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Here's the unusual way Elon Musk would make laws on Mars

Asa Mahat

Moments after explaining that we're all probably characters in an advanced civilization's video game, Elon Musk was asked how he hopes to see laws made on Mars if he is, in fact, successful in setting up civilization on the red planet. His answer was characteristically interesting:

Most likely the form of government on Mars would be direct democracy, not representative. So it would be people voting directly on issues. And I think that's probably better because the potential for corruption is substantially diminished in a direct versus a representative democracy.

So I think that's probably what would occur. I would recommend some adjustment for the inertia of laws. That would be wise. It should probably be easier to remove a law than create one. That's probably good. Laws have infinite life unless they're taken away. So I think my recommendation would be something like 60 percent of people need to vote in a law but at any point greater than 40 percent of people can remove it. And any law should come with a built-in sunset provision. If it's not good enough to be voted back in...

That would be my recommendation. Direct democracy where it's slightly harder to put laws in place than to take them away and where laws don't automatically just live forever.

Musk knows far more about Mars than I do, but my guess is this is a recipe for tremendous statutory instability, which seems like a dangerous thing for a young civilization in a harsh climate. Musk is basically taking the structure of the US Senate, where the filibuster creates a 60-vote supermajority for passing laws, and adding a provision that makes undoing existing laws easier. The result is a system that is biased against action and biased toward the reversal of past actions.

I can sort of understand why you might want that system in present-day America, where we already have a lot of laws and you might see diminishing returns to new legislation and mounting costs to old legislation. But in a new society operating under harsh and uncertain conditions, it seems to me that you'd want it to be easier to act, and you wouldn't want to add political instability to what would already be a massive amount of environmental instability.

On some level, I find it particularly odd that Musk is proposing this kind of system: In order to get to Mars, he famously keeps tight control of his companies (Musk has kept SpaceX private, and said he only brought Tesla public because "he didn't have any choice"), and he is famous for backing bets and plans that most people think are nuts, and doing so till long past the point when normal investors would pull their money.

Musk is, in other words, someone who believes that tough missions require institutions where action is relatively easy and risky decisions are given ample time to pay off. The political system he favors, however, is one in which action is nearly impossible and laws would be removed the second that 40 percent of the population lost their nerve. I recognize governments should be run differently than corporations, but this seems like a very sharp correction in a very un-Muskian direction.

Correction: This post initially said neither Tesla nor SpaceX were public. In fact, Tesla is a publicly traded company.

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