Thursday, 14 June 2012

Starfarers Economics

In Poul Anderson's Starfarers, Chapters 47-52:

On Earth, robotics and nanotech make all necessities and all or most comforts free like air or sunlight so no one either pays for necessities or profits by selling them. However, a money economy still exists on the colony planet Harbor eleven and a half light years away:

 "The economy today is ruthless; for each person who succeeds, a hundred or a thousand go under." (1)

And land is overcrowded because population is rising steeply. Why have robotics and nanotech not been imported from Earth? Especially since it is stated that on Harbor:

"...technics feeds, clothes, houses, medicates everybody..." (1)

although with the qualifications that:

"...but it can't create living space; and poverty is relative." (1)

The population issue needs to be addressed but otherwise poverty would not need to remain relative if Harborian "technics" were upgraded to the level of terrestrial robotics and nanotech.

Speaking of his opponents on Harbor, Ricardo Nansen asks:

"This is a free society, isn't it? How can they forbid us applying our knowledge to make money and spending the money as we see fit?" (2)

The answer is that the opponents, with superior funds, resources and influence, can undercut Nansen's businesses, pressurise his potential financiers and subsidise hostile propaganda.

Nansen is right that he can make and spend money in a free society provided that that society has a money economy. Thus, it must be neither a primitive hunting and gathering society nor the robotics/nanotech economy existing on Earth at that time. On Harbor as it is described to us, both Nansen and his opponents can make money by hiring skilled or unskilled labour from among the rising population most of whom "go under" but, on Earth, Nansen would build and launch starships not by investing and hiring but simply by cooperating with like-minded people to deploy available resources.

Of Earth, we are told:

"The sort of competitiveness that drove material innovation, whether or not there was any current need for it, was simply not in this society." (3)

If this is a given of the story, then of course I must accept it as such while reading the story. However, I am confident that freedom from economic competition would not stifle but, in some individuals at least, would liberate human curiosity, creativity, ingenuity and energy. It would not be necessary for a small spaceship crew from eleven thousand years ago to re-inspire exploration.

I am grateful to Anderson for writing novels that initiate this level of discussion not only of alien life forms and of technological advances but also of human society. 

(1) Anderson, Poul, Starfarers, New York, 1999, p. 471.
(2) ibid., p. 465.
(3) ibid., p. 450.

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