The Bear’s Lair: Proxima B could give us a fresh start

The news last week that our closest star, Proxima Centauri, has a planet Proxima B orbiting it that could possibly support life is immensely encouraging. As I have written frequently, our current economic and political arrangements are so bad that eventual collapse seems inevitable. However, like the Pilgrim Fathers, we may have the opportunity to sail away to the edge of the known universe, far enough from the home governments that the bad guys can’t touch us. There we can set up a Shining City on a Hill without socialism, Keynesianism or the Fed. This time, we’d better make it work!

There is still a lot we do not know about Proxima B. It may have one side permanently facing its star, like Mercury, in which case any temperate zone will be tiny, sandwiched between too hot and too cold. It may have no atmosphere, or an atmosphere that is poisonous to humans. It may be so bathed in radiation from its red dwarf parent, to which it is very close, that life could not have developed there at all.

By Bayesian reasoning, however, if there is one “near-miss” Earth-like planet on the star that is our closest neighbor, there are likely to be many of them within a radius of say 100 light years, and probably one or more within a radius of 20 light years, the likely limit we could reach in a human lifetime with an efficient sub-light-speed rocket propulsion mechanism. Don’t forget: we are not looking for a planet on which a high-level civilization like our own has already developed – that would be a bad bet for colonization, because the local civilization is unlikely to be happy being colonized.

We are looking simply for a planet on which humans can live relatively comfortably, of which there are likely to be far more than there are planets with civilizations. The planet must have plant-like life so we don’t have to import all our food, and animal life would be a plus, but is not strictly necessary – we can bring our own. If the planet is generally too hot, the first colonists will settle near the poles, if too cold, near the equator; even a bit on the dry side does not matter for the small initial population. Like the Pilgrim Fathers, the colonists will suffer hardships, but the chance of establishing a fully independent human society will be too good to miss – for some, at least.

Like the Pilgrim Fathers, the early colonists will suffer a high mortality rate. A planet with life also has bacteria and viruses, and Native American experience after Columbus shows what damage they can do. Admittedly the colonists will have antibiotics, which are likely to be effective against many new germs, but the chances are that some disease or other will prove resistant to the colonists’ drugs.

If this expedition was funded by government, it would probably never happen and would in any case export all the failings of our current set-up. As the Pilgrim Fathers knew, there is no point in journeying into the unknown if you take with you all the corruptions you were trying to escape. It is thus necessary for such an expedition to succeed, for it to have both a technology capable of interstellar travel and ample resources to fund the venture, both entirely independent of terrestrial governments.

In order to generate both the technology and the funding, we need a vigorous private sector of space exploration that is not dependent on government, nor on Mickey-Mouse businesses like lifting rich jaded thrill-seekers to the edge of space. There is only one business that appears close to current availability that could provide such independent income: asteroid mining. There are a number of asteroids with over $100 billion of mineral resources at current prices, and mining them is considerably easier than mining another planet, because there is only one gravity well to overcome (Earth’s) not two.

In addition, asteroids being fairly obscure, there are not political claims over exploration of any one asteroid, as there would be on the Moon or Mars. (The United Nations has passed resolutions objecting to anybody making a profit out of space – typical – but we can safely ignore them.) There are already start-up companies looking to exploit asteroid mining opportunities. If this business is able to proceed at the normal pace of the private sector, without government intervention, funding or regulation, it is likely that asteroid mining will be a viable and profitable enterprise within at most 20 years, and possibly within 10 years. That will provide space-based capital for further exploration beyond the solar system.

The technology to get to an exoplanet is a more difficult problem. The current propulsion systems for space exploration are hopelessly inadequate; they involve speeds of only one ten thousandth of that necessary to reach even Proxima Centauri within a human lifetime and they require huge amounts of fuel to be accelerated with the remainder of the rocket, hopelessly inefficient for long flights.

There are two likely possibilities for propulsion systems. On uses sails and the solar wind, which gives good power when near a star, but probably not enough to achieve the speeds needed for any but the tiniest rockets, suitable for the necessary probes to examine the planet before going there, but not for colonists. The other would use atomic energy, which provides sufficient power but would have to be launched from a non-Earth base (such as an asteroid) to prevent the environmentalists from tying it up in pointless lawsuits. The nuclear powered motor thus looks to be a viable possibility once space-based businesses have been properly established.

There are two great advantages to colonizing a planet outside the solar system. One relates to the human race as a whole: once we are established on a planet orbiting a different star, we are saved from any difficulties arising from the star we have. Even a modest solar flare, knocking out power and communications, could cause havoc among our current civilization of 7 billion people, as the delicate system required to feed us all became unworkable for a time. A newly colonized planet will have only a modest population for a long time, so will be far less vulnerable to all but the greatest stellar catastrophe.

The other advantage to colonizing a planet around a different star is that enjoyed by the Pilgrim Fathers, of being far enough away from home so as to be invulnerable to government control by people with whom there is a fundamental philosophical disagreement. It is of course possible that several dissident sects might wish to engage in such colonization, perhaps Islamic Radicals, egalitarian socialists and Christian or Jewish fundamentalists might all wish for such freedom. There is no reason why they should not have it, although one can doubt the prospects of their colonies for success.

However, the main hope for mankind, as distinct from yet another dead end, is a new colony that copies the political, social economic structure of mankind’s most successful period, the 150 years from the Enlightenment to the late nineteenth century. The colony’s founding document would bear some resemblance to the U.S. constitution, including freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, etc. (and gun ownership – you need to have something to fight off those man-eating plants!) but with its ambiguities ironed out. It would have a preamble that specifically replaced the Declaration of Independence’s fatuous “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” with the proper Lockean “Life, Liberty and Property.” There would also be a paragraph setting out generally the economic principles that would be applied by the colony’s government: Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Say, Bastiat and the Austrians would be encouraged, while Marx and Keynes would be verboten.

Only freehold property owners would have the vote; this would give more or less universal suffrage to the initial colonists, who would receive land grants on the new planet. However, it would quickly produce a franchise like that of 18th Century Britain, in which elaborate schemes of income redistribution were automatically voted down. The colonists would also need to commit to a commodity-based monetary standard – gold is obviously the ideal, but the optimal monetary commodity would depend on a geological survey of the planet being colonized, in case it had had either too much gold or none at all.

Colonists would also need to commit to free banking, with no central bank that would attempt to distort the economy and destroy wealth by setting interest rates at non-market levels. Within the new planet, a system of states would be set up, with a strong version of the Tenth Amendment, preventing any centralizing bureaucracy, an explicitly written version of Lochner v New York and an explicitly written prohibition of Kelo vs. New London, cementing states’ rights and property rights. Finally, there would be a prohibition against government regulations that were not explicitly passed by the elected Congress, with no delegation of powers allowed, thus avoiding the runaway bureaucrats of the EPA and other government bodies.

All potential colonists would need to commit to this founding document, and later immigrants and even visitors to the planet would need to sign a copy of the founding document before being permitted to land, while children born on the planet would commit to it when they turned 18. That way, the central principles of the colony would be maintained and the chance for “creep” back towards socialism minimized. Potential colonists who wanted something different could go somewhere else.

Such a colony should prosper like colonial America, struggling at first, but rapidly becoming richer than the mother country as technology was deployed and improved and its superior institutions and management gave it a better economic performance — also it would have the prosperity of any underpopulated area, whether colonial America or 1880s Australia. Its inhabitants would have agreed to its constitution before arrival (or their ancestors would on their behalf), thus giving it Lockean and Rawlsian legitimacy without universal suffrage.

It’s a dream at present. But it is also one of the few possible avenues by which we can avoid the fate that with our present political and economic arrangements appears all too likely. Far better than Peter Thiel’s seasteading, which with modern weaponry is horribly vulnerable, an exoplanet colony would give us the ability to start afresh, without interference from the national and global bureaucrats that infest our current existence.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)