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The Spacefaring Web 1.18: Finance and Freedom in L5
John Carter McKnight
December 26, 2001
Reprinted by permission of the author.

In a previous column I asserted that planetary settlements could be more conducive to freedom than Earth orbital (L5) colonies. The desirability of L5 versus planetary settlements was once highly contentious within the space movement. The last generation's arguments have largely escaped critical re-examination, causing a question ripe for interdisciplinary study to have ossified into the foundation of unexamined factionalism, with partisans entrenched in inherited positions. As this column will draw on sources and perspectives not previously utilized in analyzing the subject, I hope that it will stimulate fresh thinking about the political economy of space settlement.

While my analysis will differ from the conclusions drawn in the pioneering work on space settlements, Gerard K. O'Neill's The High Frontier, I mean no disparagement of his efforts or his ideals, which I find profoundly congenial. However, I do believe that an examination of current trends in urban planning theory, real estate finance and corporate law - disciplines as far removed from O'Neill's expertise as the fabrication of radiation shielding is from mine - will invalidate some of his conclusions on the nature of civic life in L5 habitats. Recognition of certain pitfalls unseen by O'Neill may enable us to avoid them, either through innovative political and economic solutions or through workable alternatives to the development path advocated by O'Neill's policy heirs.

One of the classic concepts of political science is that of "hydraulic despotism." In regions where farming was made possible only by elaborate irrigation systems, the state entities (kings or warlords) controlling those systems had an invitation to tyranny. The implicit or explicit threat of desiccating or flooding the peasants was a sword at their throats, used to extract tribute and silence dissent. Hydraulic despotism remained more than a metaphor through the 20th Century: in 1988 I visited one of its most literal manifestations. In the Central Asian desert city of Tashkent, undergoing an unseasonable 115 cold snap that August, the longest fountain complex in the world graced the plaza of the Soviet Communist Party headquarters - the symbol of Russian overlordship in the republic of Uzbekistan. The Soviets had transformed the Uzbek economy from its ancient basis in the Silk Route trade to cotton production - increasing prosperity, but ensuring dependence on Soviet provided and maintained irrigation. The symbolism of the fountain was not lost on the locals.

The company town, where all employment stemmed from the local mine or factory, whose owners controlled the housing stock and general store, was a Western approximation to hydraulic despotism. In American company towns at the beginning of the last century, the sword at the peasant's throat was embodied by Pinkerton enforcers. At the turn of this milder and subtler century, it takes the form of legal entanglements through court enforcement of non-negotiable contracts. These current forms will very likely apply in L5 company towns, expressing an inexorable logic of control and dependency.

One of the likely bases for L5 residential development and governance can be found in current housing systems. Beginning around 1960, residential housing in America was fundamentally reshaped by the explosive growth of the "common interest development" (CID) - the planned community. The financial and legal tools developed to enable the CID are reshaping American political and cultural life, and will have profound implications for life in L5 colonies as well. The CID synthesized several elements of Industrial Age thinking: British utopian socialism with its heavily pastoralist and anti-urban bias (notably in distinction to proletarian, pro-urban socialist schools), the Progressive movement's stress on managerialism over representative democracy in governmental administration, anti-network and pro-isolation biases in urban planning theory and practice, and the particularly American corporate paternalism dating back to Henry Ford's restrictions on his employees' domestic environments.

Factors distinguishing the CID from conventional home ownership are defined in Evan McKenzie's Privatopia (p.19) as:

"three distinct legal characteristics that set their residents apart from other Americans: common ownership of property, mandatory membership in the homeowner association, and the requirement of living under a private regime of restrictive covenants enforced by fellow residents."

The three elements interlock: while residents own their own units (detached houses, abutting townhomes or condominium apartments), they share ownership of common areas, from hallways and lobby in a condominium apartment complex to extensive recreational facilities, roads, parks and open spaces in such city-sized CIDs as Anthem, Arizona. The common ownership interest requires participation in the entity holding and managing that interest, the homeowner association (HOA). The HOA is legally a nonprofit corporation, run by a corporate board of directors under a legal system designed for business enterprises rather than municipal townships. Its board is charged with enforcing an extensive set of private laws, the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) contained in each house's property deed and non-negotiable by purchasers. The CC&Rs typically specify such details as the weight of pets, materials of window blinds, color of paint and many other details of domestic life. To prevent costly lawsuits alleging discrimination or favoritism, the CC&Rs must be ruthlessly enforced to the letter. The question of why CC&Rs are so intrusive is a complex cultural and legal one far beyond the scope of this article, other than to note that it demonstrates the inexorable logic of hydraulic despotism: that lever of potential control is sitting there, so why not make the most of it?

CIDs have grown from fewer than 500 communities in 1964 to encompass one in six Americans - over 47 million people in 230,000 communities (see "America's New Utopias," The Economist, September 1, 2001). Prior to 1960, the standard unit of American housing was the suburban house on a large lot, with substantial front and back yards. However, population growth mandated expansion into areas where land and infrastructure costs were higher, the cheap and simple areas to develop already having been filled with large-lot housing. Economies of scale had already fueled housing standardization in large-scale developments, replacing custom construction. Now, much greater housing density was required to ensure a return on the developer's substantial investment. In return for smaller individual lots, purchasers were offered shares in otherwise-unaffordable amenities: swimming pools, gyms and the like, along with the complex restrictions of collectivized property.

The same economic factors propelling the explosive growth of the CID should apply with a vengeance to L5 colonies. The impetus for developing them will be to provide worker housing for space-based industrial efforts: no other conceivable rationale could justify the immense expenditures required under current circumstances. As O'Neill notes (p.156),

"[i]f they're built, it will be for the same reason that most new housing is built on Earth: there's an industry, or several industries, that need workers, and so a market exists for housing for the workers and their families."

The development must make financial sense (p.70):

"in the early stages it will not be possible economically to build and amortize a community unless it contains a large work force to pay off the construction costs within the amortization period."

Several conclusions follow from this premise: there will be a need to maximize the number of residents of the colony; that need will be bounded by the expectations as to residence size and amenities held by the workforce, which will likely be drawn from precisely those skilled technology workers who are most likely to have been CID residents. The novelty of the space environment will constrain innovation and risk-taking in legal and financial arrangements: the incentives to apply the tried-and-true will be immensely powerful. Consequently, if L5 colonies are built under Western auspices, they will almost certainly be the direct descendants of the industrial company town and the CID.

Now, this might just be all well and good. After all, many millions of Americans have expressed a preference for CID housing, and the very risk aversion essential to the financing and operation of a new enterprise of immense scale such as L5 industry and settlement should mean that social conditions will not initially diverge radically from the current norms of corporate employment and CC&R governance. However, many- including most emphatically O'Neill himself - advocate space settlement precisely as a means of developing a freer alternative to increased regimentation and the erosion of privacy in social, economic and political life on Earth. Yet the L5 colony provides the tools of hydraulic despotism: severe constraints on employment options (if the industrial consortium you work for fires you, where do you go?), employer control of residence, goods and services, including life support and communications. Clearly Terrestrial HOAs have greater power over CID residents than any municipal government (including very broad rights of search and seizure, limitations or outright bans on political speech, and the like), being explicitly a governance system built upon restrictions rather than rights. Perhaps these tools of control will go unused, or be used with restraint. However, nature abhors a vacuum most in matters of power over others. The threat, real or fabricated, of terrorism or sabotage would almost certainly generate increasing measures of surveillance and restrictions on speech and behavior, in the heavens as on Earth.

At best, then, near-term L5 colonies will embody some of the more restrictive institutions and technologies at use in the West: government founded not in declarations of liberty and power of the individual over government, but in non-negotiable contracts of restriction; the potential for abuse of monopoly power akin to hydraulic despotism; and efficient standardization rather than innovation and diversity. We don't need to go to space for those things; we're moving quite well along that path down here. The questions, then, are whether any means of altering the logic of regimentation in L5 might exist, and whether planetary settlements could be the alternative providing the liberty and diversity sought by so many in the space movement. The next installment of this column will attempt to shed some light on both.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

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