Georgism is cool and all, but it was invented in 1879, and I prefer my ideologies to be more futuristic. Unlike the Network State, Georgism doesn’t require blockchains, and unlike Scientology, it lacks aliens.

So lets make it more exciting by taking Georgism into space.

Its not a terrible idea, space has a vast amount of resources that nobody owns. How should they be shared? Can we design tax policy to encourage stable, equitable growth across the universe?

Taxation … in Space!

Space can be broken down into three types of economic land: useful energy, matter, and physical space.

Let’s start with energy. Since there is a fixed amount of useful energy in the universe, it’s an exhaustible resource. In this case, the Georgist framework would suggest a severance tax, where people that extract energy from natural sources pay a fee that goes into a citizens dividend.

Matter is a little different. Since it can be recycled, it’s more like land that you borrow from everyone else. The Georgist tax would be proportional to the value of certain types of matter. Note that the tax cannot depend on the arrangements of that matter, only the basic elements it’s composed of.

There are some difficulties with taxing matter. First, it may be feasible to transmute some elements into other elements. The elasticity of supply of different elements means that it taxes will have to remain low in order to avoid distortions. Second, it may be possible to convert matter into energy in the future, which creates elasticity of supply in both matter and energy, meaning that the taxes on both will have to be reduced to avoid distortions.

Physical space is more straightforward to tax. It’s analogous to land, and people can be taxed for owning particular swathes of space proportional to the rent they can charge for it. It is slightly trickier to implement Georgism on physical space since ownership will have to reconcile relatively stationary swathes of empty space with plots of land on a spinning planet. I think the solution will involve some sort of ownership of space-time where owners of pieces of space in orbit possess the land at its current location and at all future times.

There’s a grab-bag of other things space-Georgism would tax, like spectrum rights, transit routes, and local externalities like debris production, but I expect revenues from these will be smaller than the main sources.

The Elasticity of Colonization

There are some subtleties to implementing this policy. It’s important not to set taxes too high to ensure that there are incentives to search for new sources of energy, matter and land. In particular, since some parts of the universe can end up outside our light cone if we colonize space too slowly, it’s important that these taxes do not slow the rate of colonization. Faster colonization means more total resources and a larger citizens dividend.

These policies have to strike a careful balance; if colonization is taxed heavily, then it will slow growth, if colonization is rewarded too much, then excess capital will be devoted to expansion, which also slows growth.

Notes on Implementation

The taxes on energy and matter will likely be quite low and I suspect they will only be relevant for entities controlling entire stars or solar systems. It will be impractical to tax each individual’s energy use; instead, these taxes will focus on the largest users.

Practically, this could be implemented by estimating the amount of matter and energy in a volume of space and taxing it proportionally. It’s pretty easy to estimate the amount of mass and useful energy in a volume, even from far away, making it possible to implement a sort of cosmic window tax.

For physical space, a sophisticated structure will be needed to record ownership and raise taxes. Its possible that the tax burden will again fall on the largest owners. This would require a massive, secure ownership registry which takes relativity into account (relativistic blockchains anyone?).

It’s also possible that large swathes of space will be exempted from ownership due to common use. For example, empty passages between solar systems should have common ownership since anyone possessing these would mostly engage in rent seeking rather than create new value.

Because of the time it takes to send anything over interstellar distances, these taxes will be exchanged in a local manner. The net balance of payments will be computed for each star system and those systems will exchange with their neighbors so that the net flow of payments across the network matches the taxes each should pay. Fortunately, taxes shouldn’t change much each year since they are only based on the mass-energy in a region and the land value.

Why Do This?

Space Georgism can achieve several important goals for interstellar civilization.

For one, it creates a more equitable market system in space. Set correctly, land value taxes can increase the growth and size of the economy. In fact, maximizing growth should be a key design goal for space Georgism. This economic growth leads to benefits for everyone (even those that don’t colonize space). In addition, Georgism has a built-in system for redistribution, ensuring that the gains from colonization are shared.

This kind of system is crucial to ensuring a peaceful society with diverse agents that share and utilize resources appropriately. Specifically, I see properly enforced taxation as a way to ensure that we share space with AI and other minds. This is one way to deal with the problems that arise when sharing resources with immortal agents. These taxes might also prevent colonizers from burning the cosmic commons.

In addition, land value taxation can catalyze the transition into space. By giving people the right to tax sections of space, it gives them incentives and capital to colonize those areas. For example, it may be possible to finance the colonization of Mars by giving futures to people who can speed up the growth of a Martian colony.

The revenue raised can also be used to fund public goods such as research into faster space travel, efficient energy harvesting, and other challenges for interstellar civilization.

Conclusion

Extending the Georgist paradigm into space neatly solves problems with sharing resources and ensures that colonization proceeds at an appropriate pace. There are still important challenges regarding how to design these policies to optimize the growth rate, encourage utilization of natural resources, and adapt them to the physical limitations of tax technology.

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I think the solution will involve some sort of ownership of space-time where owners of pieces of space in orbit possess the land at its current location and at all future times.

This requires solving the n-body problem, right? In practice in our solar system I assume we can do pretty well for... thousands of years in advance but not millions, at a guess? But like, if your proposed tax system can't deal with possible ownership ambiguity in millions of years, is it even worth considering?

And that assumes no one deliberately moves a large mass somewhere unexpected.

Yeah I think a lot of it will have to be resolved at a more "local" level.

For example, for people in a star system, it might make more sense to define all land with respect to individual planets ("Bob owns 1 acre on Mars' north pole", "Alice owns all of L4" etc.) and forbid people from owning stationary pieces of space. I don't have the details of this fleshed out, but it seems like within a star system, its possible to come up with a sensible set of rules and have the edge cases hashed out by local courts.

For the specific problem of predicting planetary orbits, if we can predict 1000 years in the future, it seems like the time-path of land ownership could be updated automatically every 100 years or so, so I don't expect there to be huge surprises there.

For taxation across star systems, I'm having trouble thinking of a case where there might be ownership ambiguity given how far apart they are. For example, even when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies collide, its unlikely that any stars will collide. Once again, this seems like something that can be solved by local agreements where owners of conflicting claims renegotiate them as needed.

100 years wouldn't really work for claims without huge buffer zones, since the precision and accuracy of future predictions of the positions of n-body system decays exponentially the further ahead you go.

Even assuming that such a society will spend compute on plotting claims equivalent to our current fastest supercomputers multiple by several orders of magnitude. (Ignoring the likelihood that such a society with such resources would have found an even better local maxima of taxation system)

Maybe 100 hours between updates could work, depending on desired positioning accuracy and precision.

How would a future government enforce their tax policies on a distant star system? 

Since it's vastly easier to destroy something than to build in outer space, there's no feasible way of using the threat of violence, at least not without mutually assured destruction.

For example, a single 100 000 ton spacecraft going at 0.5 c has about the same kinetic energy as the lower bound estimate for the KT comet impactor that wiped out the dinosaurs.

I imagine that these policies will be enforced by a large coalition of members interested in maintaining strong property rights (more on that later).

Its not clear that space war will be dominated by kinetic energy weapons or MAD:

  1. These weapons seem most useful when entire civilizations are living on a single planet, but its possible that people will live in disconnected space habitats. These would be much harder to wipe out.

  2. Any weapon will take a long time to move over interstellar distances. A rebelling civilization would have to wait thousands of years for the weapon to reach its target. It seems like their opponent could detect the weapon and respond in this time.

  3. Even if effective civilization-destroying weapons are developed, mutual defense treaties and AI could be used to launch a second strike, making civilization-scale attacks unlikely.

In general, any weapon a single civilization might use to avoid taxation can also be used by a group of civilizations to enforce taxation.

On the other hand, it does seem like protecting territory/resources from theft will be an issue. This is where property rights come in. Governments, corporations, and AI's will want to have their property protected over very long timescales and don't want to spend most of their resources on security.

Over long timescales, a central authority can help them defend their territory (over short timescales, these groups will still have to protect their own property since it will take a while for allies to reach them). But order to receive this protection, these groups must register what they own and pay taxes towards mutual defense. I think a land value tax is the "right" way to raise taxes in this case.

This approach makes more sense for smaller systems where defense is easier but it may also be useful across much larger distances if agents are very patient.

(The "central authority" also doesn't have to be an actual central government. States could pay neighbors to come to their aid using a portion of the collected taxes, kind of like "defense insurance")

Its not clear that space war will be dominated by kinetic energy weapons or MAD:

  1. These weapons seem most useful when entire civilizations are living on a single planet, but its possible that people will live in disconnected space habitats. These would be much harder to wipe out.

2. Any weapon will take a long time to move over interstellar distances. A rebelling civilization would have to wait thousands of years for the weapon to reach its target. It seems like their opponent could detect the weapon and respond in this time.

3. Even if effective civilization-destroying weapons are developed, mutual defense treaties and AI could be used to launch a second strike, making civilization-scale attacks unlikely.

For (1) they would still be useful because Earth represents much more value then the value of any tax that could be collected on a short timescale (< 100 years) from even another equivalent Earth-like planet.  (Let alone for some backwater colony)

Thus threatening the destruction of value several orders of magnitude greater than the value to be collected is a viable deterrent. Since no rational authority would dare test it. Who would trade a 10%, or even 1%, chance of losing $10 000 in exchange for a 90% chance of collecting $1 ?

For (2) It's only a few years for a 0.5 c spacecraft to go from Alpha Centauri to Earth, only a few dozen years from several hundred systems to Earth. It's impossible, without some as yet uninvented sensing technology, to reliably surveil even the few hundred closest star systems. 

Of course once it's at speed in interstellar space it's vanishingly unlikely to be detected due to basic physics, which cannot be changed, and once it's past the Oort Cloud and relatively easy to detect again, there will be almost no time left at 0.5 c.

 

For (3) A second-strike is only a credible counter if the opponent has roughly equal amounts to lose. But, assuming it's much easier to make a 0.5 c spacecraft then to colonize a planet to Earth level, the opponent in this case, a small colony of a few million or something, would have very little to lose in comparison.

Thus the second-strike of some backwater colony would only represent a minuscule threat compared to the value destroyed by an equivalent strike on Earth. And it's a lot easier to spread out a few million folks on short notice, if detection were possible, then a few tens of billions.

In fact, reliable detection a few dozen years out, would decrease the credibility of second-strikes on smaller targets, as the leaders of the small colony would be confident they could evacuate everyone and most valuables in that timeframe. Whereas the leaders of Earth would have very low confidence of the same.

There are two possibilities here:

  1. Nations have the technology to destroy another civilization

  2. Nations don't have the technology to destroy another civilization

In either case, taxes are still possible!

In case 1, any nation that attempts to destroy another nation will also be destroyed since their victim has the same technology. Seems better to pay the tax.

In case 2, the Nation doesn't have a way to threaten the authorities, so they pay the tax in exchange for property rights and protection.

Thus threatening the destruction of value several orders of magnitude greater than the value to be collected is a viable deterrent.

Agreed, but to destroy so much value, one would have to destroy at least as much land as they currently control. Difficulties of tax administration mean that only the largest owners will be taxed, likely possessing entire solar systems. So the tax dodge would need to destroy a star. That doesn't seem easy.

It’s impossible, without some as yet uninvented sensing technology, to reliably surveil even the few hundred closest star systems.

I'm more optimistic about sensing tech. Gravitational lensing, superlenses, and simple scaling can provide dramatic improvements in resolution.

It's probably unnecessary to surveil many star systems. Allied neighbors on Alpha Centauri can warn earth about an incoming projectile as it passes by (providing years of advanced notice), so nations might only need to surveil locally and exchange information.

... once it’s past the Oort Cloud and relatively easy to detect again, there will be almost no time left at 0.5 c

It would take 2-3 years for a 0.5c projectile to reach earth from the outer edge of the Oort cloud, this seems like enough time to adapt. At the very least, its enough time to launch a counterstrike.

Fast projectiles may be impractical given that a single collision with the interstellar medium would destroy them. Perhaps thickening the Oort cloud could be an effective defense system.

A second-strike is only a credible counter if the opponent has roughly equal amounts to lose.

Agents pre-commit to a second strike as a deterrent, regardless of how wealthy the aggressor is. If the rebelling nation has the technology to destroy another nation and uses it, they're virtually guaranteed to be destroyed by the same technology.

Given the certainty of destruction, why not just pay the (intentionally low, redistributive, efficiency increasing, public-good funding) taxes?

There are two possibilities here:

  1. Nations have the technology to destroy another civilization
  2. Nations don't have the technology to destroy another civilization

In either case, taxes are still possible!

In case 1, any nation that attempts to destroy another nation will also be destroyed since their victim has the same technology. Seems better to pay the tax.

No? Your own example of detecting a dangerous launch some number of years in advance demonstrates the opposite. 

As this would provide for enough time for a small low value colony, on a marginally habitable planet, to evacuate nearly all their wealth, except for maybe low value heavy things such as railroad tracks, whereas Earth would never be able to evacuate even a fraction of its total wealth. Since a huge amount is locked up in things such as the biosphere, which cannot be credibly moved off-planet or replicated.

There's likely dozens or hundreds of marginal planets for every Earth-like planet so the small colonists can just pack up and move to another place of almost equivalent value, minus relocation costs, whereas there's no such option for Earth. Once its destroyed there's likely no replacement within at least a hundred light years.

For example, if both sides have access to at least one 100 00 ton spacecraft capable of 0.5 c, it means there's an asymmetric threat, as the leaders of the small colonists can credibly threaten to destroy civilization on Earth and along with it all hope of a similar replacement, whereas the leaders of Earth wouldn't be able to credibly do the same.

And this relationship is not linear either, because even if Earth could afford 1000 such spacecraft, and the small colonists only 1, it doesn't balance the scales as the leaders of Earth couldn't credibly threaten to destroy the small colonists 1000x over, since that's impossible. And they can't credibly threaten to destroy every marginally inhabitable planet within a certain radius since that will certainly destroy more value then any tax of a single colony could ever feasibly recover.

i.e. small colonists can actually punch back a 1000x harder (if 1 Earth value-wise = 1000 small colonies on marginal planets) whereas Earth cannot.

... this would provide for enough time for a small low value colony, on a marginally habitable planet, to evacuate nearly all their wealth.

But the planet is precisely what's being taxed! Why stage a tax rebellion only to forfeit your taxable assets?

If the lands are marginal, they would be taxed very little, or not at all.

Even if they left the planet, couldn’t the counter strike follow them? It doesn’t matter if you can do more economic damage if you also go extinct. It’s like refusing to pay a $100 fine by doing $1000 of damage and then ending up in prison. The taxing authority can precommit to massive retaliation in order to deter such behavior. The colony cannot symmetrically threaten the tax authority with extinction because of the size difference.

All of this ignores the practical issues with these weapons, the fact that earth’s value is minuscule compared to the sun, the costs of forfeiting property rights, the relocation costs, and the fact that citizens of marginal lands would receive net payments from the citizens dividend.

But the planet is precisely what's being taxed! Why stage a tax rebellion only to forfeit your taxable assets?

If the lands are marginal, they would be taxed very little, or not at all.
 

Well the planet would not be paying the tax, the colonists would be paying the tax. They likely won’t have to forefeit anything at all since the mere threat is enough to prevent any attempts at taxing them.

If the tax was literally zero, and the authority of Earth only nominal, then maybe the issue could be sidestepped, but then the issue of what kind of taxation would be redundant.

But if it’s above zero I’m not really sure how you imagine the situation enfolding or what sort of things can pay tax or be used as tax payments.  As you mentioned there’s mass, energy,  space-time, plus information. Small colonists obviously can’t pay anything with space-time since this is not something they can relocate. So it will have to be either mass, energy, and/or information as the unit of settlement for taxes in any plausible future. 

Maybe there will be a common currency but more likely not since currency controls are impossible with a time lag of many years, so it would be a very unstable system.

Regardless, even on 2022 Earth it’s clear that some folks, and not just a few,  thousands upon thousands, are willing to die for abstract principles of one kind or another, including the matter of taxation. I can easily imagine a future world of millions of very independent colonists that are more than willing to fight to the death if they even have to pay a single dollar of taxes. And unlike the present day they will be on a nearly level playing field even against a polity with 1000x the resources.

There’s also no plausible way to give representation in exchange for taxation, since the communications lag is so massive, so I really can’t see how anyone could compel even a single dollar out of distant colonists due to the previously discussed reasons.

 

Even if they left the planet, couldn’t the counter strike follow them? It doesn’t matter if you can do more economic damage if you also go extinct. It’s like refusing to pay a $100 fine by doing $1000 of damage and then ending up in prison. The taxing authority can precommit to massive retaliation in order to deter such behavior. The colony cannot symmetrically threaten the tax authority with extinction because of the size difference.

There is no way that the counter strike can ‘follow’ them to other planets because that would guarantee destruction of more value then any tax of a single planet could ever collect. Plus it would be pointless if they get sufficient advance warning. It doesn’t take centuries to pack up and move on.

 The taxing authority cannot precommit to ‘massive retaliation’ because as mentioned, there’s no way for them to completely destroy the colonists. Neither can the colonists completely destroy everything in Sol, but that doesn’t matter because they can still credibly destroy many units of value with a single unit of effort.

All of this ignores the practical issues with these weapons, the fact that earth’s value is minuscule compared to the sun, 

How does the value of the Sun relate to this discussion?

the costs of forfeiting property rights, 

What property rights? For any rights to actually exist there must be some authority capable of enforcing such, which wouldn’t be the case as previously mentioned.

the relocation costs, 

The relocation cost would be there but like I said it would be many orders of magnitude less for the colonists than for Earth.

and the fact that citizens of marginal lands would receive net payments from the citizens dividend.

If Earth simply wants to send payments to the colonists then that renders the choice of taxation system moot. If they want to send payments a few dozen years after taxes are collected then they still first have to collect the taxes. Which is the same problem. Promising large rewards at some future date without an enforceable guarantee doesn’t work, since after all the colonists also can’t compel the payments to be sent out either.

I feel like something important got lost here. The colonists are paying a land value tax in exchange for (protected) possession of the planet. Forfeiting the planet to avoid taxes makes no sense in this context. If they really don’t want to pay taxes and are fine with leaving, they could just leave and stop being taxed; no need to attack anyone.

The “its impossible to tax someone who can do more damage than their value” argument proves too much; it suggests that taxation is impossible in general. It’s always been the case that individuals can do more damage than could be recouped in taxation, and yet, people still pay taxes.

Where are the individuals successfully avoiding taxation by threatening acts of terrorism? How are states able to collect taxes today? Why doesn’t the U.S. bend to the will of weaker states since it has more to lose? It’s because these kinds of threats don’t really work. If the U.S. caved to one unruly individual then nobody would pay taxes, so the U.S. has to punish the individual enough to deter future threats.

The colonists are paying a land value tax in exchange for (protected) possession of the planet. Forfeiting the planet to avoid taxes makes no sense in this context. If they really don’t want to pay taxes and are fine with leaving, they could just leave and stop being taxed; no need to attack anyone.

Who's stopping them from simply just staying at their planet, doing whatever they want,  while not paying tax? 

It’s always been the case that individuals can do more damage than could be recouped in taxation, and yet, people still pay taxes.

I'm specifically pointing out the fact that in the future, if such spacecraft are relatively accessible, that it won't just be 'do more damage' but several orders of magnitude more. Which turns threats from ignorable to not ignorable. Presently even if a few do so, the cost of enforcement action for isolated cases are bearable, since it's not 1000x billions but only 1x or at most 5x billions. The same would not apply when the costs are unrecoverable, such as if Earth's biosphere were destroyed.

If you still think it's possible for present day individuals to cause 1000x retaliatory damage, I'd be curious to know how.

For example, an upper middle class individual may pay several million USD in taxes over a lifetime, with net present value being lower of course. How could a single upper middle class individual guarantee that they can cause a few billion USD of retaliatory damage to whatever taxation authority's jurisdiction they're in?

[-][anonymous]4mo 10

IMO you need to first map out the offense-defence landscape in space, before proposing ways to trade.

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