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.)