First-stage explorers to Mars will likely include those with strong ideological motivations and those with little or nothing to lose on earth.

Plans to colonize Mars have made some recent progress. In the realms of science and engineering, Elon Musk published a paper with the ambitious title, “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species,” which elaborates on certain technological, but also societal, dimensions of Mars colonization. In another context, Musk mentioned that direct democracy might work as the political system for a Mars colony.

Plans to colonize Mars raise heretofore unasked questions about state formation. Human history is replete with new political systems replacing old ones, whether by revolution or conquest, but examples of explorers in virgin territory introducing new political systems at large scale are nonexistent. Until now, the question was rarely discussed because it was irrelevant. Yet theories about and experiences with direct democracy, especially in Switzerland, may hold innovative and productive potential for a future Mars colony and seem to confirm Musk’s instinct that direct democracy is the right approach for interplanetary explorers to govern themselves.

Self-Government on Mars

The challenge of political formation on Mars is the challenge of self-government. For reasons of distance, governing Mars from Earth is impracticable. According to Musk, travel to Mars will take approximately twenty-six months. Under conditions of a two year delay, government by interplanetary coercion becomes impossible. By necessity, if for no other reason, the residents of Mars must govern themselves.

Yet there are other reasons beyond necessity for Martian self-government. Self-government corresponds well to the kinds of people apt to travel to Mars. Musk’s paper contains an interesting thesis: not everyone would want or could afford to go to Mars. Some individuals would likely obtain financing, and others might be employees of a company or a nation-state with the mission and means for interplanetary travel. Naturally the travel involves a huge amount of risk, but as Musk notes, labor and job market conditions on Mars might prove attractive. The population of explorers will include a great many scientists, engineers, and other technical specialists, adventurers, pioneers, and explorers, and probably a handful of the very wealthy and their attendants. First-stage explorers to Mars will likely include those with strong ideological motivations and those with little or nothing to lose on earth. Many of these people will be risk-takers, and some will tend to be innovative initiative-takers.

The new, complicated, and extraordinary challenges on Mars will demand a political system that facilitates a social order as agile and adaptive as the pioneers who are a part of it. Constant learning, exploration, and experimentation will be essential in the face of original technological and social problems. Entrepreneurial and organic political organization in the form of a direct democracy will maximize the potential of pioneers to meet these unique challenges. Direct democracy also has the potential to dilute tensions resulting from the diversity of the colonists and their potentially divergent or conflicting loyalties and interests. Much more so than on earth, the borders between private and public, between economy and state, and between social and political, will disappear. Very few political systems can balance all of these factors. A direct democracy can probably balance them best.

Defining Direct Democracy

Direct democracy has both narrow and broad definitions. Narrowly, direct democracy equates to its unique techniques of government such as public ballots, plebiscites and referenda. More broadly, a direct democracy reflects a fundamental political culture of self-government, broad public awareness, and buy-in. No contemporary terrestrial state of any significant size is a pure direct democracy under the narrow definition, since all populous jurisdictions must employ certain aspects of representative democracy in order to manage the number and variety of challenges that large communities face. But under the broad definition, in a political culture of direct democracy, such as in Switzerland, even the use of techniques of representative democracy are meant to reinforce the culture of direct democracy.

For that reason, Switzerland employs certain techniques of direct democracy, such as public ballots on changes to the constitution and on hotly-contested laws. But it also employs techniques of representative democracy such as the separation of powers between branches of government, where the use of those techniques reinforces the Swiss culture of direct democracy. Thus scholars consider Switzerland a hybrid or semi-direct democracy.

Federalism is another key component of Switzerland’s direct democratic culture. This vertical separation of powers between the federal, state and semi-autonomous sub-state entities is a core element of Swiss direct democracy.

Part-time public service also reinforces Switzerland’s unique direct democratic culture. Many political functions are executed by part-time officials, public servants who also maintain another job even while they hold government office. In fact, Switzerland is famous for adhering to this principle with its militia approach to manning and training its armed forces. The aim is to keep up the connection between the political system, the economy and civil society.

Another primary element of Swiss political culture is a system of obligatory consultations. Government and parliament have to publish draft laws to obtain public comment. Everyone is allowed and welcome to respond, from experts to ordinary citizens. This process reduces uncertainty through its openness and transparency.

All these elements maximize participation in the decisionmaking process and also safeguard reflection and inclusion. Reflection, as it is used here, refers to the necessary delay in the lawmaking process in order for a proposal to “ripen” as the public and the public’s representatives gain an understanding of its impact. Limited delays can lead to more mature decisionmaking. Delays can also help avoid simple majority rule, or worse still, mob rule, or rule by a particular ethnicity, religion, or some other affiliation. Delay allows citizens to carefully weigh and discuss proposals.

Participation also leads to inclusion, which means that all relevant, affected, and interested groups and persons can be involved in the political process. Inclusion guarantees the influence of businesses, civil society, scientific and other experts, and even noncitizens in the sphere of politics and state, and establishes a porous boundary between the respective spheres. The interaction of these different groups and interests within the political process maximizes the legitimacy and public acceptance of political decisions. Involving so many disparate groups and viewpoints also engenders pluralism, creativity, and innovation.

This governance is bottom-up. Law derives its validity from the consent of the governed. Self-government and individual freedoms mutually reinforce each other. These concepts date back at least to the philosophies of Kant. From a more libertarian point of view, the scholars Feld and Kirchgässner argue that techniques and a culture of direct democracy can help protect individual freedoms from state power. Direct democracy’s separation and fragmentation of authority enhances political competition and diffuses power between and among the porous social spheres mentioned earlier. Taken together, these phenomena lead to improved outcomes for and by the self-governed.

Forming a Direct Democracy

Switzerland’s historical-political roots make it a good example of a direct democracy. Of course, classical liberalism and republicanism advanced a culture of direct democracy in Switzerland, geared as these philosophies were to replace ancient systems of divine or monarchical authority with new ideas of popular sovereignty and civil rights. Christian political movements in Switzerland also pushed for direct democracy, contributing an orientation toward decentralization and individual rights.

The history is a bit murkier when it comes to the development of medieval assemblies and their influence on Swiss democracy. Two Swiss cantons still prominently employ public assemblies (“Landsgemeinde”), which generally came out of medieval cooperatives as valley-, market-, village- or alp-cooperatives, monastery self-government, or city republics. (Wholly apart from Switzerland, this form of democracy also developed organically in some African tribal structures, which provide an egalitarian opportunity for every person to speak with decisionmaking by group consent, such as in the Somali “shir” tradition.)

Martian Political Development

Mars colonization presents more similarities to the political development of Switzerland than some might think. First, Musk hypothesizes that “the threshold for a self-sustaining city on Mars or a civilization would be a million people,” a population size roughly on order with Switzerland’s current population of eight million. While today Switzerland is quite accessible to the outside world, during the medieval period its mountain ranges made Switzerland challenging for foreign powers to conquer or even coerce. But friendly travel was certainly possible and even frequent and necessary as Swiss mountain passes offered the realms of Northern Europe a direct path to Rome and the Pope. These factors favoring independence played a significant role in the culture of self-government and self-determination in Switzerland. Similar factors will likely have a similar impact on Mars, too.

Among pioneering early Mars colonists, it is likely that the relationship between direct democracy and anarchist theories probably increases the odds of adoption. To the extent that utopian social theories influence early Mars explorers, they may be attracted to idea of grassroots structures inherent in direct democracy but which are also features of the anti-globalization movement and New Anarchism. Whatever a utopian chooses to call it, letting people participate and solve conflicts inclusively and peaceably resembles direct democracy. Anarchism and its related models such as “hybrid political order,” “concentric order,” “organic order,” “embedded state,” “fragmented sovereignty,” “unconventional statehood,” “grounded legitimacy,” and others, all derive political legitimacy from bottom-up structures, political inclusion, and direct political participation for constructive and imaginative political and social problem-solving. All of these theories share DNA with direct democracy.

Other pioneers might be attracted to direct democracy’s practical similarities to postmodern organizational and entrepreneurial theories. Concepts of self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose, as well as several other models and methods like organic or agile organization models, holacracy, sociocracy, theory U, and others, are theoretical and practical cousins of direct democracy. Direct democracy does feature more institutional formality than some of these approaches, but the idea of decentralization, every person having a voice, creativity, and self-management reflects the underpinnings of direct democracy. In addition to appealing to pioneering personality types, these similarities also mean that colonists can draw on familiar political and organizational experiences to create new Martian patterns of government.

Many Colonists, One Colony

All these elements maximize participation in the decisionmaking process and also safeguard reflection and inclusion. Reflection, as it is used here, refers to the necessary delay in the lawmaking process in order for a proposal to “ripen” as the public and the public’s representatives gain an understanding of its impact. Limited delays can lead to more mature decisionmaking. Delays can also help avoid simple majority rule, or worse still, mob rule, or rule by a particular ethnicity, religion, or some other affiliation. Delay allows citizens to carefully weigh and discuss proposals.

Participation also leads to inclusion, which means that all relevant, affected, and interested groups and persons can be involved in the political process. Inclusion guarantees the influence of businesses, civil society, scientific and other experts, and even noncitizens in the sphere of politics and state, and establishes a porous boundary between the respective spheres. The interaction of these different groups and interests within the political process maximizes the legitimacy and public acceptance of political decisions. Involving so many disparate groups and viewpoints also engenders pluralism, creativity, and innovation.

This governance is bottom-up. Law derives its validity from the consent of the governed. Self-government and individual freedoms mutually reinforce each other. These concepts date back at least to the philosophies of Kant. From a more libertarian point of view, the scholars Feld and Kirchgässner argue that techniques and a culture of direct democracy can help protect individual freedoms from state power. Direct democracy’s separation and fragmentation of authority enhances political competition and diffuses power between and among the porous social spheres mentioned earlier. Taken together, these phenomena lead to improved outcomes for and by the self-governed.

Forming a Direct Democracy

Switzerland’s historical-political roots make it a good example of a direct democracy. Of course, classical liberalism and republicanism advanced a culture of direct democracy in Switzerland, geared as these philosophies were to replace ancient systems of divine or monarchical authority with new ideas of popular sovereignty and civil rights. Christian political movements in Switzerland also pushed for direct democracy, contributing an orientation toward decentralization and individual rights.

The history is a bit murkier when it comes to the development of medieval assemblies and their influence on Swiss democracy. Two Swiss cantons still prominently employ public assemblies (“Landsgemeinde”), which generally came out of medieval cooperatives as valley-, market-, village- or alp-cooperatives, monastery self-government, or city republics. (Wholly apart from Switzerland, this form of democracy also developed organically in some African tribal structures, which provide an egalitarian opportunity for every person to speak with decisionmaking by group consent, such as in the Somali “shir” tradition.)

Martian Political Development

Mars colonization presents more similarities to the political development of Switzerland than some might think. First, Musk hypothesizes that “the threshold for a self-sustaining city on Mars or a civilization would be a million people,” a population size roughly on order with Switzerland’s current population of eight million. While today Switzerland is quite accessible to the outside world, during the medieval period its mountain ranges made Switzerland challenging for foreign powers to conquer or even coerce. But friendly travel was certainly possible and even frequent and necessary as Swiss mountain passes offered the realms of Northern Europe a direct path to Rome and the Pope. These factors favoring independence played a significant role in the culture of self-government and self-determination in Switzerland. Similar factors will likely have a similar impact on Mars, too.

Among pioneering early Mars colonists, it is likely that the relationship between direct democracy and anarchist theories probably increases the odds of adoption. To the extent that utopian social theories influence early Mars explorers, they may be attracted to idea of grassroots structures inherent in direct democracy but which are also features of the anti-globalization movement and New Anarchism. Whatever a utopian chooses to call it, letting people participate and solve conflicts inclusively and peaceably resembles direct democracy. Anarchism and its related models such as “hybrid political order,” “concentric order,” “organic order,” “embedded state,” “fragmented sovereignty,” “unconventional statehood,” “grounded legitimacy,” and others, all derive political legitimacy from bottom-up structures, political inclusion, and direct political participation for constructive and imaginative political and social problem-solving. All of these theories share DNA with direct democracy.

Other pioneers might be attracted to direct democracy’s practical similarities to postmodern organizational and entrepreneurial theories. Concepts of self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose, as well as several other models and methods like organic or agile organization models, holacracy, sociocracy, theory U, and others, are theoretical and practical cousins of direct democracy. Direct democracy does feature more institutional formality than some of these approaches, but the idea of decentralization, every person having a voice, creativity, and self-management reflects the underpinnings of direct democracy. In addition to appealing to pioneering personality types, these similarities also mean that colonists can draw on familiar political and organizational experiences to create new Martian patterns of government.

Many Colonists, One Colony

The apparent comprehensiveness of direct democracy results from a complex mix of different institutions and political mechanisms. Direct democracy is not static; it is a laboratory of political and social hypothesis testing. Newer theories of direct democracy explicitly address democratic experimentation, creative democracy, and laboratory-federalism, which the technology community often calls “crowdsourcing.”

These concepts put nationalistic, ethnic, or other divisive concepts of identity on their heels in favor of pluralism. Swiss history offers such an example. Switzerland features four linguistic regions that speak German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romance languages. Switzerland has majority Catholic, Protestant, and mixed cantons, which represented a remarkable degree of religious integration during the post-Reformation period. Switzerland has urbanized city cantons as well as conservative bucolic cantons; very small cantons, and also very big cantons. Swiss cohesion amid this diversity results from direct, decentralized democracy where the government avoids coercive tools of government. Rare among parliamentary systems, Switzerland’s executive government at the federal, cantonal and community levels are multi-party bodies. Seven Federal Councilors out of four parties represent the government of Switzerland. And rarest of all, there is no single Swiss head of state.

The approach of involving and integrating all politically relevant groups tends to soften extremism and diminish the appeal of totalitarianism or clientelism. The vertical and horizontal separation of powers and decentralization of political authority balances innovation and acceptance, experimentation and stability, and inaction and reaction. Its popular buy-in makes direct democracy a political pressure control valve.

Similarly, direct democracy embeds the state in society. Popular participation collapses the spheres of the state, law, and politics into the spheres of economy, science, and civil society. Politics, democracy and community conjoin to one another as all individuals in the political system become participants in all three arenas. This inclusion reduces the appeal of one group or another trying to dominate others through state power, as the others can easily and fluidly form a majority to resist these efforts. These tendencies reflect themselves not just internally, but in Switzerland’s case, externally in the form of Switzerland’s avowed neutrality in international conflicts and the strict defensive posture of its militia-army.

Measurable Benefits

Direct democracies offer measurable benefits over alternative political systems. A 2003 study established that in direct democratic entities the “Wicksellian connection” is very strong, meaning that the taxes citizens pay for public goods and services are strongly connected to the benefits the citizens obtain from them. Analyses of referenda show that public spending, revenue, and debt are significantly lower in jurisdictions governed by direct democracy, and in particular, that fiscal referenda tend to restrict the growth of the welfare and administrative states. These studies also demonstrate that direct democratic entities perform public services with greater efficiency. Citizens in a direct democracy report feeling significantly more responsible for their community, and the per-employee GDP is higher.

Citizens of a direct democracy consider themselves better off than others. A study in 2000 concluded that, “the existence of extended individual participation possibilities in the form of initiative and referenda, and of decentralised (federal) government structures raises the subjective well-being of people.” It further concluded that local autonomy is one of the diverse “transmission mechanisms” of direct democracy’s beneficial effects.

Direct democratic institutions tend to erect barriers against extensions of state power, including state power in the form of taxes and regulations. Perhaps for this reason, direct democracy in Switzerland is often narratively linked to a strong middle-class and an economy that grows due to small and medium-sized businesses but also offers a hospitable environment for global corporations and research institutions.

A wider ranging study of direct democracy concludes that direct participation leads to more information and transparency, political discussion, citizen involvement, more acceptance, integration, and identification in the community, and a more active and agile civil society. The personal, civic and political, and professional engagement of its colonists will be absolutely essential for Martian government, and is probably easier to achieve through direct democracy than by other means.

Direct Democracy on Mars: Starting the Conversation

Mars colonists and community builders will have to ask fundamental questions about cooperation, co-living, money, rights and duties, and power. Collectively and adaptably answering such essential questions will probably mean adopting some form of direct democracy. Elon Musk’s vision is of a civilization on Mars “that is not merely an outpost but which can become a planet in its own right.” That will mean answering questions about self-determination, self-government, self-administration, home rule, independence in peace, and cooperation among pioneers with many different and conflicting loyalties. Mars is a long way from Earth, and tensions will no doubt flare among representatives of Earth’s nation-states, corporations, and the unaffiliated who may have their own idealistic visions of a new society completely apart from our home planet. In such an environment, addressing these potential conflicts while maintaining peace, equality and cooperation is paramount. To achieve all these outcomes, direct democracy probably offers the highest probability of success. It upholds the values of co-determination, participation, and co-decision while enabling and balancing innovation and stability. Taken together these integrative and creative effects of a direct democracy are not just beneficial to a Mars colony. Given its distance from Earth, they are likely essential.

Urs Vögeli has a master’s degree in political science and is working on his PhD in political theory, both at University of Zurich. He directs in Switzerland his own company, Political Science Consulting, with which he primarily advises and supports members of parliament, executive members and administration at federal and cantonal level.