Now everyone agrees that when it comes to building orbital habitats, let alone a full-blown Dyson swarm with millions, maybe even billions of liveable habs in orbit around the Sun or the various planets, a certain amount of self-sufficiency is both required and inevitable, both in terms of resources and in the hab's local politics and methods of governance. Like nation-states, what's illegal in one hab may be accepted or even endorsed in another, and many fringe political or religious groups may choose to build small habs simply so they can express their own beliefs and live according to them away from persecution or prying eyes.

However, while local governance is good and all for dealing with local problems, it must equally be agreed upon that some sort of diplomatic body, and preferably even a full-blown law enforcement/peace-keeping service, should exist to regulate how habs are allowed to interact with each other politically, economically, and in worst case scenarios, even militaristically. In order to effectively keep the peace between the habs, you'd need the swarm equivalent of Interpol and the UN to keep an eye on things like trade agreements, peace treaties and non-aggression pacts, and criminal activity against both citizens of different habs and against the habs themselves. Total anarchy is fine as long as it's contained to a few habs, but while a few lawless or deviant nations are acceptable when set against the larger swarm, the entire thing can't be allowed to be completely without laws or government or the whole thing will fall apart. You may be too far to easily enforce your will on the people of other habs, but you're still nowhere near far enough to escape the consequences of doing so.

But if autonomy is the de facto state of orbiting habitats, then how would you effectively run such a system-spanning body of government and law enforcement, loose as it may or may not be? Alastair Reynolds provides a great example with Panoply and the Glitter Band in his book The Prefect, but I want to avoid ripping him off and even leaving that aside, I can still see a number of problems with his system of swarm governance (even if it is one of the best I've seen in fiction).

Does anyone here have any ideas about what political models might work to loosely govern a large number of separate nation-states and how you might enforce it across a distance of multiple light-seconds or light-minutes?

  • $\begingroup$ Space is dangerous, any long term habitation will be strickly regulated by neccesity. Habitats are to vulnerable to go about on their own. As for a model, look into the EU I'd say. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Apr 3, 2017 at 16:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting question to explore. Generally speaking, people like to believe that their particular political model scales up so that everyone should be using it. In practice, it doesn't seem to work that way. As a related question: you say "autonomy is the de facto state of orbiting habitats," what if the answer is that the term "autonomy" doesn't quite cover the dynamic range required for such a political system... its too simplistic. Consider that, in the US, we like to believe each person has autonomy.. until the day where we realize we don't. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 3, 2017 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ Interpol and the UN might be decent models. although you would probably want to give them a bit more power, especially to enforce things like orbital paths and remove debris. Perhaps the only power to licence ships or new habs. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 3, 2017 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ This has been touched on in earlier posts too. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Apr 4, 2017 at 6:14

5 Answers 5


I don't think that a Dyson swarm could be governed as a loose federation, cooperation or alliance of individual 'nations'. Since they are so dense that they block all light from their star, their orbits has to be strictly regulated.

Since they have efficient interplanetary travel, they have weapons of mass destruction too. (Only nukes or worse have the necessary energy density.) This means, that if some of them engage in a local war, there is a high chance that they get shattered or change orbit. The pieces would impact other habitats, breaking the well-orchestered dance of million orbits, and potentially leading to a system-wide cascade of collision, orbital perturbation and death.

Therefore a cutting-edge law enforcement is needed, which is able to calculate stationkeeping instructions for all habitats and enforce them very quickly if necessary, even by towing or occupying disobeying habitats.

It looks like, that in the main Dyson volume only well organized and firmly held habitats will be allowed. Fringe groups or anarchists could have habitats on orbits significantly lower and higher than 1AU, where the temperature is not so comfortable, but they don't pose danger.

Earth has about 200 countries. No effective congress, council or parlament could be formed from the representatives of millions of sovereign entities. This is extremely impractical.

My suggestion is, that the swarm maintains a computer controlled orbital enforcement force. Everybody is free in his internal affairs, as long as they pay for the robo-cops and obey orders. The computers are designed to be neutral and fail-safe. But who knows, maybe they take over and forge an empire. Who don't feels comfortable in the system, can migrate to boiling Venus or freezing Mars distance.


Your thinking about a swarm (and anarchy) wrong. You can afford to let large numbers of people die but it is your duty to kill threats to the system even at the cost of your own life. Kill a billion here a billion there and you'll never get to meaningful damage in swarm worthy of Dyson.

Distribute the ability to render habs inhospitable for a while. Ideally a system that kills a small number of habs at a time and either isn't scalable or can't be reused very often. Call it an asymmetric assured destruction system, where every hab can kill maybe dozens of others but is certain to get killed if they use it poorly, or is likely to kill themselves in the attempt.

Say like dropping shortish halflife radioactive dust in their path. Or setting off a big nuke. You kill everyone on dozens of habs but if the bad guys are really that bad that's a fine trade off for saving the swarm. And if the bad guys aren't worth dying to stop who cares?

The rogue hab attacks a neighbor, and the nearby ones say "that's not nice"; the rogue kills a few and gets killed either by surviving neighbors or by a deadman. Problem solved. A rogue empire has its outer edge killed. Now it can't easily expand, and you have a while to think about solutions.

System government then lacks any teeth and works pretty much like the UN or the RFC system.


I don't know if political authority will flow up from the bottom or down from the top, or both, but the orbital habs should be organized in groups, and bigger groups, and even bigger groups and so on.

For example, 10 habs may make a first level unit, 100 habs may make a second level unit, 1,000 habs may make a third level unit, 10,000 haps may make a fourth level unit, and so on up to 100,000,000 habs making an 8th level unit, 1,000,000,000 habs making a ninth level unit, 10,000,000,000 habs making a tenth level unit, etc. etc. for as many levels as needed.

This table lists the levels of administrative divisions within each country:


In the USA there are three levels below the national level: state, county, and municipal. The table has four columns for levels below the national level and in some countries the fourth column includes two levels. Thus in present day practice there are up to five levels of administrative divisions beneath the national level.

Note that in the late Roman Empire there were also five levels of administrative division below the imperial level. A pagus was a subdivision of a civitas which was a city state with a republican form of self government formed out of a preexisting tribe or city, a group of civitates was supervised by a governor of a province, the governors of provinces were under the authority of vicars governing civil dioceses, who were subordinate to the four Praetorian prefects governing prefectures under the Emperor.

Note that in Star Wars The Galactic Republic ruled more planets than there were civitates in the later Roman Empire but had fewer levels of administration.

The most common organization for these new territories was to group regions into Sectors of about 50 inhabited worlds. Each sector is represented by a Senatorial Delegation. When the number of sectors became too large, sectors were organized into roughly a thousand regions, each represented by one delegation to the Senate.


So with about 50,000 planets in the Galactic Republic there are supposed to be only two levels of administration between the senate and an individual planet. And each senate delegation represented a region with a thousand planets. I have my doubts how well that would work.

I don't know how administration may work with seven, eight, nine, ten, or more levels of administration.

Theoretically a wide hierarchy could reduce the numbers of levels needed by having a a large number of subordinate units under each unit. For example, 100 habs in a first level unit, 10,000 habs in a second level unit, 1,000,000 habs in a third level unit, 100,000,000 habs in a fourth level unit, and 10,000,000,000 habs in a fifth level unit if needed. This would reduce the number of levels that orders and information are passed though, but it would make each level's task of supervising many units difficult.

Or in a narrow hierarchy, units at each level would supervise a small number of units on the next level down. That would be an easier task. But then a larger number of levels of administration would be needed, possibly more levels than have ever been made to work in human history.

In a government with many levels of administration, it is considered necessary to pass orders from the top down through many parallel hierarchies to be certain that the orders will reach the bottom and not be lost in transition.

In a Dyson swarm one of the hierarchies could be the Habitat Inspection Service that inspects the structural integrity of the habitats to make sure they aren't about to fall apart and perhaps damage other habitats.

Another hierarchy could be the Swarm Navigation Service that makes certain that all space ships travel on trajectories that won't strike any habitats if they fail to make course corrections.

There could be a Swarm Space Navy or Swarm Space Guard to protect against invasions from outer space, defeat rebellions, and vaporise any spaceship with a trajectory calculated to impact on a habitat. Note that if a one "star" admiral commands the naval forces in ten habitats, for example, the highest ranking admirals might be at least seven "star" admirals, unlike in modern navies.

There could be a Swarm Security Service to investigate any possible plots to revolt or commit terrorism.

And maybe a Swarm Intelligence Service to investigate any possible plots to revolt or commit terrorism.

And the Swarm Security Service and Swarm Intelligence Service would also investigate each other to make sure they are doing their jobs properly.

And the Swarm Space Navy or Swarm Space Guard might have an intelligence service that investigated crimes, rebellion, terrorism, and the other spy agencies.

Clearly the government of a Dyson swarm could have a complexity similar to that of a science fiction galactic empire.

And if you write about a Dyson swarm or space empire with a monarchy, remember that unlike the usual idea in western civilization, a king is not the next step below an emperor. If the space realm has kings above dukes, it is likely to have kings of kings - or second level kings - above kings, kings of kings of kings - or third level kings - above kings of kings, and so on up to the empeor who might be equal to a tenth level king, for example.

If the Emperor claims to be the rightful ruler of the universe, he might use hundredth level king or king to the thousandth power as one of his minor titles, even if his realm has far fewer than a hundred or a thousand levels of administration.


Before anything else, I'd look to history. Throughout the course of human events, we've always been explorers, pushing new boundaries and new frontiers, one of the best examples being the Europeans' discovery and colonization (or confiscation) of the Americas. These Europeans obviously were beholden to their mother countries and governments back home, who often were beholden to other countires and other governments with similar interests in the New World. Britain, Spain, and Portugal, for example, had a series of complex treaties and agreements about who owned what in America, often as influenced by mutually common authorities like the Catholic Church.

However, as we know, control of the Americas did not exactly follow all these agreements. America was eventually dominated by the British, who were later overthrown by the colonies, who later still became the United States of America. In other words, there were plenty of bargains, treaties, and agreements between various people groups, but in the end, human self-interest, paired with the unmanageably vast distance of the Atlantic Ocean separating the New and Old Worlds, brought an end to most of those treaties.

If mankind were to colonize space in any way, I imagine we'd face similar situations. The distances involved would be so vast, we'd try very hard to establish some kind of common system in the interest of political and economic balance, but in the end, this new and unfamiliar frontier would be conquered by those with the greatest will and the sharpest wit.

I know this may seem nebulous, but the defining characteristics of such situations throughout history seem to be simple: mankind will always strive to find governance and commonality, but in the end, it's very difficult to maintain strong "long-distance relationships" between different people groups, particularly when colonizing a new frontier. If you're looking to imitate actual historical treaties (which is actually the best kind of plagiarism), I'd research those established in the colonization of the New World between various European powers.


I would think a federalist system would be a good way forward here. Yeah, I know I am biased and from the US, but this system has some good points.

Here is a loose primer on how this could work without getting too out of control. I get that it's not exactly the same now as it was 200 years ago, but this is about the original intent.

The US Constitution was a built from a series of compromises based around a few centralized premises and it came about after a more anarchic system existed between the end of the war of independence and the adoption of the US Constitution. The Idea is to give a central governing body enough authority to make general, over-arcing decisions for the good of the entire country while leaving the smaller units, the individual states, enough autonomy to take care of all the localized stuff. The result is that California, in a regulatory sense, is very different than Texas. Both are radically different from New York. The key line in the constitution that allows this is "Any Power not specifically granted to the Federal government is reserved to the States or the people" (I probably butchered the verbiage there, but that's what it means).

The entire concept, then, is that the government has boundaries it cannot cross. This allows a lot of autonomy in each state.

How it works in your system:

Centralized government entity has specific powers to provide for infrastructure, common defense, and to regulate trade between individual habs. Basic ground rules that everyone has to abide by. These need to be carefully outlined and everyone needs to agree to them. After that, everything else is left to the individual habs themselves. That way you can have a Hab filled with people who behave one way and another with folks of a different philosophy. People could be able to move from one to another without government interference, and a common currency means trade is on a relatively even footing.

Representatives for each hab function in roles for the overall government, making decisions for the system as a whole. No hab should be without a representative.

Keep in mind that in the earliest days of the US, travel times for news was measured in weeks or months, so in a dyson swarm, information moving in terms of light minutes means that this system is still practical.

It's not a perfect system, but it addresses a lot in terms of a balance between an overly strong central government and anarchy

  • $\begingroup$ "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people" (Amendment X to the Constitution of the U.S.A.). What exactly this means in modern American practice is a difficult question. For example, I understand that the U.S.A. has a Federal Communications Commission which regulates the use of radio-emitting devices; funny that, considering that electromagnetic waves had not yet been discovered when the Constitution was written... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 3, 2017 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for taking the time to do what I was too lazy to do in the first place by actually quoting the US Constitution. As for the FCC I think the rationale was that since radio waves cannot be totally contained within a states borders and can be used for trade, the constitutions interstate commerce clause applies( the regulation of trade between states) $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 4, 2017 at 1:50

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