The American democratic experiment was born in the New World where it was free of the vested interests and historical baggage that had slowed progress in Europe. It truly was a government built upon Enlightenment ideals, too far removed from Europe to be governed according to European laws and practices. When we colonize Mars, the Martian government will also be too remote for terrestrial control. Mars gives us an opportunity to experiment with entirely new forms of governance. Here’s how a Martian political structure might improve upon terrestrial ones.
The Need for Government
In the early days of a Martian colony, the governing structure would be based on crew responsibility and Earth-based commands. With guidance terrestrially, a small number of Martian residents would be able to self-govern, much how airplanes can self-govern at 50,000 feet. Prior to flight, rules and responsibilities are laid out and mission control on Earth provides the ultimate authority.
This works because a Martian colonial base of a few dozen individuals will all know one another on a first name basis. Their social bonds force them into cooperation with one another. As the Martian base grows in population, however, this governance structure will become insufficient.
It is hypothesized that humans are only able to maintain stable relationships with up to 150 people at any given time. Beyond this number, the governing structures required necessarily become more complex to accommodate a growing number of concerns and challenges. It is at this point that a true government is needed to maintain order in the colony.
Separations of Powers
The Enlightenment era that brought us the US Constitution brought us the concept of the “separations of powers.” First put forth in the modern era by the French philosopher Montesquieu, he reasoned that government should be divided into branches with distributed powers that balance each other out. This is perhaps best embodied in the US Constitution, which divides power among three branches of government; the Legislative branch, Executive branch, and Judicial branch.
This structure and concept have proven so robust, that many countries around the world emulate it as gospel. There is no good reason not to carry this concept with us to Mars in a Martian government.
Geometry As Our Guide
But as we design our theoretical Martian government, it begs the question, how many branches are required? Most governments have three main branches, but is this number ideal?
Here, we turn to an unlikely source: geometry. While the modern world doesn’t commingle geometry with politics; the ancient one did. Plato’s Academy of Ancient Greece, the pinnacle of early Western education, had the words "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter" engraved at the door. This is because the ancient Greeks understood that the laws of geometry and the natural world have much to teach us about the philosophical one.
I am going to suggest that, yes, three branches is ideal. Think of government as a table upon which society rests. The table must provide a firm platform with stability, upon which society grows and develops. A table cannot have only leg, or even two, it will fall over. Three is the minimum number of legs required for the table to balance.
You might say, but wait, isn’t four better than three, won’t four add stability? A fourth leg can add stability, but it also amplifies imperfections in the lengths of the legs. A four-legged table can wobble, a three-legged one cannot.
And yes, adding an ever greater number of legs (five, six, seven) from there could increase stability while also preventing wobble, but it comes at the cost of parsimony. A government structure comprised of five or six equally powerful branches would be incredibly bureaucratic, complex, and cumbersome.
Also note that the three legs of a table form an equilateral triangle when viewed from overhead. Triangles are the strongest shapes in geometry because to break a triangle necessarily requires changing the length of one of the sides. It is for this reason that triangular shapes are used in engineering, where strength is paramount.
In sum, three branches are parsimonious, stable, and strong, but Montesquieu’s division of those branches is flawed.
Flaws in the Current System
The traditional arrangement of three branches features a legislative branch that writes laws, an Executive to implement laws, and a Judicial branch to ensure that no laws violate the Constitution, has glaring weaknesses.
For one, as we can see with the Covid-19 crises, the government lacks the ability to respond proactively. It takes years, if not decades, for issues or problems to become salient enough (think climate change) for public pressure to build and enough politicians to rise in Congress to address that issue. In the rapidly changing world of the 21st Century, we need a government that is capable of responding not only to problems that have already materialized; we need a government that can respond to problems of the future before they materialize.
A second major flaw of the current system is the relative weakness of the Judicial branch. The Judicial brace has the power only to review if laws are constitutional, it cannot determine if laws passed by Congress have their intended effect. Further, lacking the pocketbook or the sword, it has no real power to enforce its will. The Judicial branch is weaker, relatively speaking, than the other two.
This brings me to the third flaw with the current system: it is incomplete. It takes too long for issues to bubble up to legislative priority, and when laws are passed, there is no direct feedback mechanism to determine if they actually work as intended. Laws are passed to accomplish things. But today, a law that fails to accomplish its goals has to start all over again; with public recognition of failure, bubbling up back into Congress before legal modifications can be passed. This is too slow for the modern world.
My proposal for a Martian Colonial Government is this: A three-branched government structure; the first branch’s sole purpose is to take advice from the public and academia and write legislative proposals meant to solve current and head off future problems. It shouldn’t take years for issues to bubble up to the legislature.
The second branch decides which policy to implement and implements it. There is no logical reason to separate the passing of laws from its implementation. In fact, Conway’s law would suggest that they are best combined.
The third branch reviews the effectiveness of the legislation and provides recommendations for improvement. It could function much like the current judicial system, but instead of its powers narrowly limited to the review of constitutionality, it could also strike down and remove laws that are not achieving their intended purpose. Additionally, it could make recommendations for improvements and send those recommendations directly back to the first branch, where they can be incorporated into new legislation. This provides a feedback loop that doesn’t exist in the current framework.
Such a government would respond faster, be able to eliminate “dead” statutes, and would continually be improving itself and its governing capabilities.
A New Era
The colonization of Mars may not be as far off as most realize, and now is the time to begin thinking about how we might govern it. Mars offers us a unique opportunity to bring the best practices learned on Earth, while also giving us a clean sheet upon which we can improve on them. Subscribe for the next article, which will detail a better approach to democracy that can help make Martian (and terrestrial) government more responsive to the public will.
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