Sunday, February 13, 2011

The economics of contact with space aliens

I was reading some posts speculating about what would motivate space aliens to visit earth. The usual assumption is that since they are technologically superior - and they would have to be if they came to us before we went to them - they would either be paternalistic and try to steer our society with peaceful prosperity and wisdom, or cold invaders bent on enslaving us and stealing our resources.

Even when the focus is on being more realistic - invaders using grey goo attacks and killer bacteria instead of sending a vanguard of living troops - it's taken for granted that superior aliens have no intention of treating us as equals - and to me, that would include establishing trade.

Why do we imagine beings brilliant enough to travel across the stars, but who still have a brutish seventeenth century understanding of economics?

It's because most people are clueless about Comparative Advantage - the idea that everyone benefits if the strong cooperate with the weak. It would be a bit of a culture shock to people in the Western Hemisphere - an advanced culture that wants to cooperate with them. Instead of aliens just giving us miracle medical machines, they may want us to coordinate factory work on Earth in exchange - or some other form of labor we have never imagined.

It would be a leveled-up version of the debate over sweatshop labor. Aliens could provide us with working spaces far safer and more humane than anything we have to offer, but not as good as those on their home world. Perhaps alien politicians and activists would try to stop these working spaces from being built on Earth out of concern for our well being and impose high standards, and no working spaces would be built.

You would also see earthlings afraid that the wonderful future technologies and goods the aliens give us would make us poorer because of the destruction of Earth jobs. If medical technology increases enough, the demand for child-sized coffins falls. They'd be right about the destruction of specific jobs, but exactly wrong about what that would do to our standard of living.

Contact with an advanced civilization has a great chance to improve our quality of life. If alien beings can unravel the mysteries of space travel, then somewhere along the way they would have discovered economics and would understand comparative advantage too.


  1. I think you're talking about the movie "they live" starting Roddy Piper

  2. Lets face it, the only 2 things we have that aliens would come here for are beer and buffalo wings. I'm prepared to fight to the death over the supply.

  3. Reminds me of what Stephen Hawking had to say about extraterrestrials:

  4. Dude! I'm in love with the sci-fi twist your blog has had lately! Such relatively unexplored topics and, let's face it, the concept of aliens (and therefore, hot space chicks) is full of awesome! I must disagree with the beer and bufallo wings guy, though. I'm fairly sure they pass up the wings and take our marijuana instead. I'll fight to the death beside you for the beer, though!

  5. Abner, if they took our drug-plants and ingested them, I'm sure they would come right back for the wings.

  6. Really nice analogy! Adding you to my RSS feed.