Could Classical Liberalism Survive an Encounter with an E.T.?

Could Classical Liberalism Survive an Encounter with an E.T.?

By John Goodman

Many libertarians I know are devotees of science fiction. But I can’t recall any of them writing about what would really happen if we were visited by alien beings. My prediction: an encounter with aliens would put classical liberal political philosophy to a severe test. Indeed, anyone who basically believes in capitalism and freedom would find those beliefs challenged in a major way.

The reason: I can’t think of any way to rapidly introduce massive technological change into our society without causing enormous, arbitrary impacts on peoples’ lives. Potentially, there would be instant winners and losers with vast differences between gains and the losses. Furthermore, each individual’s fate in this new world would probably have nothing to do with merit or demerit; but would be mainly due to random (undeserved) chance. As a result, I think there would be huge pressure to socialize the gains and losses from such cataclysmic change.

[I’m putting aside all notions that an alien civilization would
bear the expense of traveling thousands of light years to get here
so that they can drink our blood, capture our souls or dominate
us. If they make the effort I assume it will be for the same
reason we might someday make the effort: curiosity and

Imagine that you could be transported back to 1776 and suppose you could take on your journey through time computer tapes and other materials reflecting the current state of knowledge. (Ignore for the moment the problem of finding an outlet for your laptop.) As a single individual, you could change the course of the Revolutionary War, depending on which side you decide to favor. Or could you?

I’m reminded of Leonard Read’s essay, “I Pencil,” in which he argued that no single person in the world has enough knowledge to make a pencil. Reed noted that pencils are produced because of the interaction of thousands of people all over the globe. None of us could ever fully master all of the tasks needed to bring one into existence. So even if you carried a pencil on your journey back through time, people would not be able to readily copy it. The same would be true of an Uzi machine gun or a hand grenade.

There is a vast and complex web of social interaction that stands between basic knowledge and giving entire armies military advantage. In giving information to one or two individuals, you would be setting off a chain reaction, whose end result would be impossible to predict. In trying to help the British win the war, for example, your actions could ultimately lead to a speedier American victory. Just think, what might have happened had Benedict Arnold accidentally “replied all” about his plans to cede the fort at West Point? If you tried to help the Americans you might end up causing a British victory instead.

All this is to get you mentally prepared to recognize that whatever you do will produce all kinds of unintended and unforeseen consequences.

Let’s put war aside for a moment and suppose that your real objective is peace and prosperity. You are motivated by the desire to do nothing more than bring the benefits of 21st century knowledge to 18th century human beings. No matter how altruistic your motives, however, you almost certainly will cause enormous disruption.

Remember, there is almost nothing a worker, farmer, tradesman, etc. is doing in the 18th century that could not be immeasurably improved by 21st century technology. So access to 21st century information would give an enormous competitive advantage to the butcher, the baker, the brewer or anyone else who obtains it and learns how to use it first. Also remember that 21st century knowledge will make producers more productive. That means a lot of butchers, bakers and brewers would have to find a new trade.

Take agriculture. Two hundred years ago, 70% of the population was engaged in farming. Today it’s about 2%. This is a change that took place over the course of two centuries.But if you were able to bring modern knowledge back to the 18th century, the change might occur over the course of a few years. In the process, the vast majority of the entire population might be temporarily unemployed and perhaps permanently seeking work with few marketable skills.

Now let’s think about ET. The distance between us and the Revolutionary War period is only two centuries. But the difference between ET’s civilization and ours is likely to be several million years. As a practical matter, that means that whatever you know would become quickly obsolete. Whatever your skills, in short order they would be no longer needed. The only question is: would you be able to learn new skills and master new information quickly enough to keep your market wage (and therefore your standard of living) from plummeting?

To pick one example, suppose an alien gave me a Star Trek replicator – a device that can rearrange atoms and make food, ranging from a pork chop to a key lime pie. With this device I could open up shop and potentially put every other restaurant out of business. And not just restaurants. It could potentially put the entire agro-industry out of business. I would become enormously wealthy while bankrupting tens of thousands of competitors. And all this would occur for no other reason than that I was the first recipient of an alien gift.

More generally, the introduction of inconceivably advanced knowledge and technology has the potential to radically turn the terms of trade individuals have with each other in ways that are both unpredictable and arguably unfair. So what could we do about it? I’m not sure.

I grant that this is a perplexing problem and I invite readers to give their own solutions to it.

BTW, these considerations work in reverse. Suppose that someday we discover alien planets that are less developed than our own. Should we share our knowledge with them? Or should we should we follow Starfleet command’s prime directive: there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations? (It was a directive, incidentally, that Captain Kirk seemed to violate in just about every episode.)

5 responses to “Could Classical Liberalism Survive an Encounter with an E.T.?

  1. Bearing in mind how we behave to each other when there are differences in fire power, I suspect any civilisation up to interstellar travel would be more interested in drinking strange blood than in peaceful exchange.

  2. Hmm. It’s unlikely that any civilisation can get to the star travel phase without adopting somehting similar to classical liberalism. I often say, “we live in history, not at the end of it”. Right now, we are somewhere approaching the end of what I call “phase II society”. Phase 1 is the tribal “state of nature”. Phase 2 is a bloodbath of imperialism based on a philosophy of resource capture.

    Phase 3 was discovered by the classical liberals, and requires understanding of economics, amont other things, and thus the realisation that greater benefit can be derived from trade than plunder. Every Phase 2 civilisation has driven itself into the ground through trying to benefit from plunder; in the end the costs always outweigh the benefits after an initial period of success, and collapse occurs.

    What we call libertarianism, or liberalism, is the basic philosophy of a Phase 3, peaceful trade civilisation. It is the only possible method of long term prosperity. We are partially following it now. Phase 2’ers- socialists, fascists, conservatives, everybody else, are trying to keep Phase 2 going.

    Either an alien civilisation is libertarian, or it has fallen back into a dark age. Maybe the silence from the stars is due to most species never escaping Phase 2, but it may just be that we are first in this vicinity.

    As to awesome future technologies, I suspect we’re going to be disappointed. Technological progress appears to be an “S” curve and we have been on the steep bit for the past couple of centuries, so the gulf between ourselves and the 17th century is immense. But we already know the limitations placed on us by physics; no faster than light travel for instance, and no transporter beams either. I think it highly likely that this century’s great tecnnology will be biological; an end to disease, and to ageing. THat will enormously change the human condition, of course. But starships? Apparently not, I’m afraid. Replicators look fun… but oh my, look at the energy requirements!

    1kg of matter, even with no losses, will require nearly 10^17 joules. That’s an awful lot of energy for a few cups of earl grey, hot. May well always be more practical to grow the plants and boil a kettle…

  3. I was most interested to see this article, since I have recently written and (self-)published a novel about bringing human civilization into the Galaxy. Sean has read it, and promised a nice review of it [:)>

    I am not sure that the introduction of technology from outside would be as disruptive as here suggested. At least, as long as the technology was beneficent, and could be understood by any human willing to put in the effort. I tend to think of such technology as a good thing, providing new opportunities for the dynamic and productive. But then, having spent 40-odd years in software development, maybe I’m biased.

    I agree with Ian B that liberal individualism is a necessary for any civilization to get much further than we are today. Indeed, that is a major theme of my book – the first step in “going Galactic” (which I call the Personal Transition) is changing people’s thinking away from the collective and towards the individual, and that then causes knock-on effects in the social and economic spheres.

    BTW (shameless plug) you can buy my book here:


  4. This is why the pontifications of Jean Luc Picard et al always struck me as vacuous. Their wonderful Federation utopia did not come about because all creeds&colours decided to lay down their arms and co-operate in the spirit of human fellowship blah blah blah, but rather because their technology eliminated scarcity. You remove 99% of conflict if you manage that. Why would people fight if they could replicate any material object they required? Why would people fight if they could enter a holodeck and enjoy any experience they liked?

    In your example, it’s not the bankrupt grocers, butchers etc that I would be concerned about. I’d be celebrating the massive increase in productivity which the existence of a single replicator would mean for everyone in general. If there are people going hungry because they don’t have access to the replicator vendor, then all the other vendors are still there to sell to them. Isn’t your scenario analagous with the old technological unemployment argument? Not that you hear it much these days. After the industrial revolution, that huge majority of people no longer had to work in agriculture and were able to specialise, develop the economy, provide a vast new array of products and services.

    Employment is not an end in itself (I exclude here the pleasures of artisans, craftsmen, artists etc) but a means to provide the necessities of life. If replicators were everywhere and the unemployment rate was 99.99%, with only one chap having to push a button to keep the replicator programs going, then what’s the trouble?

    See you on the holodeck.

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