, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


If we are ever visited or contacted by agents from an extraterrestrial civilization, what kind of society will they come from? The issue is given scant attention, if any, in discussions of extraterrestrial life, at least according to this interesting piece in The Freeman by B.K. Marcus. The popular view, and that of many scientists, seems to be that the alien society will be dominated by an authoritarian central government. Must that be the case? Marcus notes the negative views taken by such scientific authorities as Neil deGrasse Tyson toward laissez faire capitalism, and even Carl Sagan “… could only imagine science funded by government.” Of course, Tyson and Sagan cannot be regarded as authorities on economic affairs. However, I admit that I have fallen into the same trap regarding extraterrestrial visitors: that they will come from a socialist society with strong central command. On reflection, like Marcus, I do not think this view is justified.

One explanation for the default view that extraterrestrial visitors will be socialists is that people uncritically accept the notion that an advanced society is a planned society.  This runs counter to mankind’s experience over the past few centuries: individual freedom, unfettered trade, capitalism and a spontaneous social order have created wealth and advancement beyond the wildest dreams of earlier monarchs. Anyone with a passing familiarity with data on world economic growth, or with F.A. Hayek, should know this, but it Is often overlooked. Central planners cannot know the infinitely detailed and dynamic information on technologies, resource availability, costs and preferences needed to plan a society with anything close to the success of one arranged through the voluntary cooperation of individual actors.

Many of us have a strong memory of government domination of space exploration, so we tend to think of such efforts as the natural province of government. Private contractors were heavily involved in those efforts, but the funding and high-level management of space missions (NASA in the U.S.) was dominated by government. Today, private space exploration is a growth industry, and it is likely that some of the greatest innovations and future space endeavors will originate in the private sector.

Another explanation for the popular view is the daunting social challenges that would be faced by crews in interstellar travel (IST). Given a relatively short life span, a colonizing mission would have to involve families and perhaps take multiple generations to reach its destination. There is a view that the mini-society on such a ship would require a command and control structure. Perhaps, but private property rights and a certain level of democratization would be advantageous. In any case, that carries no implication about the society on the home planet nor the eventual structure of a colony.

A better rationale for the default view of socialist ETs involves a public goods argument. The earth and mankind face infrequent but potentially catastrophic hazards, such as rogue asteroids and regions of strong radiation as the sun orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy. These risks are shared, which implies that technological efforts to avert such hazards, or to perpetuate mankind by colonizing other worlds, are pure public goods. That means government has a classic role in providing for such efforts, as long as the expected benefits outweigh the costs. The standard production tradeoff discussed in introductory economics classes is “guns versus butter”, or national defense (a pure public good) versus private consumption. IST by an alien civilization could well require such a massive diversion of resources to the public sector that only an economically dominant central government could manage it. Or so it might seem.

As already noted, private entrepreneurs have debunked the presumed necessity that government must dominate space exploration. In fact, Elon Musk and his company SpaceX hope to colonize Mars. His motives sound altruistic, and in some sense the project sounds like the private provision of a public good. Here is an interpretation by Tim Urban quoted at the link (where I have inserted a substitute for the small time-scale analog used by the author):

Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash [from time to time] … what’s the very obvious thing you’d do?
You’d copy the document onto a second hard drive.
That’s why Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars.”

Musk has other incentives, however. The technology needed to colonize Mars will also pay handsome dividends in space mining applications. Moreover, if they are successful, there will come a time when Mars is a destination commanding a fare. Granted, this is not IST, but as technology advances through inter-planetary travel and colonization, there is a strong likelihood that future Elon Musks will be involved in the first steps outside of our solar system.

While SpaceX has raised its capital from private sources, it receives significant revenue from government contracts, so there is a level of dependence on public space initiatives. However, the argument made by Marcus at the first link above, that IST by ETs is less likely (or impossible) if they live under a socialist regime, is not based primarily on recent experience with private entrepreneurial efforts like Musk’s. Instead, it has to do with the inability of socialist regimes to generate wealth, especially the massive wealth necessary to accomplish IST.

Discussions of ETs (or the lack thereof) often center around a question known as the  Fermi Paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi. He basically asked: if the billions and billions of star systems, even in our own galaxy, are likely to harbor a respectable number of advanced civilizations, where are they? Why haven’t we heard from them? My friend John Crawford objects that this is no paradox at all, given the vastness of space and the difficulty and likely expense of IST. There may be advanced civilizations in the cosmos that simply have not been able to tackle the problem, at least beyond their own stellar neighborhood. No doubt about it, IST is hard!

I have argued to Crawford that there should be civilizations covering a wide range of development at any point in time. In only the past hundred years, humans have increased the speed at which they travel from less than 50 miles per hour (mph) to at least 9,600 mph. The speed of light is approximately 270,000 times faster that that! At our current top speed, it would take almost 50% longer to reach our nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri, than the entire span of human existence to-date. With that kind of limitation, there is no paradox at all! But I would not be surprised if, over the next 1,000 years, advances in propulsion technology bring our top speed to within one-tenth of the speed of light, and perhaps much more, making IST a more reasonable proposition, at least in our “neighborhood”. There may be civilizations that have already done so.

Answers to the Fermi Paradox often involve a concept called the Great Filter. This excellent HuffPo article by Tim Urban on the Fermi Paradox provides a good survey of theories on the Great Filter. The idea is that there are significant factors that prevent civilizations from advancing beyond certain points. Some of these are of natural origin, such as asteroids and radiation exposure. Others might be self-inflicted, such as a thermonuclear catastrophe or some other kind of technology gone bad. Some have suggested that the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland could be a major hazard to our existence, though physicists insist otherwise. Another example is the singularity, when artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence, creating a possibility that evil machines will do us in. The point of these examples is that some sudden or gradual development could prevent a civilization from surviving indefinitely. These kinds of filters provide an explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

More broadly, there could be less cataclysmic impediments to development that prevent a society from ever reaching an advanced stage. These would also qualify as filters of a sort. Perhaps the smart ETs lack, or failed to evolve, certain physical characteristics that are crucial for advancement or IST. Or their home planet might be light on certain kinds of resources. Or perhaps an inferior form of social organization has limited development, with inadequate wealth creation and technologies to transcend the physical limitations imposed by their world. On a smaller than planetary scale, we have witnessed such an impediment in action many times over: socialism. The inefficiencies of central planning place limits on economic growth, and while high authorities might dictate a massive dedication of resources toward science, technology and capital-intensive space initiatives, the shift away from personal consumption would come at a greater and greater cost. The end game may involve a collapse of production and a primitive existence. So the effort may be unsustainable and could lead to social upheaval; a more enlightened regime would attempt to move the society toward a more benign allocation of resources. Whether they can ever accomplish IST is at least contingent on their ability to create wealth.

Socialism is a filter on the advancement of societies. ETs capable of interstellar travel could not be spawned by a society dominated by socialism and central planning. While government might play a significant role in a successful ET civilization, one capable of IST, only a heavy reliance on free-market capitalism can improve the odds of advancing beyond a certain primitive state. Capitalism is a relatively easy ticket to the wealth required for an advanced and durable civilization, and conceivably to the reaches of the firmament.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no guarantee that capitalistic ETs will be friendly  toward competing species, or that they will respect our property rights. They might be big, smart cats and find us mouse-like and quite tasty. Their children might make us perform circuses, like fleas. In any case, if ETs get this far, it’s probably because they want our world and our resources. My friend Crawford says that they won’t get here in any case. He believes that the difficulty of IST will force them to focus on their own neighborhood. Maybe, but on long enough time scales, who knows?

I would add a caveat to conclusions about the strength of the filters discussed above. A capitalistic society might reach a point at which it could send artificially intelligent, self-replicating machines into space to harvest resources. Those machines might well survive beyond the end of the civilization that created them. Conceivably, those machines could act autonomously or they could take coordinated action. But we haven’t heard from them either!

For a little more reading, here is SETI‘s description of the Fermi Paradox, and here is a post from io9 on the Great Filter.