Johan Fourie's blog

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Lessons from colonial Mars

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I often get asked what the practical use is of my research. Given that I predominantly study the seventeenth and eighteenth century Cape Colony, there is not an immediate connection between life in the uninhabited Cape 360 years ago and life on earth today. (Although, I could make a case that understanding the incentives and institutions that drive human behaviour inform our theories of development that could, potentially, allow for better policy-design today, but that, usually, draws only a frown and a change of topic.)

But this morning all my months of counting probate inventories finally seem worth it. Because, you see, the Dutch are colonising again. Not a beautiful, fertile valley nestled between two oceans and a mountain as flat as a table. No, they’re colonising Mars.

There are interesting parallels: it is a private company that is attempting to send humans to permanently inhabit Mars, much like the eighteenth Dutch East India Company (VOC) was privately financed and operated. (Will we see that governments offer companies “charters” to certain parts of our planetary system, like the The Mars West Company or the The Mars East Company?) This is also not a settlement with the purpose of extracting resources: at the Cape, the idea was to provide a refreshment station for ships passing the Cape on their way to the East. The idea of the Mars Colony is to make it a massive media-event: billions of people will tune in to watch the colonists arriving and to see how they live. (Thought Prince William’s wedding was big? Think about the viewership when the first Mars baby arrives.) Given the popularity of Big Brother and reality TV, it actually seems like something that could be feasible.

What are the lessons from the first episode of Dutch colonisation that could be useful for the Mars colonists? The system of government is important. As Adam Smith noted, a private company is the worst form of any government. Krige Siebrits, Ada Jansen and I currently investigate the fiscal system of the eighteenth-century Cape, showing that while taxes and expenditure were not all that different from other governments at the time, the Company did implement considerably more rules about buying and selling. Will Mars have a free market, or will it be strictly regulated by the Mars One Company? Who will be the first settlers? Will they be selected based on criteria that will appeal to an international audience (their looks, personality), or with skills to improve and expand the settlement (PhDs in engineering, science and agriculture)? What system of law will be used? Will kids go to school? Who will provide medical services? (More bizarrely, what happens when we discover alien life? Are we allowed to enslave ‘it’? Lessons from the past suggest that this is not a good idea.)

Perhaps economic historians 360 years from now will investigate how the Dutch colonised Mars and ask what “lessons we can learn from that episode for development of our solar system?”. And I’m pretty sure someone will think: What a completely irrelevant question!

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Written by Johan Fourie

June 19, 2012 at 09:14

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