11 May 2006

Government on Mars, and Wikipedia

Recently on National Radio, there was a discussion about people colonising Mars, as part of an interview with Sir Geoffrey Palmer (former PM and now public law practitioner). He was asked whether there would need to be laws on Mars and what kind of laws they would be. He answered that, of course, there would need to be laws; that Mars, which presently falls into the category of 'international commons', would need to be governed under international law (like Antarctica) if people were to colonise it - and if they wanted to avoid a state of nature (though I don't recall him actually using that last phrase). Anyway, he spoke like a good social-contract theorist. (He also noted the lack of water on Mars, so you can imagine already the need for water policy on Mars, if ever humans and water were to make it there together).
Now, some of you may already have read a recent article by Russell Brown about Wikipedia, which is a free on-line encyclopedia that anyone can edit. It has mushroomed into a huge information resource, and is often very good (though a recent article in the Economist notes that it was found to have more frequent errors than Encyclopedia Brittanica - but that's not surprising). Well, Russell Brown informs us that the originator of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, is a fan of Ayn Rand, the famous libertarian 'objectivist' philosopher, novelist, Aristotle admirer and enemy of all forms of governmental regulation. You can see why the individual liberty, freedom of information and lack of centralised authority of the Wikipedia concept should have come from someone who loves Ayn Rand. Well, it turns out that Jimmy Wales's wonderful idea has spawned a lot of factional wars and infighting between user/contributors of Wikipedia, to the extent that he has been forced to (shock horror!) make arbitrary decisions about specific entries etc. And so, here is a fascinating quote from a columnist called Jason Scott (copied from Brown's article) about this whole sad affair: "What Wikipedia has taught us now, is that in a vacuum of politics, politics will be created. There is no vacuum of politics. People who are encountering this space where they can not lord over others for technicalities and gain power for themselves will then proceed to invoke technicalities, take power from other people. They just do this. This is what human beings do."
Sounds very much like Thomas Hobbes, one of the great social-contract theorists.
Anyway, all of this has to do with the need we seem to have for that 'necessary evil' called 'government'. Even on Mars, even in cyberspace, people require regulation by a central authority who holds ultimate power - if only so that they can enjoy the limited freedom that they aspire to have.
Further, though, there is some genuine concern (alarm, even) nowadays about the world's super-power, the US, denigrating and ignoring international legal covenants, such as the Geneva Convention, the International Criminal Court, and even the UN Security Council. This US uni-lateralism sets a bad example for the rest of the world, and the worst possible case would be a reversion to a 'state of nature' between the nations. Not a good idea when nuclear weapons are all over the place.
In short, then, is the possibility of a loss of confidence in international law and global governance structures (in spite of talk of globalization) one of the 'big issues' the world faces today? You be the judge!


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