In February 2022, the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) published a report, authored by Rebecca Lowe, advocating the adoption of a new system of property rights in outer space. In doing so, the report consciously challenges the provisions of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty (OST), which establishes outer space as “the province of all mankind” and guarantees “free access to all areas of celestial bodies”. Specifically, the report aims to circumvent the second article of the OST, which outlaws “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”, thus also forbidding, in effect, individual appropriation.

According to Lowe, the renewed interest expressed by Silicon Valley tycoons such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis or Peter Thiel for space tourism, rocket launching, Mars terraforming and asteroid mining, demonstrates the need to reform international law. Ascribing individual property rights “in space – in land, in other resources, in the vacuum itself, and in anything else that might be found” through the competitive and market-driven Lockean system of rent that Lowe imagines  – in which moon lands go to the most productive and socially useful projects – would benefit not only today’s space barons, but also humanity in general by opening fresh opportunities for scientific discovery and for democratising space exploration.

Far from being an exception, the 2022 ASI report is the latest iteration in a long series of proposals on this theme by think-tanks (e.g. the Cato Institute, TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Reason Foundation and the Heartland Institute) and scholars (e.g. Mont Pèlerin Society-member Walter Block) close to the neoliberal thought collective. All call for the commercialisation of space and the deconstruction of the OST. Like Lowe, these other neoliberal takes on space commercialisation stress the urgent need to remediate the absence of private property in space, arguing that unleashing the cosmic ambition of those like Musk will serve the greater good, if not the long-term survival of human civilisation. In these proposals, space commercialisation is often presented as the perfect solution to earthly challenges, like resource scarcity and pollution. For instance, for the Reason Foundation, the mining of asteroids could provide access to clean energy sources and precious raw materials – a particularly lucrative business according to Mark Littlewood, Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Some reports present more puzzling options. Worthy of notice is Walter Block and Jacob Huebert’s suggestion in the Foundation of Economic Education’s in-house journal that opening space to private enterprise could allow the shift of “polluting industrial operations off-planet”; we could, for instance, use nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel and send nuclear waste to lavish on Venus. Never short in controversial ideas, Block also writes (with Lothian Nelson) that space colonisation and terraforming would guarantee that, were our unpredictable species to indulge in an act of (nuclear) self-destruction on Earth, “at least some branches of homo sapiens can continue forever”.

In these reports, space colonisation, enabled by private enterprise, becomes the materialisation of humans’ control over nature – proof of the manifest destiny of the human race (or at least of its best specimens). As former Cato/Atlas Society senior scholar Edward Hudgins writes, space private enterprise shows that humans are not “prisoners of their environment” but can, on the contrary, “change their environment to meet their needs”.

Neoliberalism and NewSpace

While some of these ideas might seem rather farfetched, they are not far off from the vision Elon Musk and his tech-bros promote, like when Musk declared to his followers that making humanity “a planetary species” will enable us to “backup the biosphere” and “expand the scope & scale of consciousness”. As Matthew Johnson brilliantly examined in his doctoral work on NewSpace (a network advocating the continued exploration of space and of which Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are today the most iconic representants), there are clear synergies between the neoliberal movement and NewSpace. On the rhetorical level, these affinities manifest in a common distrust of governmental entities like NASA (despite NASA being a core client of the Silicon Valley space industry) and the belief that only private enterprise will provide cost-competitive products. In his infamous 2009 essay for Cato Unbound, Peter Thiel celebrates space as “a limitless frontier” that opens up a world outside the corrupting reach of politics. In similar terms, Hayek-Prize-recipient Peter Leeson defends “celestial anarchy”, an unearthly realm ordered by private arbitration, as an effective alternative to state rule.

Beyond rhetoric, there is a clear sense that the neoliberal think-tanks and Silicon Valley’s ‘visionaries’ work hand-in-hand – a task-sharing in which the space barons deal with the technological dimension of space colonisation while the neoliberal think-tanks push for regulatory changes that will make it both legal and highly profitable. Tellingly, the industrial advocates of NewSpace have taken an active part in the writing of the think-tank reports I mentioned above.

For instance, the 2002 Cato Institute’s publication, edited by the aforementioned Edward Hudgins (who now officiates at the Heartland Institute), had chapters authored, among others, by Gregg Maryniak from Peter Diamandis’ X PRIZE Foundation and by Doris Hamill, Philip Mongan, and Michael Kearney from SpaceHab. Elon Musk, for his part, allegedly offered to speak at the book launch. More recently, Jeff Greason and James C. Bennett, both formerly involved in diverse launching ventures, co-authored the Reason Foundation’s 2019 report on the ‘economics of space’. The porosity between the neoliberal libertarian movement and Silicon Valley is even starker in Peter Thiel’s case, who, aside from his Cato article, participated in at least two meetings of the Mont Pèlerin Society and was awarded the 2015 Hayek Lifetime Achievement Award by the Austrian Economic Center.

What motivates these collaborations? The Silicon Valley tycoons and neoliberal ideologues share similar beliefs in the core social role of the entrepreneur, a near-godly figure, who, if we were to follow Thiel’s rhetoric, can save human civilisation from the “end of the future”. The “founder” described in Thiel’s best-seller Zero to One is at a crossroads between Joseph Schumpeter’s heroic entrepreneur, whose visions act as the motor of creative destruction, and Israel Kirzner’s army of everyday entrepreneurs, who busy themselves in arbitrage operations, identifying price discrepancies from which to profit and thus contributing to re-equilibrating the market. Thiel’s ‘founder’ is animated by his quest to find “secrets”: opportunities for profit that also open the door to the future and enable an escape from a crippling present, corrupted by the forces of the status quo.

Echoing the neoliberal economist Julian Simon, the entrepreneur’s ingenuity becomes the ‘ultimate resource’ that enables humanity to bypass (and deny) any limits on present physical resources, like raw materials or fuel. For Simon, technological innovation can help humanity to “manipulate the elements” to guarantee that resources are infinite: thanks to entrepreneurship, we will always be able to recycle or create materials, or even to find them “beyond” earthly boundaries.

Appropriating the last Commons

Considering the alliance between Silicon Valley and neoliberal conservatives is important for two reasons. First, the long-term lobbying efforts by neoliberal think-tanks and NewSpace advocates like Deep Space Industry and Planetary Resources have started to bear their fruit and are now endangering the very status of space as res communis – common property – guaranteed by international law. In 2015, the United States Congress adopted the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA), which “promote[s] the rights of United States citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference, in accordance with the international obligations of the United States”. In other words, the Act represents a first step in recognising appropriation of space resources by individuals and commercial entities. It circumvents the constrains set by the 1967 OST by stipulating that the United States does not assert sovereignty or jurisdiction over any celestial body through the Act.

The 2015 CSLCA was followed up by a 2020 Executive Order by President Trump, which asserts that the United States “does not view [outer space] as a global commons” and that, accordingly, “it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space” – thus further endangering the current international legislation on the commonality of space. The US’s strategy broadly follows the recommendations made by TechFreedom’s James Dunstan and Berin Szoka in their 2017 written testimony to the US Senate, and specifically their suggestion that the United States should not waste energy on trying to directly reform international treaties and instead concentrate on elaborating an attractive domestic legal regime supporting private enterprise that other states would want to adopt to protect the rights of their own citizens. A winning strategy: Luxemburg followed suit in 2017, and lobbying efforts in the UK by think-tanks like the Adam Smith Institute or by start-ups like the Asteroid Mining Corporation (which proposed a ‘UK Space Resources Activities Bill’ in 2019) seem well under way.

The main concern is that most of these projects (Lowe’s policy-brief standing as an exception) propose creating property rights in space on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. In other words, they would provide an exclusive legal right to appropriate a resource-rich environment currently held in common to a small minority of tremendously rich individuals, who are the only ones currently in a position to afford partaking in space ventures. This sci-fi re-enactment of primitive accumulation via colonial enclosure would certainly deepen even further the stark inequalities already at work in today’s world. In addition, thanks to the logic of ‘homesteading’ – the act of original appropriation of an unowned natural resource – promoted for instance by Walter Block, these first space-investors/settlers would be given the extraordinary advantage of deciding how the territories they appropriate shall be used in the future – that is, for extractive, touristic or conservation ends.

In quest of Planet B

The potential problems associated with homesteading in term of externalities highlight a second reason to be concerned about the ongoing commercialisation of outer space. This process needs to be thought of in coordination with climate change and the ongoing environmental crisis. The facts that most of the think-tanks mentioned above are well-known centres of the climate change denial movement should already be a reason for caution. Clearly, both NewSpace and neoliberal ideologues seem unconcerned by the prospect of mining celestial bodies into oblivion and the risks associated with it (celestial debris, etc.). Nor are they particularly worried about the vast quantities of fuels burnt up for each rocket launch, or any greenhouse gases and other ozone-destroying emissions that come with it.

Generally, the space exploration rhetoric developed by the likes of Musk needs to be thought of in relation to the neoliberal climate policies developed on earth. Space enterprise is integral to the solutions put forward by the advocates of neoliberalism and described by Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud. It could be summarised as the following: there is no need to curb growth and carbon emissions in the present as the entrepreneurs of the future will innovate market geoengineered solutions to environmental problems.

This is exactly what space represents. As well illustrated by Musk’s words, identifying the sustainable consumption and production of energy as the “biggest terrestrial problem” does not result in rethinking today’s energy use on our planet. Faithful to the spirit of Julian Simon, it instead results in consuming even more energy in the hope of perhaps backing up the biosphere (along with what is likely to be a small minority of selected humans) on another planet tomorrow, while those left on planet Earth are forced to patiently wait for doomsday.


Carla Ibled is ESRC SeNSS Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at University of East Anglia. She is also an editor and member of the PERC network.

Research for this work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (no. ES/X007359/1) and the South East Network for Social Sciences (SeNSS).

This is the sixth contribution of PERC’s series on the Silicon Valley ideologyEach week for the next two months, experts from the fields of political economy, political theory, economic history, cultural studies and law will share their research perspectives on the recent trends that have animated the Silicon Valley bubble. If you wish to get involved or would like to pitch an idea for a contribution, get in touch with our editor Carla Ibled (c.ibled[at]