Blasting Enlightenment Values Into Martian Orbit
Image courtesy of Isaac Fryxelius (artist) and FryxGames, creators of “Terraforming Mars.”

Blasting Enlightenment Values Into Martian Orbit

Cathy Young
Cathy Young
4 min read

On October 21, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that he foresees NASA will land astronauts on the moon by 2035. “We need to learn how to live and work in another world,” he told lawmakers. “The moon is the best place to prove those capabilities and technologies.”

The article that follows comprises the fourth instalment in “Our Martian Moment,” a multi-part Quillette series in which our authors discuss what kind of society humans should build on Mars if and when we succeed in colonizing the red planet. Our editors invite submissions to this series, which may be directed to

What better time to reflect on how to run an earthling colony on Mars than the current moment, when things seem to be in a depressing state all over our home planet. Indeed, I am reminded of a Soviet joke from the late 1970s, in which an elderly Jew seeking to emigrate looks over the globe in the exit-visa office weighing various countries’ pluses and minuses. Finally, he asks, “Excuse me, but do you by any chance have another ball?” A terraformed Martian colony would provide us with that second-chance sphere. To adapt Ben Franklin: a new republic, if we can keep it.

Let’s stipulate that our Martian home away from home will be built on the principles of Enlightenment liberalism as the most conducive to human flourishing. How do we guard against a descent into either radical or reactionary debacle? Recruit colonists committed to Enlightenment-based liberal values? That doesn’t ensure such values will endure. And for what it’s worth, our colonists should ideally represent a mix of different values and viewpoints as long as—crucially—they agree to live in an open society and not impose their views on others by force. All ideas, including Enlightenment liberalism, need to be exposed to critique, challenge and competition, or they atrophy and stagnate.

The specific political arrangements in our Martian colony will obviously depend on many things, including population size. But here are two ideas that can work, and a third that I believe is imperative.

Ensure that as few people as possible feel left out of collective decisions and leadership.

Much of our current populist turmoil stems from the fact that far too many people have felt disenfranchised and unrepresented by traditional political institutions and political elites. Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump on opposite sides of the Atlantic are prime examples. But, of course, populist victories simply turn the tables on incumbent elites rather than actually remedy the problem of disenfranchisement. It doesn’t change the fact that many people in society find themselves shut out of political power, and feel that major decisions about their lives are outside their control. It just transfers the power from one group to another.

How do we deal with that issue in our Martian colony? By creating a representative government that diverges as far as possible from the model of winner-take-all. So this would definitely not be government-by-referendum: Allowing a 51-percent majority to make decisions that affect the lives of the other 49 percent makes for bad politics.

Elections for legislative and deliberative bodies should not only be based around a system of proportional representation, but they should ensure that the overwhelming majority of citizens, preferably at least 85-90 percent, have at least one elected representative whom they personally voted for. There are different ways to achieve this. (And perhaps, if our hypothetical Martian colony is large enough, different sectors could experiment with different kinds of mechanisms.) One way is to have voters indicate their first and second choice of candidate and do a weighted tally of the votes. For executive offices, the runner-up in the general vote could get a position as deputy to the winner, with limited but real powers (as in the early American Republic, whereby the presidential contender who came in second became vice-president). Such an arrangement would force rivals to co-operate, reduce polarization, and inject viewpoint diversity into government. It would also ensure that most voters felt represented by their leadership.

Give libertarianism a chance—but within reason.

Obviously, minimizing the scope of decisions that are made politically—i.e. some version of libertarianism/small government—is also a good way to minimize political strife. If government does little and its policies don’t affect the average person very much, then it matters less whether you voted for the leadership or not.

That’s something to strive for—but it can’t always work. Some important issues can’t be solved by private efforts. Who knows what problems our Martian colony will face that require collective action? On many things, that government is best that governs least, but at least for now libertarianism remains a utopian concept.

However, what better place than terraformed colonies on Mars to find out whether a truly laissez-faire society can work? Given the libertarian passion for futurism, there will likely be no shortage of libertarian pioneers eager for a chance to build their perfect society in a Martian settlement. By all means let them (as long as they have the private funding—and are not too bothered by the likely gender imbalance). A libertarian colony in the New New World can be a fascinating experiment—if it’s one of multiple colonies. I have a lot of libertarian sympathies, but I would not leave the colonization of Mars to the libertarians.

Build an education system that promotes both liberal arts and liberal values.

If there’s one thing that has become very clear in recent years, it’s that the corruption of education leads to societal crisis. Obviously, we have no idea what kind of new ideas will emerge in the age of Martian colonization. But education must provide a solid foundation of (1) knowledge of human history and culture (and I would unabashedly say Western history and culture first and foremost, since that’s the civilization whose technology can bring us to the frontier of Martian settlement); (2) understanding of civics; (3) ability to debate and engage with diverse ideas. It is also essential, as recent Western experience shows (at least in the Anglosphere), to guard against the takeover of education by political and cultural extremists with an agenda.

And with all that in mind, onward to Mars. We’ve done our best to screw up Earth. Let’s try to get Mars right.


Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist. She is a writer at The Bulwark, a contributing editor at Reason, and a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute.