leave his appartment only for work.

  • Burglary/assault? One week without food.

  • Rape/murder? Banished for life to an isolated wing with other criminals.

  • You need to make an example of someone? Put him in a space suit and drop him far away from the colony, tune the colony PA system to that suit radio.

  • $\begingroup$ Did you read the edits? The people are permitted to set their own rules. The question is where do they set the bar? $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ Again, who would sign for "Come to my colony. We do not know still which rules we will apply, and once you are there you will not be able to come back"? And again, too, aren't you screenning who is being hired to get only able, competent people? $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 1:04
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 Who would sign on? The same kind of person who signed on to explore the new world. They'd back themselves to thrive in those conditions. Cortez. William of Normandy. Drake. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 7:33

Laws develop over time based on major events. Where I would start is piecing together a timeline of rough events. The large events are ultimately what will create and shape public opinion regarding the laws.

At some point, humanity is going to go to space on a much larger scale than present. Those individuals will feel loyal to their Earth nations and to their local communities and ideas they left behind on Earth. As more and more nations come to space, of course there will be a lot of different cultures and ideas brought to space. However, space travel is and always will be incredible expensive. So therefore, it's a safe assumption that the people who start out going to space come from wealthy nations or nations with sufficient wealth that make space travel a strong priority. Examples likely include America, Russia, China, Canada, Japan. Basically, look at what nations are already in space or planning space programs and imagine them all in a room together. Those are the interactions of early space exploration.

For the early time, any space conflicts will base around these Earth nations. This is very similar to conflicts in the new world as it was being settled - all based around European nations. It will take a few, maybe even several, generations before people start to develop separate identities from Earth. This will happen as individuals are born in space. However, their parents will have an influence in shaping their lives, so they will retain many ideas of right and wrong from them.

At some point there will be a separation event where those space civilizations decide to part ways with their Earth nation identities. Typically, this would be something morally opposed by those individuals, or something that creates excessive economic hardship. Some ideas may be an additional tax that is unpopular, a declaration of war which the space individuals don't see as agreeable, or the defunding of space programs, leaving the space civilizations to fend for themselves. You want to create this event as an emotionally significant event. People are driven by emotion.

So the laws are going to be based on Earth-nation laws, with tweaking as that independent nation sees fit.

Regarding your death penalty law, something of that nature is likely to have very strong opposition. Humans generally regard killing someone as wrong. In order to accepted, it would need to have:

  • A very powerful, militaristic government. Essentially, a dictator in power who rules by fear. You would have to determine how someone is able to obtain this level of power, and how they would evade the many hundreds of people both in space and on Earth who would want to remove them from power by any means necessary. For that reason, I don't think a government like this would last long, but it's certainly one option you could use.
  • An economic crisis in which many people are in a desperate situation. Bonus points if people die as a result or there is extreme scarcity. Think of Germany prior to the second world war. These individuals would be labelled, something like vagrants, and socially shunned. They would be isolated and blamed for the economic crisis. Again, I see a lot of societal pressure to take out a government like this and to prevent from killing these people. But it is entirely probably that this temporary situation could exist for some time out of a strong fear environment.
  • A sufficient moral basis. The law is imposed on some basis which is easier to swallow. It could be considered eviction. The captain of each space ship or space colony house owns it and can decide who lives there. Those who could not afford the higher-price living accommodations would be forced into overcrowded facilities for the poor. If the mortality rate in these facilities was sufficiently high, then that could be a moral equivalent, because you are effectively condemning someone to a reasonably certain death through that eviction.

All in all, though, I think most likely that those who could not contribute would be sent to Earth or confined to less suitable living areas, rather than killed. And it's most likely that effort would be made, for the most part, to keep those facilities at a level of operation where the people inside don't die. I don't think anyone would be deliberately killed for non-violent crimes except perhaps for very brief periods of the space exploration timeline. And I think that anytime you have people dying, there are always going to be others trying to stop that from happening, especially when you consider that each and every one of those people is likely to have family and friends who care about them. So I do think you have a challenge to create a compelling and realistic narrative in this regard.

Good luck!

  • $\begingroup$ I fully agree with the part on laws being shaped by incidents that attract major attention. However, I think you underestimate the beast inside of man: As long as the wrongdoers are no close relatives or friends, there is generally little outcry against punishment, especially if the deed that's supposed to be punished is perceived as dangerous to oneself. If our life depends on that water producing machinery, and someone destroys a part of it, there won't be many people who will see it wrong to push that someone out of the airlock. Some will call for it, more will applaud, more will be silent. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ If I understood the question, it had to do with people not "earn[ing] their air", not attempts of deliberate sabotage as you mention. $\endgroup$
    – azoundria
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ Yet, you always have the problem of slippery slopes: Once you have death penalty for saboteurs, why should the brutal murderer be spared? And the child-rapist? And the serial rapist? Why should we work hard to keep them alive? And while we are at it, how about that unproductive, lazy bum who's never even touched a single screw to contribute his part to society? I mean, just look at what "security" laws are passed in western countries in response to terrorism: The power that we are handing over to fully uncontrolled secret services is plain insane - just to gain some false sense of security... $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ In most cases you mentioned, an individual is actively attempting to cause harm, while when lazy they are simply failing to act. Human being generally only kill another out of a strong fear for their own safety (self-defense) or if that individual was sufficiently objectified. I did come up with three cases where such a system of morals could function which I put in my answer. I'm not really sure on what grounds we disagree, if any. $\endgroup$
    – azoundria
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 1:09
  • $\begingroup$ What I tried to do (and obviously failed at), was to illustrate that we are on a slippery slope once we deny anyone the right to live. You always start with the stark cases. Then you move on to the less stark ones, and where you stop depends on your culture only. Some may draw a line at the guilt including at least the death of another person, others may draw the lines virtually anywhere. And in a small space colony that relies on each individual contributing to the survival of all, people may draw the line quite low. Because laziness is endangering other peoples lives. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 8:58

I have pondered the same ideas extensively myself. I wrote a medium article about the political system of space colonies.

What spurred me to write it was in fact the frequent assumptions, in particular in American discussions about a space colony resembling some sort of libertarian utopia or being a sort of harsh dictatorship.

I simply don't think that would be the case based on what we know from history and different forms of societies. What I explore my article is the experiences of historical societies living under extreme circumstances, as would be the case of a space colony.

One example I look at are dutch people during the golden age (1600-1700s) living in polders. A polder is an area surrounded by dikes. Much of the Netherlands is under water and under threat of disastrous flooding. In some way you can compare this to a pressure hull on a Martian base cracking. It would doom everybody living inside it.

An interesting observation here, is that it did NOT lead to a harsh dictatorship. Quite the contrary. It led to the development of some of the earliest democratic institutions in the Netherlands existing all the way up to modern times, which are the waterboards. The waterboards existed long before the country got united politically. One polder may have several independent cities but one shared waterboard. Waterboards were elected and authority over the maintenance of dikes. Waterboards operated even when cities inside the polder where at war with each other.

Other examples are Viking times Scandinavia and Iceland. Iceland was settled without any king or overall power structure. So it was quite chaotic and violent. However it led to the formation of a sort of parliament, where everybody could vote. It was also the legal assembly. The relevance to a space colony, here is that early Viking age Scandinavia did not have police forces or standing armies. Basically there was no law enforcement. A small population could not afford that. Native Americans, Inuits etc do not have police force either. Legal proceedings at the parliament (Thing) was thus more like negotiations. There was an interest in getting the law breaker to accept his/her punishment to avoid having to enforce it, as that was difficult and costly. Thus punishments tended to be quite mild, mainly fines. Even for murder.

Other relevant examples may be Israeli Kibbutz. These were socialist groups running farms and small factories. They could be 20-600 people or so. So possible similar to a space colony. They operated on communist principles, that people contributed according to ability and received according to need.

These did not operate on the assumption that harsh punishments were needed to get people to work. Getting people to work was not based on threats but on social pressure. People growing up in small societies living under harsh conditions are usually socialized to deal with that. E.g. for the Inuit, when people got too old, they would go and commit suicide. They were not outright killed. They would feel a social pressure to do so, knowing they were endangering their tribe. Remember a small knit society is profoundly different from a big nation state. The commitment people feel to their local society is very different from what people feel towards a state of millions of people.

Viking society could be quite brutal towards heavily disabled children. They would simply kill their own offspring if they were too disabled. I think this is important to understand with smaller societies. A lot more is based on custom and discussion in the society, rather than merely quoting some legal paragraphs.

As for welfare states. I think it depends on how you define it. IMHO a welfare state is not primarily about having lots of people sit around doing nothing. Rather it is just an evolution of what primitive tribes already do. Human hunters and gatherers typically share extensively. They help the sick and hurt. A group operating on purely selfish principles would not survive long.

Remember unemployment is to a large degree a product of capitalist society. Most unemployed people are unemployed because nobody will give them work, not because they refuse to work. A small space colony however I think would find it very wasteful to keep people unemployed. A company in a capitalist economy OTOH has no such concerns. It does not consider the needs of society at large only its own bottom line.


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