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Starship traders

Starship traders

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may think they have their hands full with NAFTA, but just wait until it’s time to renegotiate DSFTA, the Deep Space Free Trade Agreement. In the latest issue of Astropolitics, political scientist John Hickman thinks where no social scientist has thunk before in his new article, “Problems of Interplanetary and Interstellar Trade.”

Hickman believes that interplanetary trade could be one of the primary economic drivers for space exploration in the future. The potential problems are by no means minor, however. First of all, the vast distances between solar systems would probably prohibit the transportation of tangible goods. (Though, as Hickman points out, transatlantic trade probably seemed just as fanciful to traders in renaissance Europe.) There may however be potential for trade in non-tangible goods such digital entertainment, or scientific information with newly discovered alien species. But even this is not without dilemmas that would give Austan Goolsbee a migraine.

How will we enforce contracts or copyright laws on a civilization 20 light-years away? How will we set up a banking system or transferable currency without any tangible goods to trade? How will we protect ourselves from strange new ideas and ideologies that may destroy the fabric of our society? Worst of all, how will we trade with a species that may not even have a concept of trade?

Economic exchange itself might be “alien” to the aliens. Members of an alien species may not experience the same intense sense of self that is exhibited in rationally self-interested economic exchange among humans. Instead, a collective identity could be dominant. Money might not exist and without it neither would complex markets or banking. If they do engage in economic exchange it might take a form akin to potlatch, the competitive gift-giving for status solely among members of the same tribe traditional among societies in Melanesia and the Pacific Northwest. Moreover an alien species might not live in separate societies and could thus have no conception of trade between different societies with different cultures.

Can we maintain our free-market values and still trade with these hippie space communists? Hickman proposes establishing a “solar system monetary union” or publicly administered “planetary clearinghouse” under which interplanetary merchants could operate. The good news is, even after discovering alien life, we would still need to decode their language and acquire a basic cultural understanding before we can even think about initiating trade. This should give us enough time to bone up on all 285 Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.

Travis Daub contributed to this post.

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen weighs in

[R]eciprocal, tit-for-tat exchange would work just fine, provided that a) relativity did not slow down the exchange of information too much, and b) not too many Ohio voters watched that movie where the aliens send us their genetic information, embedded in an apparently innocuous transmission, and trick us into downloading those instructions and then cloning them en masse…  In other words, we probably cannot trade with aliens.