Sunday, March 3, 2013

High Kings and Galactic Emperors - Monarchy in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science fiction has been rather curiously given to monarchical government. 'Curiously' in the sense that (at any rate to 'Murricans) it is a form of government associated with the past, and certainly not with rocket ships, monorails, food pills, cyborgs, or the rest of the retro-future paraphernalia that sci-fi still loosely connotes in the popular culture. And even, with a reservation or two, in SF fandom.

The situation in fantasy is somewhat different. In spite of urban fantasy and all the rest, fantasy still connotes first and foremost a setting rooted in a medievalesque past, where kings - and the occasional queen regnant - are perfectly at home.

I have read a number of arguments over the years suggesting that the widespread practice of monarchy in SF says something about the authors who use the trope, and probably not to their credit. (Sorry, no links, but if you want examples, Google is your friend.) Similar critical remarks have been made not just about fantasy authors, but its readers, and the very existence of the (sub)genre.

For my purpose, the virtues or defects of monarchism as a political position are fairly beside the point. Kingship has certainly been widespread, suggesting that it was a workable default position, at any rate in the agrarian age. For an intellectual defense you probably still can't do better than Hobbes' Leviathan. Not to mention that as a critique of anarchism and its cousins, it is hard to improve on solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But I would argue - in fact, I will argue - that the roots of monarchism in SF have less to do with political philosophy than with basic story considerations.

Bourgeois representative democracy, classical Athenian-style democracy, classical Roman-style republicanism, medieval oligarchical republicanism a la Venice, military juntas, fascistic fuehrerprinzip, Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat, nominally Communist party-committee oligarchy, pure bureaucratic functionary-ism, and both Iranian and al-Queda style theocracy, all have at least one thing in common: The likelihood of a teenage girl becoming head of state under any of these systems is pretty much nil.

Yes, that particular consideration has rather narrow applicability. But it is part of a broader point: Leadership in all of those systems is in some broad sense a workday job. To be sure, rulership is, in contemporary biz-speak, a 24/7 position. But it is walled off, at least in principle, from all the other dimensions of a ruler's life.

Yes, that principle may be honored in the breach: Presidents and dictators do indeed have personal lives that can and do spill over into their official roles. The spillover can even, at times, be substantial, and have some real consequences. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.   

Hereditary monarchy is a different beast. Quoting myself from an earlier post here (and, originally, a now-defunct website), hereditary monarchy is a political system that takes sex out of the bedroom and puts it in the history books.

Admittedly there was not much sex in midcentury SF or F. But the authors of these works knew their history, at any rate Western history. Which, from the Julio-Claudians to the Tudors and beyond, offers ample enough demonstration of the uniquely colorful potential of hereditary monarchy.

Someone in the back row is pointing out that the Principate under the Julio-Claudians was not really a hereditary monarchy. (Nor did the Empire ever quite become one, even under the Paleologi more than a thousand years later.) But that was sort of the problem, wasn't it? With no other constitutional mechanism at hand, a kinda sorta hereditary succession was the least worst alternative, with an added element of uncertainty that ramped up family dysfunction even above the usual royal standard.

And on the flip side, monarchy brings grandeur to family dysfunction. Consider The Lion in Winter. The actual story line has all the makings of a squirm-inducing soap opera. But because it is the royal Angevins (and, yes, brilliantly written) it transcends its soap opera plot.

Or, to put it another way, hereditary monarchy is singularly well-suited to Romance. By fully entangling the personal and the political it provides great story fuel. And story trumps futurism, or even political philosophy, every time.


The Flickr page for the royal headgear above describes it as 'Not THE crown, just a crown.' But the lighting is appropriately cool.


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Locki said...


The only Uplift book you ever need to read is Startide Rising. Its the one that won the Hugo and Nebula.

The first book Sundiver was weak. Possibly the worst out of the 6 books.

I read the four followup books which were ok but I mostly got carried along by the remembered awesomeness of the Startide.

The 2nd trilogy started off quite slowly and was only tenuously connected to his 1st trilogy. It could've been great and had some intriguing ideas but either Brin or his editor got cold feet and ditched the original plan after book 2 and tried to write a straight Startide Rising sequel.

Try Startide Rising. Its one of the better examples of intelligent Space Opera.

jollyreaper said...

I may have already read startide. I'll have to check the wiki and see what rinds a bell.

The sign of bad entertainment is when I know I read or saw something and yet retain nothing. Other books I read longer ago I will remember in great detail. A Fire Upon the Deep was really good.

I think part of the problem is that writers lack a sense for how big their ideas are and therefore how many words it should take to explore them. It can become very tiresome to have an idea that could be explored in a short story blown up to novel length. The writer will put other things in for padding that just aren't required. While I consider 2001 interesting but flawed, just imagine how much worse it would be if Hollywood demanded a love interest for the different human characters. We need conventional, predictable conflicts for the audience to watch. But the story isn't about that! What if the computer falls in love with a female astronaut? Then we can have that along with the rest of it! You mean HAL and Dave fighting over Sally? Yes! Die in a fire.

Damien Sullivan said...

_Startide Rising_ and _The Uplift War_ are both generally considered to be excellent, assuming you like gonzo space opera at all.

"Brin just couldn't resist making humans special little wolfling snowflakes"

I don't know you're complaining about wolfling or snowflakes. Given a premise of Galactic uplift and the lack of any alien evidence on Earth, your only options are "wolfling", "very secret history", or "make anyone who knows biology scream a la Niven's _Protector_". I'm happy with his going 'wolfling'.

And humans aren't that snowflakey; mostly we suck. Occasionally we have solutions not currently fashionable in Galactic Library civilization.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"_Startide Rising_ and _The Uplift War_ are both generally considered to be excellent, assuming you like gonzo space opera at all."

Generally? Excellent? I think it's been a popular series. But I have to agree with Jollyreaper -- Brin took a simple idea that could have floated a novel or two on its own merits, but just can't support what he made out of it. Think of all of the movie franchises that should have stopped after the first or second sequel -- or not had any sequels at all, on its storytelling merits -- that just go on because somebody will pay for it. Yet, just because people will pay for it doesn't mean it's artistically or intellectually appealing. It may just be the author giving the people what they want. But the people don't always want quality.

WRT the "gonzo", I have to say that one most often winds up with characters and situations mismatched to the scope. Brin readily falls into thi trap. Supposedly, some small group of humans and their clients possesses a piece of intelligence that is so decisive that the races of the galaxy are willing to pull out all of the stops to chase them wherever they go and destroy them, simply to keep that knowledge away from the rest of humanity. That's not how the real world works. Small groups on great stages are neat focuses for psychodrama or convenient foils on which to make philosophical points. But they aren't plausibly the key to everything.

Not a thing that happens to a rifle squad or a single ship will make one bit of difference in the overall scheme of things, ever. That writers try to make it so, and that readers lap it up id testimony to a general desire not be small in the face of a bureaucracy or a universe that jut doesn't care. It's not reflective of an individual's realistic potential to make a difference.

"I don't know you're complaining about wolfling or snowflakes. Given a premise of Galactic uplift and the lack of any alien evidence on Earth, your only options are 'wolfling', 'very secret history', or 'make anyone who knows biology scream a la Niven's _Protector_'. I'm happy with his going 'wolfling'.

And humans aren't that snowflakey; mostly we suck. Occasionally we have solutions not currently fashionable in Galactic Library civilization."

On a purely technical plane, I have to agree that wolfling makes more sene than anything else. On a critical plane, the human, for all of their foibles, are quite handy Mary Sues.

Damien Sullivan said...

"Generally? Excellent?"

Yes. That you crankily disagree is unsurprising but doesn't change fan opinion as I've perceived it, which is that most people who've read them will endorse SR and UW without reservation, call Sundiver flawed, and go "ehhhh" about the whole second series.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Yes. That you crankily disagree is unsurprising but doesn't change fan opinion as I've perceived it, which is that most people who've read them will endorse SR and UW without reservation, call Sundiver flawed, and go 'ehhhh' about the whole second series."

Once again, popularity and excellence are not the same thing.

Locki said...

jollyreaper said...

The sign of bad entertainment is when I know I read or saw something and yet retain nothing. Other books I read longer ago I will remember in great detail. A Fire Upon the Deep was really good.


Wow you are getting really cynical in your old age. Some of my clearest, sharpest memories are of movies/songs/novels/cartoons that I now consider to be excruciably cheesy. I mean I think ..

Jollyreaper, YO!

All right stop
Collaborate and listen
Brin is back with my brand new invention
Something grabs a hold of me tightly
Then I flow that a harpoon daily and nightly
Will it ever stop?
Yo, I don't know
Turn off the lights and I'll glow
To the extreme I rock a mic like a vandal
Light up a stage and wax a chump like a candle

Ice Ice Baby ...

I don't think I can remember the lyrics to any other songs and no one is gonna accuse Vanilla Ice of being the last word in good music.

Startide Rising and Uplift War are a rollicking good read and I remember them fondly.

Unfortunately, like what Tony (as usual) pointed out they don't really stand up to close critical examination.

But then I'm of the firm opinion good, readable SF doesn't have to stand up to both scientific and critical analysis. Its just enough that it is fun and different enough in tone from the usual dungeons and dragons fare.

Homo Sapiens and the Terrans are pretty much a poster child for Mary Sues. I think the TV Tropes website uses them as a shining example.

The cycle of galactic uplift is great but if you examine the possibilities in detail I don't think it really holds up. I mean if we "tried" to uplift chimpanzees (splice in human genes, suggest a culture and society to chimps etc etc) we are just going to create some hairy, parody of a disabled homo sapien and smash every ethical principle in the meantime.

That "uplifted" chimp isn't really going to give us a different perspective on the universe or reality because both genetically and culturally it'll be some weird parody of a banana eating, hairy human society.

On a slightly unrelated note. I love Brin's approach to FTL. In his blog he confesses to scientific heresy and figures if he's going to commit such a crime against physics he might as well have fun with it and have hundreds of fun ways of tweaking the nose at Einstein.

I particularly enjoy the Tandu's method of FTL. They have a specially bread psychic client race who basically denies reality and probability and just pops fleets all over the 5 galaxies. Classic Space Opera stuff and more than a little bit influences by the Hitchhikers Guide I presume.

jollyreaper said...

I admit that I am picky over the fussy details when it's warranted. Zombies are my go-to example. In many zombie stories, how and why they happen aren't important. Do we need to explain plate tectonics for an earthquake movie? Do we need to know all about hurricanes if the movie is about gangsters trapped in a Florida hotel during a storm? Probably not. In fact, the important part of the story is the human drama, who wants to kill who and why, the storm is just a means of keeping them trapped in one place. Don't screw up the details and you're done, no hurricane hail.

But if the how and why of the zombie uprising is important, you need to have that crap worked out. It needs to make sense. Government conspiracy? Why would they make zombies? Why would a corporation do it? Is there any revelation that would make us go oh man, that's brilliant? It's like the punch line for a joke, don't string us on for twenty minutes on something too weak to pass for a one-liner.

Old Man's War is a good case of this. The characters are great. It's a very human story, engaging, keeps you enthralled. The only problem is the world-building really doesn't hold up under any kind of examination. Some of the things that happen defy coincidence. And the economics don't make sense. We try to conquer planets by planting colonies of farmers? That's what we do with them? There's nothing more sensible to try? With spaceships and all the ultratech it doesn't make sense. Also, the generic super soldiers, we clone and mind transfer to new bodies but can't replicate the mental template across multiple copies, it has to be one to one? Except we can also clone completely new special forces templates?

It just doesn't really make any sense. And this is sad because the story itself is really good. It's just one of those fridge logic moments like the aliens came to take our water? Like they couldn't raid the Oort Cloud?

Tony said...

Remember, in Old Man's War, as the series plays out, the human military may very well be up to no good. Because power in human hands is always abused. And powerful humans are just mean, nasty, ugly people. But they are individually appealing when they want to be, becaue that's just part of their diabolical evil. Yeah, Scalzi works out a lot of personal demons in that series. Too bad he let that get in the way of keeping readers interested in what started out to be an interesting story.

Damien Sullivan said...

TvTropes doesn't mention Mary Sue at all on the Uplift page, or anything like it. Closest is

" Humans Are Special: Toyed with. Humanity isn't treated as special, but they do have the singular advantage of not being bound by millennia of tradition as most other races are. They also claim to be the only species to evolve without uplift."

'I mean if we "tried" to uplift chimpanzees (splice in human genes, suggest a culture and society to chimps etc etc) we are just going to create some hairy, parody of a disabled homo sapien and smash every ethical principle in the meantime.'

You say that like it's certain, which it isn't. And chimps aren't a great example for getting a different perspective, they're our closest living relatives. Gorillas are the next out and already behave rather different. Orangs are different from either. *Dolphins*, well. Dogs would likely be different too, though I think those were "in-progress".

And of course most of the Uplift aliens are uplifting entirely alien species.

Tony said...

You're swinging after the bell, Damien.

Cordwainer said...

I'm not saying "water barons" might not exist or that water won't be a valuable commodity but it will most likely not be worth the money on it's own to extract. Lunar colonies will most likely place themselves near sources of water and allow their "mineral extracting" mining robots rove the service for valuable things to mine. The options for cheap and reliable energy anywhere on the Moon surface(except areas of permanent shadow mabe) are relatively good so low-energy mining of water will not be difficult. The mining of nearby asteroids will actually require less propellant and energy then the Moon. The mining of asteroids and comets further out will no doubt involve some sort of partnership between the "General Store" and "Mover" type tycoons who will offset some of the costs of mining water but will not solely rely on water as a business commodity. If you really want "water barons" it would make more sense to create "Comet Movers" who move dead comets from one mining region to another.

Cordwainer said...

"surface" not "service"

Cordwainer said...

The idea of uplifting primates makes me a little queasy. Even though they would not be the same as us they would be similar enough to create moral dilemmas. Also the handedness thing would make them a prime candidate for some sort of servitude that would put them in close interaction with humans. Uplifting cetaceans and octopi would have environmental consequences, your lab would have to be as larger "The Great Barrier Reef" and what happens if your subjects escape their lab environment. Domesticated animals like pigs or dogs make the most sense since we already control their genes to a large extent so we would just be improving on a project already in progress, the lack of hands would also keep them from common-place close interaction between the populace long enough to prevent possible abuses until we could uplift them to a level they are able to make a conscientious choice to work with or for us. Prosthetics, robots or cyborg bodies would then be crafted to give those species conscious control of their environment. There would still be opportunities for abuses in carrying out such an experiment and in including these uplifts in society but they would be more "politically correct" and legal safe gaurds could be put in place to minimize abuse.

Unknown said...


Remember, these things all have to START somewhere. The first, second and probably even third lunar expeditions are unlikely to be permanent, even if they are successful. A number of outposts will be setup and abandoned before someone puts down roots that last for the long term. If the first successful colonies established on the moon are built near the polar water resources, then whoever is managing those operations is in the best position to profit from them. It could be as simple as a handful of homesteaders using it to make a buck, or it could be the Shackleton Energy Company setting up shop and leveraging their early investments to make themselves the Big Name in space exploration that everyone else has to be nice to if they want to get anything done. Sooner or later Shackleton Base goes independent; that's fertile ground for a water oligarchy.

OTOH, the total lack of a lunar magnetic field means there are actually better places to set up colonies than close to where the water is. Reinner Gamma is one of the most famous; the site is covered by a localized magnetosphere that MIGHT be strong enough to repel some minor solar flares and cosmic rays, allowing for safer operations on the surface without the inherent radiation hazard.

Mining asteroids will require MORE propellant than mining the moon since the mine can be mined using ZERO propellant via ground vehicles with solar power. Exporting products back to Earth takes some propellant, but that is an entirely different issue. The bigger point -- again, extrapolating from those first colonial steps -- is that mining asteroids, like the ice fields on the moon, requires an incredibly high risk long term investment of a type that isn't really attractive to a very large government or company. Only very small operators with a lot of time on their hands and very little to loose are actually going to make the attempt; they will do so either with robotic spaceraft with relatively limited capabilities, or they'll put their own asses on the line declaring "YU-55 or bust!" And again, whoever builds the first industrial bases on the moon and has the most capital to invest in those kinds of projects -- if only to support the small suicidal missions of prospectors themselves -- will be the ones who reap the largest benefits and are in the best position to control how everyone else actually does business.

I should also point out: "moving comets" is an interesting idea that makes for good fiction (sometimes) but from a practical standpoint is dead on arrival. It's actually more efficient to process the mined materials in place and then ship finished products back than it is to move either ore or the whole thing.

Unknown said...

Not sure how this relates to the discussion of Monarchy, but there are really only three reasons for one species to carry out an uplift process on a more primitive one.

1) The need for slaves:
The uplifted species needs to be smart enough to perform useful labor but still be stupid enough not to worry about organized revolt or civil rights movements. This option is especially attractive if the upliftees have some unique characteristic that their benefactors need (e.g. the Salarians uplifted the Krogan specifically to keep the Rachni from eating everyone).

2) To prevent competition:
The uplifted species may be an ecological threat due to their aggressive nature and/or high birthrate. If this species is prolific enough that normal population controls are infeasible or undesirable, granting that species the faculties of reason and enlightened self interest might be a more effective way of getting them to control themselves (uplifting New York rats to the point that it is possible to teach them about hygiene and birth control).

3) Playing God:
"Because we can."

Cordwainer said...

Kyle I was only making the point that "water barons" will have a greater likelihood of being managed by conglomerates then individuals or small scale venture companies not that they won't be. Also in some cases getting out there to an asteroid uses less propellant then going to the Moon. Sending stuff back doesn't necessarily have to cost you any propellant because of mass drivers and cheap solar energy will be available both on the Moon and on asteroids. Energy to mine used to mine an asteroid will be less though due to the lower gravity of asteroids. The Moon is attractive because it has some things that asteroids may not have or may not have in the same quantity. As for comet moving I said I was talking far future not near future. If humans expand in to the asteroid belt in large enough quantities even it make sense to move large chunks of ice from a moon, asteroid or dead comet to the place where the work is being done. The likelihood that regions of the asteroid belt may be devoid or lacking in water either from the start or after time is much more likely then lunar craters or polar ice running out on the moon. There are millions of metric tonnes of water on the Moon's surface enough to carry out to those asteroid worksites and then some. While asteroid and lunar mining will mostly be automated you will probably still need people to repair, manage and maintain those automated systems. Picking a "dead comet" or floating chunk of ice out there and moving it from site to site might simply be more convenient then shipping it from the Moon or surveying for and digging a well on an asteroid.

Cordwainer said...

As for reasons to uplift, slavery has some awful moral and economic consequences that would make it undesirable for an industrialized species unless they have either a superiority complex or the uplifted species has a special skill than makes them highly desirable. There is also the fact that such a hypothetical universe would most likely have to have cheap biotech and expensive automation costs.

Competition is a poor excuse because its probably going to be cheaper even in the long run to just kill or cull the competition, this really only works if the species who does the uplifting has advanced biotech but not the intelligence to do a cost-effect analysis or if they are squeamish about killing animals on moral grounds.

People don't usually "play God" unless there is a strong economic or political benefit.

Cordwainer said...

Finally on the subject of moving asteroids and comets in some cases moving them may not require any fuel at all if you use the albedo effect or solar sails. Even using Mag-sails you only need effective amounts of solar energy.

jollyreaper said...

As I recall it became a status thing with the other civilized races. It's important because it's important. It's like arguing why build pyramids instead or cubes or whatever. Someone made it the thing, everyone starts treating the thing as important, so you need to do the thing to keep impressing.

Damien Sullivan said...

Tony, you have nothing to contribute, apparently. Just a cranky "I don't like it!"

"People don't usually "play God" unless there is a strong economic or political benefit. "

One could argue people haven't had the opportunity to "play God" properly, and still don't, so there's no basis for saying that. Or one could argue that it depends on the cost.

Certainly people spend a lot of effort doing things for reasons other than strong economic or political benefit.

Cordwainer said...

Also Kyle, constructing ice-ships out of in-situ chunks of ice would be a viable and economic way to transport water from an area of plenty to an area of scarcity. As long as you are far enough away from the Sun that physical integrity of the ships hull does not become a problem it seems quite feasible.

While it is possible that a species might take on a gardening or hobbyist model as a reason for uplift but they would still have to have a perceived benefit for doing it. The benefits for building pyramids or creating gardens started because of the perceived political, cultural or economic benefits were great and only became hobbyist as a sort of cultural artifact. Building a whole new race of people is not the same as putting an airplane model together. Now if that model airplane makes an excellent UAV then you got a good reason. Either way at some point there has to a perceived "good reason" to make it a culturally common practice even if that reason is based on a false premise. People still practice animism and other forms of religion for their perceived benefits but its the sub-conscious security and community networking benefits that keep these practices going as much as their belief systems in any worldly or spiritual gain.

jollyreaper said...

People play god all the time, stroking egos. But it's pretty weak standards of being god compared to what's possible with plausible future tech. Look at sheiks building artificial islands, industrialists setting up model societies, dictators trying to reboot cultures from year zero, etc.

You can play god as much as resources allow. A pensioner nutter can stay in his hovel and write books. A billionaire nutter could resurrect extinct species.

The question comes down to resources and politics. It would take uniting the nation behind the effort to build a starship, same as with the Apollo program. Absent the Cold War, not happening. But a movie director was able to hire a sub and take a trip to the titanic. He's funding oceanographic research with his own money.

If it takes the weatlh of a nation to play god, it's harder to pull off. If a rich obsessive can pay for it, crazy can make a lot happen.

The wealth of a modern mogul is ridiculous compared to the emperors of old. If resources scale just as radically in the future, private space missions are not unreasonable. Space Stations of Doctor Moreau is within reason.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Tony, you have nothing to contribute, apparently. Just a cranky 'I don't like it!'"

I actually contributed agreement to your opinion on wolflings vs whatever else humans might have been. So, if one agrees it's not a contribution, yet if one disagrees it's not a contribution. Please, explain to us what constitutes a contribution.

Elukka said...


"3. Even with singular large torch drives I suspect that the amount of energy available to civilization will put it firmly in the post scarcity economics column. This makes many political institutions and structures moot (politics, as defined by Organizational Theory, is the means of allocating scarce resources). Sorry, there can be Sovereign Individuals in such a setting, but a Space Monarchy would seem to be something along the lines of a Roman Legion reenactment group today."

I don't think it follows that highly energetic propulsion means a post-scarcity society. It's a bit like looking at nukes and figuring hey, we can release gigatonnnes worth of TNT of energy with this technology, humanity must be incredibly advanced!
Nah, we can just make big explosions. Indeed, we could use the same technology for spacecraft propulsion but having a bunch of Orions flying around won't mean we're any closer to post-scarcity. A torch drive is just making a big explosion to make the thing it's attached to move. Doesn't really mean much more than that.

Locki said...

Damien Sullivan said...

You say that like it's certain, which it isn't. And chimps aren't a great example for getting a different perspective, they're our closest living relatives. Gorillas are the next out and already behave rather different. Orangs are different from either. *Dolphins*, well. Dogs would likely be different too, though I think those were "in-progress".

And of course most of the Uplift aliens are uplifting entirely alien species.


I'd love to do a thread on uplift *HINT*

For the uninitiated David Brin treats species as analogues for family members. Each species "parents" a "child" client race forming an interlocking web of family like patron-client relationships.His last book in the 2nd Uplift Trilogy "Heaven's Reach" specifically references this.

One of the many weird wolfling (human) ideas that catches on in the 5 galaxies is the idea that you can get personal salvation rather than just species wide salvation.

Anyway back on point.

I will note that in almost 4 centuries of effort Humanity has had ZERO success in "uplifting" fellow stone age societies of humans to a self-sustaining pre-industrial or post-industrial society.

And thats without all the complexity of messing with the genes. Or dealing with a species that is alien to ourselves.

We can't even guide and protect our fellow humans along their own journey to a high tech society.

I am extremely pessimistic we can guide other species to a post industrial state.

This is one area I think that Star Trek, for all its tweeness, has correct. The Prime Directive is a very well thought out and consistent plot mechanism. (Its just a pity they break it every other episode)

Damien Sullivan said...

"I will note that in almost 4 centuries of effort Humanity has had ZERO success in "uplifting" fellow stone age societies of humans to a self-sustaining pre-industrial or post-industrial society."

Interesting point. Some flaws: what do you mean by self-sustaining? Trade and being plugged into the global economy are awesome.

Has anyone seriously *tried* to 'uplift' such societies in those four centuries? There was a bunch of 'civilizing' rhetoric but much more rhetoric than reality. Reality is enslaving them, taking their land and throwing them on reservations, taking their children, calling them primitive savage and stupid...

"Uplifting" a society, where culture may be what needs to be changed, isn't really analogous to genetically uplifting a species and *giving* them a culture.

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Cordwainer said...

On the subject of torchdrives again I see! While yes you could have a bunch of Orions or some other pulsed explosion drive running around, you are still limited by the number of bombs or fuel you have to carry. Such drives would also require some sort of reaction plate or energy shock absorber, which means they would probably be large gas-guzzling monsters not miniaturized torch-ships. Theoretically it is possible to get the mouth of a ramscoop down to one meter if you have a high enough flow rate and a powerful enough magnetic confinement. Of course you have relativistic inertia driving the high flow rate so this might not be workable at lower velocities, but this seems the most likely approach towards making reasonably sized torch engines. There would most likely be an optimal size to such engines. Make the engine to large and the plasma might be to diffuse or require too much energy to maintain both a high denstiy and high flow rate of plasma and you end up with another gas-guzzler. Make the engine to small and you end up with high flow rate with a low volume of plasma coming out of a number of small engines that mass the same as one big engine.(High fuel efficiency but poor thrust to weigh like an ion drive) Creating a pump and injection system that produces high enough flow rate at high enough pressures becomes the major engineering issue. Energy scarcity is not the problem if you have an exotic power source or beamed power delivery system. Whether your torchship uses bombs or stores energy another way or whether it is big or small depends on the density of the energy storage system and the size and efficiency of your engine.

Cordwainer said...

Damien has hit the nail on the head again. Both "uplift" futures and futures where alien societies interact with another will probably not be pretty or have very nice outcomes in many cases if looking at our own past is any indication. Even if older wiser species exist it is unlikely they will be either all-powerful or infallible, and there will most likely be a milieu of many different cultures with different customs, codes of behavior, and technological developments. The best scenario humans could hope for is if we run into a species more primitive then our own or a species that is as advanced as we are but is part of some sort of "island ecology" where the need for competition and aggression is not as pronounced in a more diverse ecosystem. Maybe such a race might eco-farm their planet into such a biosphere over time and end up a race of "Gentle Ben's". Of course such an outcome might be good for us but not so good for them.

Cordwainer said...

I wouldn't say civilizing efforts have had ZERO success just a very rocky and poor success. If having your original culture largely lost or become a cultural artifact and having such "primitives" often treated as largely second class citizens is your measure of success then it has probably done more harm then good. On the other hand if your culture is respected and is self-sustainable as part of a way of life or marketable commodity. If your language is accepted as a national language and retained in some form and your people are able to adapt to the modern world in a way that does not destroy there cultural connections with each other then maybe it is bearable. Civilizing is a prejudiced term but modernizing is something cultures do whether they interact with other cultures or not, the fusion of cultures just tends to speed up this process whether for good or bad. Just like "civilizing policies often has bad outcomes engaging in cultural isolationism often has hazardous outcomes as well.

Thucydides said...

WRT torchdrives, wile the direct use of a torchdrive on the surface of the Earth or inside a space colony to generate energy is probably a non starter, since the device is a "black box" there is no reason to suppose the principles behind it cannot be exploited for energy generation that does not involve generating thrust.

Nuclear reactors are used to propel ships, provide baseline power to the grid and were developed for rocket propulsion (NERVA), the basic reactor core is the same in all three cases.

It would be very strange that a civilization that has the theoretical knowledge and technical ability to package a 150 GW device on a spaceship could not exploit the same principles in other applications. If the principle(s) can be scaled sufficiently, then you could have mini "sub" torch drives for small spacecraft and presumably high intensity energy generation for other applications as well (which leads to the conclusion that the ability to create a torch drive does lead you into the post scarcity future).

In this regard, Niven and Pournelle did make a large lapse of logic; the Mote in God's Eye has a form of Torch ship for the Imperial Navy, but many of the planets in the Empire seem to be slightly beyond 21rst century levels of economic development, and the political structure is a monarchy. (They did write a very detailed essay on why they chose an Imperial government structure for the Mote, so they are logically consistent there, but like I said, if massive amounts of energy are available, then society will have the conditions for a post scarcity economy, with all that would bring).

Rick said...

1) Alas (from some perspectives), I'm not planning an uplifting post. Because no matter how much you work out a line of sfnal jive, to me the whole concept feels ... whimsical. It is basically a way to get to talking animals, after all.

The meta concept of whimsy, on the other hand, might well be worth a post.

To bring it down to cases, my Princess Catherine adheres to the rules of Realism[TM], at least as they apply in works of Romance. It is the one thing she has in common with nuclear electric space propulsion, and for that matter with most posts on this blog.

But there is no place in the framework of Realism[TM] for Princess Buttercup. Yet the world would be a good deal poorer without *The Princess Bride*. So whimsy is not to be dismissed, even if it is not the coin I personally trade in.

2) On the water barons of space, my reaction is that the considerations brought up mostly lead to the great unlikelihood of space colonization in anything like the plausible midfuture.

But see point 1) above.

Damien Sullivan said...

Whimsical? Maybe, but it's whimsy a lot of people want. I figure if it's possible people will make it happen, and uplift is at least as likely as space colonies, which we *know* are crazy expensive and problematic.

Tony said...


"WRT torchdrives, wile the direct use of a torchdrive on the surface of the Earth or inside a space colony to generate energy is probably a non starter, since the device is a 'black box' there is no reason to suppose the principles behind it cannot be exploited for energy generation that does not involve generating thrust."

The most logical assumption is that it is such a high power flux that it can only be used for propulsion.

"Nuclear reactors are used to propel ships, provide baseline power to the grid and were developed for rocket propulsion (NERVA), the basic reactor core is the same in all three cases."

Actually, that's not the case at all. NERVA reactors were designed to expend all of their power through a short interval of time, and then be expended. Shipboard or land reactors require hundreds of thousands of gallons of coolant a day -- and even then they don't expend power at anything like the rate of kilowatts per pound of fissionables that a NERVA reactor would.

"It would be very strange that a civilization that has the theoretical knowledge and technical ability to package a 150 GW device on a spaceship could not exploit the same principles in other applications."

It wouldn't be strange at all -- not at the same rates and intensities, at any rate.

Grognak said...


I don't think so, there are fundamental differences between space colonies and uplifting. Space colonies aren't 'playing God', don't awake our Frankenstein Complex, and don't involve something unnervingly close to slavery... in other words, opposition to space colonies is based on economic considerations, and should we discover tomorrow a new, revolutionary way to put thousands of tons in orbit cheaply would disappear; opposition to uplifting would be mainly based on ethical and religious concerns, not to mention fear (uplifted gorillas/dolphins for many would be the very definition of a monster) and should we discover tomorrow a viable way to uplift other species, opposition would become _HUGE_, vocal, organized, perhaps even violent. Priests, pastors, mullahs, etc, would be the first to oppose such a project because uplifted beings would have no soul...

Besides, financially speaking uplifting is so hopeless that in comparison space colonies look definitely profitable in the short term. Where's the money in creating additional intelligent species? What could they do that humans or robots can't already do?

Actually, I would even say that their one and only peculiar utility would reside precisely in them being widely feared and hated. A tyranny could find a caste of uplifted soldiers, guards and administrators useful indeed, like the Byzantine Varangian Guard or even better, like Ottoman Janissaries. But hated and feared humans are plentiful, much cheaper and already available... and such castes in real life usually ended up serving their own interests.

In case it isn't evident by now

- I don't agree with Rick ( :D ) because talking animals, discriminated, feared and hated, perhaps enslaved, rejected even by churches as satanical soulless abominations, can make fascinating characters. 'Whimsicality' resides in the story, not the concept...

- I haven't read Brin's Uplifting series

Damien Sullivan said...

At this point, "a new, revolutionary way to put thousands of tons in orbit cheaply" looks pretty unlikely, whereas uplife with more mature genomics could be really hard or could be easy, we don't know. And even if getting to orbit was as cheap as flying to Japan, I think colonies would be tiny at best for a long time, more like bases and perhaps wealthy hobbyists. People don't move to Alaska, why would they move to even more hostile orbit or Mars?

You're right that there'd be a fair bit of opposition to uplift, but it has to be pretty comprehensive to be effective. As for money... it's the sort of thing some people will want to pay for, if they can. Some people think (or fear) biohacking may end up being pretty cheap and accessible.

As for utility, chimps actually seem kind of redundant, but intelligent dolphins or dogs could be pretty useful: different environment, different senses.

Oh, and it'd be nice to have a pet who could understand language and human concepts better. Better respect for boundaries, toilet training, and such...

Cordwainer said...

On Thucydides comments:

I don't necessarily agree with your analysis of post-scarcity.
1)If you have torch-driven energy generation then you also have torch-powered fuel extraction capabilities so scarcity might not be a problem at least not for a long while. There is a lot of resources out there just in our solar system alone.
2)I find some fault with Mote in God's Eye's premise that the colonies would some how fall into a form of techno-barbarism and neo-feudalism, the social pressures they provide don't seem sufficient. Although a centralized autocratic government would be more effective over an interstellar empire with limited FTL like the "tramways".
3)If anything a post scarcity or scarcity economy would be more likely to create corporate and neo-feudalistic social structures.

As for Tony's comments NERVA indeed was flawed in the ways you described but more efficient designs were made at the time and have been made since. Also I thing we would be talking about mega-scale power generators or generators using more efficient sub-torch refinements. If you have the torch drive then the extracting sufficient fuel for such devices would not be a problem and if you use an exotic fuel source like anti-matter then a society would no doubt develop methods to use it for power generation in some way.

Cordwainer said...

Agreed that it is unlikely we will develop a cheaper and reliable means of space lift in the plausible mid-future. I do think the Lofstrom Loop and Alan Bond's Skylon design look promising if people would be willing to put up enough monmey for there development, but there are good economic reasons for private space companies to have rockets on the brain especially considering Space-X and Armadillo Aerospace simple and elegant designs.

Space colonies will probably start out with small population semi-permanent mining stations but that will by no means mean they will be small in size. Storage of equipment/supplies and concerns for miners comfort and safety will be paramount that far away from Earth which will require a certain amount of redundancy. Besides solar power will be cheap as long as you can get the materials up there cheaply enough. So these colonies will probably have no problems expanding when the appropriate push-pull forces demand increased colonization.

Since aqua-culture and aqua-mining will likely be cheaper and easier to do then space-mining at least for the immediate future then uplifting dolphins, porpoises or orcas might very well have benefits.

Also just because something doesn't meet with social approval doesn't mean someone won't try to uplift other animals, after all there have been reports that Eastern Bloc scientist did try to create human-chimpanzee hybrids. Uplifting dogs to create better work dogs seems less politically incorrect in my opinion and if animal rights activists were the one's supporting it as a way to commune with a "oppressed species" we might see something like Olaf Stapledon's Sirius played out in a more modern setting.

Thucydides said...

The example of NERVA was to illustrate that solid core fission reactors can be repurposed for many different uses. While the technical details are different, the basic fission reactor is at the core of nuclear electric power generation, ship propulsion and spaceship propulsion.

The principles that enable a torch drive should be capable of being used for other applications as well (even if the technical details are different).

As for "uplift" and bio hacking, we are already way past the threshold; genetic engineering has reached the point that people seriously discuss the "regenesis" of extinct species like Passenger Pigeons and Wooly Mammoths. DNA is also being used as an engineering tool in its own right, as a scaffolding for nano engineering and a storage medium for non biological information.

Cordwainer said...

Personally I have my doubts if we will find any culturally advanced mollusks out there in the "Great Beyond" but who knows, it would certainly be interesting if we did though. Such species would probably have very different social conventions from humans, much in the same way insect or hive intelligences have been imagined to have very different societies from our own.

I tend to believe that most culturally advance intelligences will be bipedal vertebrates with stereoscopic vision. The likelihood of developing complex culture and tool use is just more likely if those conditions are met, I think. To not meet those criteria and have complex culture and complex tool use similar to what occurred among humans 40,000 to 100,000 years ago during our genetic "bottleneck" would require some long winded or contrived explanation, or the common practice of uplift from other sentient species. But it is science fiction so an author could leave such an explanation open for dramatic considerations.

Tony said...


"The example of NERVA was to illustrate that solid core fission reactors can be repurposed for many different uses. While the technical details are different, the basic fission reactor is at the core of nuclear electric power generation, ship propulsion and spaceship propulsion.

The principles that enable a torch drive should be capable of being used for other applications as well (even if the technical details are different)."

This is a non sequitur. Just because a technology can be put to a given purpose does not necessarily mean that it can be put to others. The example of cryogenic liquid-fueled rockets bears repeating here. We can use them for propuslion, but we can't use them for much else.

Rick said...

I don't agree with Rick ( :D )

That is permitted.

because talking animals, discriminated, feared and hated, perhaps enslaved, rejected even by churches as satanical soulless abominations, can make fascinating characters. 'Whimsicality' resides in the story, not the concept...

Perhaps 'whimsical' was itself a rather whimsical choice of words!

But basically I can't see any reason why uplift would be attempted except that the concept of animals with human-level intelligence is really, really cool. (And yes, the same can be said of space colonies!)

If uplifting were actually done, it could and quite possibly would have all the nasty consequences outlined. I just don't see it happening.

Cordwainer said...

To what Tony said:

What about Magneto-hydrodynamic turbines, jet turbines and explosive pulsed power generators are these not examples of sorts of liquid-fueled rocket technology being used for power generation. I know they are wildly inefficient in some cases but there are many examples of people using inefficient power systems to jumpstart more efficient systems or provide large bursts of power for short durations. So some use for torchdrives in power generation may be of use. Also scale would be a factor wouldn't it. Inefficiency might drop off at mega-scale sizes and torch-drives might be refined into more efficient sub-torchdrive designs. I think it comes down more to what such a system would be used for and what the fuel costs would be. Maybe a torch-drive might make a good generator for a "Ravening beam of Death". Fuel your torch-drive with the solar wind via an ion scoop and you might have a good source of beamed power. Of course you would have to have the ion scoop at the right angle and close enough to the sun to continuosly feed the drive, this would be a slow moving or mostly stationary thing with a huge durable scoop close enough to suck up enough energetic materials so drag would only be an issue if moving the scoop at low velocities costs more then the energy captured. Yeah, I know other systems would probably be more efficient though.

Thucydides said...


If we give Cord grief over the concept of a Torch drive being a black box, rather than over thinking the internals, then the same principles apply here: if some "Black Box" allows you to generate a controllable 150+ GW in a confined space for thrust, then the same principles can be applied to other uses as well.

As Cord points out upthread, you actually can use liquid fueled rocket engines for other purposes (although not very efficiently), and many of the principles in jet and rocket propulsion have been cross purposed. It is suggested the RL-10 is so reliable because the engine was designed by Pratt & Whitney, using much of the same methodology that went into commercial and military jet engines.


I am not sure how you come to the conclusion that torch levels of energy would encourage the growth of an oligopoly or neo Feudal system; these generally arise as a means to monopolize or control scarce resources (see the definition of Politics in Organizational Theory: "A means of allocating scarce resources"). If you have vast amounts of energy, then almost by definition you have access to vast amounts of resources, either by being able to go and get them (flying to the asteroid belt, Oort cloud or anywhere in the Solar System), increasing the efficiency of existing processes (the difference between digging a canal with shovels or steam shovels, for an early example), or powering entirely new processes (using the energy for nucleosynthesis and transmuting bulk elements for whatever you want to do).

Cordwainer said...

I was making the point that if you do have the ability to have high levels of resources that neo-feudalism would not develop and that therefore torch-drive technology would negate the likelihood of these societies forming and that scaling such technology would have no effect on that. You implied at the middle of your post that the application of sub-torch or torch-drive power generation might lead to resource scarcity. I was agreeing with the end of your post that such technology would lead to the opening up of new forms of resource allocation. I just think it would be more likely that either such a society would either go through no period of scarcity or just a very short period of scarcity followed by post-scarcity so the likelihood of a autocratic regime forming is unlikely. Capitalism and technological progress would tend to trump autocracy and Corporate Feudalism would require a very unusual environment and circumstances to come about.

Cordwainer said...

I was merely making the point as you articulated that a period of scarcity could create neo-feudalism as you described sorry I did not differentiate from the the other posts. Its late over here when you guys are on the boards. Problem is such scarcity would have to be serious enough and long lasting enough to require a big shift in public opinion to create autocratic tendencies I think. The likelihood of other energy sources would make torch-drive energy generation a convenience not a necessity for such a society.

Sorry Kyle, I'm still not buying the idea of water being the lucre of trade in a post-interplanetary future. It's unlikely that such a future would be based on a barter system or single-commodity. I mean we don't use gold or silver as a standard for most currencies any more. Even those countries that do are not solely based on those commodities either. Also like I said water is pretty common out there in some cases it would require very little energy for extraction or the availability of other resources like oxygen on the moon would tend to have even less value as a lucre. A much needed commodity yes, a lucre no. Also with the availability of solar energy then water through electrolysis of other elements becomes as likely as turning water into fuel and oxidizer and probably would help to conserve and strengthen drinking supplies. While this means small colonies might not need to be near free water sources, colonists would most likely build near such water resources because the extractiojn costs will be less and it would be an easy source of rocket fuel. The cryogenic materials for heat exchangers and fuel production as well as sources of electrical power are more likely to be the lucre. Nitrogen works in both of these roles as both a refrigerant, a working fluid for solar-thermal power and as a method of power storage in pneumatic systems. It also has the added use of providing necessary energy extraction and storage in ATP reactions for plant and animal life. Nitrogen is a decent oxidizer and when combined with hydrogen to form ammonia makes a decent chemical fuel.

Damien Sullivan said...

"But basically I can't see any reason why uplift would be attempted except that the concept of animals with human-level intelligence is really, really cool. (And yes, the same can be said of space colonies!)"

As I said, uplift is at least as plausible as space colonies at the moment.

It's also be a way of testing our ideas of what genes feature in human intelligence.

And lots of things are done only for 'coolnees' or entertainment. Piercings. _Game of Thrones_. Disneyworld.

Cordwainer said...

Well given the history of humans already bioengineering plants and animals to meet certain needs, even the whimsical ones I don't see why uplift at some scale might not happen. Sadly though, I think the with the ecoterrorists having a field day with genetic crops in Europe the U.S. might be the only place to do such research safely.

Cordwainer said...

God these captures are horrible I know I didn't put a j in extraction and I know I proofread my last post.

Tony said...


"What about Magneto-hydrodynamic turbines, jet turbines and explosive pulsed power generators are these not examples of sorts of liquid-fueled rocket technology being used for power generation.

Please read very carefully what I write. Every word is in there for a reason. I said cryogenic liquid rocket engines, meaning at least liquid oxygen oxydizer, but possibly including hydrogen fuel as well. Jets are obviously out of consideration. MHD generators are not power supplies in themselves -- they require a plasma generator of some type.

Going on with liquid fueled rockets, what needs to be understood about them is that they are not power sources in themselves. Their propellants are just a means of storing a lot of energy in a very compact space and for releasing it very quickly. The actual energy that goes into making the propellants is more (sometimes substantially more) than the energy that comes out. Thermodynamics guarantees that. Even when considering hydrogen-from-methane or kerosense fuels, one has to remember that we only have those as found. The sunlight that powered their biological precursors, and the gravity that compressed and refined them over millions of years represent way more energy than the rocket engine will ever put out. (This applies to fossil fuels use in general, BTW, including fissionables, which are ultimately fossils of supernovae.)

"So some use for torchdrives in power generation may be of use..."

Once again, energetic propulsion systems are not designed to generate power. They're desinged to use it up. The more energetic that they are, the more power over time has to be collected prior to use. I see no reason to expect that torch drives would be any different. They might even represent the major power consumers of an otherwise not so powerful energy economy that sees value in high delta-v space travel but would otherwise not go to the extremes necessary to generate so much power.

Tony said...


"If we give Cord grief over the concept of a Torch drive being a black box, rather than over thinking the internals, then the same principles apply here: if some 'Black Box' allows you to generate a controllable 150+ GW in a confined space for thrust, then the same principles can be applied to other uses as well."

See my immediately preceding comments about the nature of energetic propulsion systems. One could invest a lot of power production in torch drives without extending similar amounts of power to other endeavors. Or, alternatively, the process that makes the thrust simply can't be controlled for power generation. It can only be used for getting from here to there, because nothing material can contain it; the torch drive just barely avoids consuming itself, and then only by dumping 90+% of the energy overboard, using the rest to make sure it goes out the ass end and not back up the ass into the ship's guts.

Actually, that's much more believable than sovereign individuals in control of gigawatts.

Cordwainer said...

On coolness factor. If only domestic cats were intelligent enough for uplift.

But, who knows maybe some Japanese billionaire might decide he wants a harem of uplifted tame foxes. Or maybe North Korea might uplift dolphins or orcas to make them better living weapons. Hmm! how much explosive could a killer whale pack. I suppose the Chinese could create Porcine super-soldiers, wouldn't those scare the bejeezus out of Muslims. Would donkeys and horses make good candidates for uplift, I know mules and jennies are suppose to have above average intelligence.
A smarter mount animal would be a real boon to equestrian sports and to those cultures that still use them for transportation. Elephants are exceptionally smart but will probably be extinct in the not to distant future. Keeping them around as a work animal might be there only chance for survival.

Cordwainer said...

We are quibbling over semantics again I see. But if we are on the subject of semantics then lets go through the list.

1)Turbines, stirling engines and explosive pulsed power generators can and do run on cryogenic fuels
2)I said MHD, Turbines and EPG's our "sorts of" liquid fueled rocketry systems. I should have been more specific and said that they apply principles from liquid fueled rocketry. My bad!
3)Methane from hydrogen, natural occurring methane need not be the result of solar or photosynthetic processes and neither is the cracking of hydrogen reliant on solar energy. Methanogens on the surface of the Earth often rely on plant matter as fuel and the break down of plant matter often produces methane, but plants are not the only fuel for methanogens nor are plant of plant-derived fossil fuels the only sources of methane. I suppose if you want to get really deep then the energy that deep surface methanogens use and gas diffusion-compression of elements deep under the Earth's surface are produce by solar tidal forces ultimately. Fissionables could be either the product of late era solar supernovae, early era supernovae of mega-stars or the result of highly charged nuclei forming post big bang although the jury is still out on the latter although scientists are pretty certain some heavy elements like gold could have actually formed in small quantities during or post inflation.

I agree that your points on torch-drives are valid but I don't agree that your position is iron-shut.
Here are my positions.
1) Sovereign powers or a single ruling sovereign have had control over enormous powers in the past just look at the Cold War so while highly improbable it is probably no more improbable then the improbability of a torch-drive itself.
2)Why would you value high-delta vee and not the possible applications to produce huge amounts of energy from the same processes. It seems likely they would go hand in hand much in the same way you would need to have other methods for creating and storing huge amounts of energy to power a torch-drive in the first place. Even if your torch-drive is a bomb-powered or uses 90% of its energy to throw that energy out the back it still follows that you would at least use that technology to make a bomb or some other weapon of mass destruction. Yeah I know isn't the torch-ship enough of a weapon of mass destruction, but if we are going by your hypothesis then there would have been no reason for the Chinese to invent guns if they already had rockets.
3) If nothing material can contain it and it barely consumes itself then it is probably governed by MHD principles or uses a series of bomb like explosions or large pulses of energy. Any technology related to creating either of these reactions could probably be used in other ways. High flow MHD for sub-torch drives, big bombs as weapons or mass drivers, pulsed energy systems for scaled down power supplies for "Ravening beams of Death" are just some examples.

Unknown said...


Not saying that water would be the basis of the future economy. Again, I'm describing the future in terms of a progression from its humble roots to its final shape, with the last stage being shaped by the first. Water will be VERY important to those first colonies and will become a source of wealth in the long term for the first people who position themselves to exploit those resources. The wealth generated from that first generation industry leads to investment in other industries -- say, more advanced teleoperation systems or orbiting fuel depots that everyone uses. Basically it's a "water oligarchy" not because water is valuable but because the corporate empires of the colonies were originally based on "water money." (in the same way the Rockafellers are sometimes -- IMO incorrectly -- said to have enriched out of "oil money"). Another real-world example are the land barons of New England and the plantation families of the South. The DESCENDANTS of those wealthy landowners went on to become the movers and shakers of the new nation in generations to come, even after their source of wealth ceased to be the land (or in some cases, the SLAVES) from which it was originally derived. The broader point, of course, is that a family-run business could catapult itself from a fledgling water cartel to a full-fledged oligarchy and a de facto monarchy in five or six generations. Two centuries later they're building an armada of killsats over Ganymede in an embargo over access to Io's newly discovered uranium deposits, resulting in what historians alter call Queen Andrea's War, and someone remembers that it all started with an ice cube in Shackleton Crater.

As, Re: Uplift. Still think the Mass Effect games handled that concept better than most scifi I've seen, as it's made very clear -- ad nauseum, in fact -- that the only sentient race in the galaxy who tends to "uplift" different species usually does so with the intention of creating proxy armies against enemies they are unable or unwilling to defeat on their own.

Unknown said...

Also, re: post-scarcity:

It's worth remembering that economic conditions can vary hugely from place to place just in a single city or state, let alone a country or a planet, let alone DOZENS of planets and moons across the solar system. A post-scarcity society may not necessarily be post-scarcity everywhere, or even if it is, conditions of ARTIFICIAL scarcity may be imposed by ideologues, fanatics, juntas, or assholes. Thus even in the age of torchdrives, neo-feudalism may still exist, possibly even by design, where some Ayn Rand fanboy setup his private libertarian paradise on Europa.

To assume that "capitalism and technological progress trump autocracy" is, IMO, incredibly naive. EITHER of those concepts can be wielded just as easily to enslave entire populations as to liberate them, it's simply a question of who takes the initiative to exploit those systems first and in whose interest they begin to work. To begin with, neither capitalism nor technological progress are logically incompatible with organized crime, and neither would implicitly prevent some ambitious enough from intentionally seizing control of a small or even larger territory to devote the entire colony's resources to enriching his own wealth.

I don't see torch drives necessarily PREVENTING that from happening, since a mobster in possession of a torch drive can do far more damage than a philanthropist can do good. More importantly, the mobster has greater incentive and greater willingness to murder his competitors; the philanthropist has to either turn into vigilante or lobby the local governments to form a police force, which may not be feasible, or -- if said mobster already controls the government -- may not even be possible.

Cordwainer said...

That's not what it sounded like in your post but while it is true water could be a founder source of wealth for some individuals I think it more likely that in this day and age that other commodities are more likely to be that source of wealth. The idea of both public waterworks as well as the past abuses of "company towns" will probably in some way work against water tycoons. Perkins was able to do it because he already had money in oil and natural gas that he could invest in buying up land and the prevailing water rights as well as buy off politicians by paying for the costs of tapping and transporting that water. A venture business could be contracted to do this for colonies but they better be diversified in other things if they want to really rake in the moolah! I would consider this part of the General Store type of merchants who provide necessary goods and services to the miners/colonists.

While it is true you would always have the possibility of loose cannons who might want to start up a banana republic it seems unlikely that the differences in scarcity would be all that great in a torch-drive society. While it is true some areas could be resource scarce, a torch drive would offer quick transportation and allocation of resources. It seems more likely the "big shots" would be calling the shots in a interplanetary situation not kow-towing to bureuacrats, which means they would likely want free-trade versus protectionism.

In other words people would act more like they do now and not like they did in the 19th century, influence peddling and special interests had power then as well but ever since the Spanish-American War corporate interests have known to use the carrot over the stick when it comes to handling politicians. Giving people a little bit oh honey is a lot more effective then using the whip, massah!

Cordwainer said...

Also it is not incredibly naive to think that democracy and technology will trump autocracy. The vast majority of nations with wealth are democracies or highly organized autocracies with at least some form of free-enterprise, I think it far more likely it is those nations not the Arron Burr types that will in the end bankroll or provide the populations for space colonies. While organized crime will no doubt exist they will still either be partners, subordinates of or somehow limited and tracked by their governments. The future of space colonization at least on the interplanetary level will probably not look like the Wild West. Interstelllar colonies might look like that due to the lack of external government "back home" being able to exert control. Also once "mobsters" establish there idea of order they usually end up becoming dictators or going legit in some way. Also your not going to want to create to much havoc or you end up destroying the very resources you need to establish order, an army of assassins is a better tool in such scenarios then a weapon of mass destruction. The guys that cause to much havoc end up like Dillinger. The guys that have staying power are smart like Nitty.

Thucydides said...

As a general rule, a free society is a wealthier society, but greed often breeds martial virtues.

To pull out some examples I have used in the past, Athens actually lost the flower of her army and navy during the Sicilian campaign, and most of her colonies and allies had either revolted or been stripped away, yet the Athenians were able to continue to carry on the war against the combined might of Sparta and her Allies, who were bankrolled by the Persian Empire, for a further nine years.

Athens, because her society was relatively free, was able to harness and exploit the skills and resources of her citizens and residents far more efficiently than her enemies could exploit their resources.

Elizabethan England was relatively free compared to Hapsberg Spain, and was even virtually bankrupt at the beginning of the conflict, but despite the vast mismatch of manpower and resources, was still able to prevail against the Spanish. TheSerenìsima Repùblica Vèneta was similarly outmatched in manpower and resources, but was still able to hold her own against the far larger Ottoman Empire for two centuries (indeed, it has been suggested that Venice would have survived and prospered if she hadn't turned from her maritime empire and gotten involved in the continuing conflicts on the Italian mainland).

In the 20th Century, China is held as a paragon of economic development, yet Japan and the Tiger economies, with far smaller amounts of manpower and natural resources (Japan actually has none at all), have grown at equally impressive rates.

As a further checksum, India was an economic basket case from Independence into the 1980's until liberalization and the overthrow of the "Permit Raj", now India boasts a middle class of 300 million (the population of the United States) and more millionaires than any nation on earth. While India may not be a bed of roses, it is in a far better position today than in the 1970's.

Autocracies have the one advantage in that they can marshal ALL their resources towards singular ends, but if they choose poorly or overreach with the available resources, then they will fail in the end. The USSR had access to a vast trove of human and resource capital, yet ended as an impoverished nation, and Russia is building off the small foundation left by the USSR.

Cordwainer said...

So here is my more reasonable proposal for an autocracy and possible monarchy in space.

Going back to my Anglo-American Alliance idea what if the Earth ends up divided between mega-states and some one ends up inventing FTL travel. Each mega-state funds a colonization program. Great Britain the U.S. and their former colonies/territories form one mega-state. The European Union some of its former colonies and territories form another. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Socialist International form still another and North Africa and the Middle East form yet another colonization bloc. These alliances may not start out as mega-states per se but the economic and political alliances already exist presently so that they might support or sponsor their own separate colonization might lead to a natural progression to where they do become mega-states. After all you will need some sort of collective government and military/police force to settle disputes between settlers and defend your colonies from other colonization blocs and alien aborigines or alien space empires. Maybe the largely Muslim bloc becomes a autocratic theocracy. The European Union drifts ever further toward socialist democracy and the SCO and SI become more autocratic. The British Empire grows once again in popularity eventually forming a Home Rule type parliament for the Anglo-American Alliance and becoming the political centre for that polity. Due to external influences the British Monarchy invokes reserve powers and manages to increase their power in government through influence on parliament as well. The Americans decide they want off this merry-go-round and pull out of the Alliance and form an alliance of "free democracies".

Cordwainer said...

Other possibilities with the aforementioned scenario you could have the European Union and Socialist International form one polity and the SCO and other extremist communist nations form another or you could have the European Union split into a German led North European Federation and a French led Southern European Union. I'm not sure which one the BeNeLux nations would join but it would be cool if they joined the Northern faction. The French led alliance could tout a largely Napoleonic legal system while the German led nations along with some break away Socialist International nations would use some form of the BGB.

Thucydides said...


If you want to ground your speculations on geopolitics in a bit of reality, I suggest you go to the Library or and get "The Next 100 Years" by George Friedman and "The Revenge of Geography" by Robert Kaplan.

I also recommend many of Kaplan's other books. While his overall thesis is "History is Geography", there is a pretty firm basis for that in on the ground observations in all of his books.

Also suggested are Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations" and "Who are we?" to look at the social and cultural basis of conflicts.

Cordwainer said...

Well I do thing mega-states are unlikely and rather unwieldy. Geography I think is becoming less of a common denominator though with the growing interconnectedness of the world. Common cultural ties and a sense of belonging to something larger then a nation state is becoming more credible as a means of cementing people together. Though Europe is made up of many diverse cultures they do have a common history, geographical area and political/social views in many ways. If they can get past the Euro crisis I could see the European Union sticking around for awhile. Al-Quaeda itself is built upon the dream of a Pan-Arab state and Caliphates have existed before. Of course this would probably require some unique pressures or an extremist sectarian movement for something like that to come to fruition given that Sunni's and Shiites don't get along very well. Asia and the Nations of the former Soviet Union are probably to different culturally and separated by geographic differences to create a true mega-state but they might cooperate if their colonies were at stake and if there are economic benefits, they would probably be nothing more then a loose confederation. I think an Anglo-American Alliance between the British Commonwealth and NAFTA could have real benefits and provide enough of cultural ties and economic benefits to even form a mega-state over time. It would probably be easier to form true meg-states in the Middle East and Europe if you split Europe geographically between the North and South and the Middle East between East and West. I have a feeling Muslim states in Asia would find the Anglo-American Alliance or other economic alliances more useful to them then an allying themselves with the Middle East since that is what is already trending there. I don't know if ASEAN would continue or would be swallowed up or split by some other economic alliance. The Socialist International is probably not a good basis for an economic and political alliance since it is so fractious but as part of another alliance that might provide it with greater economic stability it might create a basis for a loose confederation associated with the mega-state of Europe. I'm taking the long view on this and considering that these alliances would start out innocuous enough and slowly grow in power over time due to cultural change and external threats.

From a completely political realism point of view this is probably complete garbage, but I'm sure the real Thucydides could never have imagined alliances like the European Union or the old Soviet Bloc. I have read some of Freidman's work and agree with some of it, although I find his Turkophilia and Greater Iran hypothesis a little bit unrealistic given the current political climate. I'm not to familiar with Kaplan's work except what I have seen in textbooks and references in "Guns, Germs and Steel" again though I doubt if geography is as insurmountable a barrier or even really applies when you are considering Interstellar colonization. Yes, Interplanetary communities could look something like Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant but I they are just as likely to look more like Larry Niven's ARM particularly if you account for the rise of automation and transhumanism.

Cordwainer said...

"think" not "thing" in that first line, I swear I made that correction.

Cordwainer said...

Thucycides, I think it would be reasonable to assume that the world may become more balkanized in the near future but that over time mega-states might form out of economic and political alliances. Why would that be unrealistic in your opinion? The Roman Empire had centuries to become what it did and the Colonial and Mongol Empires in many ways were largely forged by the political and economic alliances of their day as well as some pivotal technological advances of the time. Why would we think that mega-states and space empires not be founded upon similar mechanisms over sufficient time. It seems more probable than a global government or a bunch of banana republics set up by venture capitalists. As one contributor already noted bureaucracy is not often used to explain the creation of space empires and yet it seems most logical that those empires will be bureaucratic in their origins. I was merely positing an example of that. Maybe such empires won't fall along the lines I've laid out but if history is any example they are more likely to fall along even weirder political/social/economic and geographic lines.

Political realism is what is lacking in many of the arguments of political realists when you look at history and the long view.

Unknown said...

Cord, there's again a progression with these kinds of things. Torch drives may EVENTUALLY allow for rapid commerce and transport through the solar system, but colonization itself probably won't depend on them, and even it it does, the torcships themselves will proliferate a lot faster than the political hegemony they supposedly represent. In the real world, the advent of air travel didn't do a whole lot to bring the world into global unity under "the big shots" either.

The reason it's naive to think that autocracy can be trumped by progress is because this is a precise reversal of cause and effect. Democracy and technological progress are the RESULT of prosperity, not the cause of it. Wealthy countries may indeed bankroll the early space colonies but that does not mean the colonies THEMSELVES will be wealthy, nor for that matter will everyone who lives in them. More to the point, an economic downturn or political separation from a parent country on Earth could be devastating to the colony's economy, undermining its financial and industrial institutions to the point that the local government can no longer function effectively without resorting to heavy-handed strongman tactics just to keep order. We have a real world example right here in America: imagine the implications of Rick Scotty declaring "economic Martial Law" if Detroit was colony on Ceres.

Mobsters going legit... well, there are two ways they can do that. One is to stop breaking the law and become partly benevolent dictators. The other is to change the law so the stuff they've been doing all this time is no longer illegal. Richard Daley (the elder) is an example of the former, Saddam Hussein an example of the latter.

KevinC said...

I'm really late to the party, but here goes: Why Space Monarchy? Because it might be the only way space colonization ever happens. Consider: space colonization is absurdly expensive and will remain so for a long time.

Democratic-capitalist societies seem very unlikely to invest the kind of money over the length of time necessary because there are always more "practical," "down-to-earth" things to spend public money on. A political/economic system geared to election cycles and quarterly profit/loss statements can't commit to a ludicrously-expensive project that would take decades, even centuries to complete.

Who can? An autocrat sitting on a giant pile of wealth who can spend it on space colonization just 'cause he or she thinks it's frickin' cool. Currently, America's only hope for its own crewed space capability is: eccentric geeky billionaires. People who can act like monarchs when it comes to money. Whether they--and their heirs--can keep spending over a long time horizon remains an open question.

Historically, only two human institutions can spend substantial portions of their societies' wealth over long periods of time on what amounts to embodying the Rule of Cool: monarchy, and religion. Both are able to rake in huge piles of cash over the long term. Monarchy has a long time-horizon because it's dynastic: the ruler can invest in grandiose projects in the hope that their family line will inherit the benefits. Religion has a long time-horizon because its primary area of concern is (at least in theory) "eternal" matters. Spend a hundred years building a cathedral? No problem.

Then there's the combination of the two: a god-king. The Pharaohs were able to dedicate their whole society to building gigantic pyramids (over about a hundred years during the Old Kingdom), and the construction of great temples like Karnak and Luxor over a course of centuries. Taken as a whole, they could spend, spend, spend on grandiose (and in democratic-capitalist terms, frivolous) projects over a span of nearly three thousand years.

Scenario 1: an eccentric like "Emperor" Norton inherits a vast tech fortune and decides s/he wants to be Emperor/Empress of Space. This person is charming and likeable, like Princess Diana or Dr. Steel (look him up on YouTube, and note the loyalty of his "Toy Soldier" followers). Or it could be an actual old-school aristocrat, like an heir to the House of Hohenzollern, or a Rothschild with grand ambitions. This person pours their fortune into space until they or their successors are able to make their space empire self-sustaining, or nearly so.

Scenario 2: A techno-religion becomes as popular as, say, the Mormons. One of its key doctrines is that the purpose of human beings is to spread Life throughout the Solar System and beyond. A techno-psychadelic-shamanistic cult going forth in the name of Saints Timothy Leary and Teilhard de Chardin, or maybe the First Tiplerian Church of the Omega Point. Monasteries on Mars! This might result in a Space Clergy rather than a Monarchy, but a hereditary clergy (like the ancient Levites) with a High Priest/-ess at the top would be close enough.

Scenario 3: Singularity-ish tech gets developed, but it's extremely expensive, and Earth's financial and political elites take their chance to grab all the marbles. "Aristocracy" means "rule by the best." Earth ends up with a literal embodiment: an elite with tech enhancements that make them superior to ordinary humans. Super-intelligence, indefinite lifespans, etc.. Whether benign or cruel, they hold the wealth, and even the worship of society: god-kings and queens in the Pharaonic mold. If their enhancements are hereditary, "royal blood" matters again. Then one or more of these people decides to expand their regime into space.

Thus, Space Monarchy.

KevinC said...

Once a Space Monarchy is established, it would arguably endure throughout the PMF. Only Earth has the industrial depth to sustain the complicated technologies of life-support and space propulsion (not to mention computers, etc.). A terrestrial monarchy could rule a "space empire" indefinitely as long as the colonies are dependent on it for technology. If we want the Space Monarch to actually live in space, perhaps they could have a localized source of industrial and agricultural depth (say, a Royal City on Mars with automated mines, advanced 3-D printers, greenhouses, etc.). Given the enormous cost of creating even one such place, it could take a very long time before colonies and settlers can "make it on their own" well enough to challenge the monarchy. Economics would be mercantilist: the colonies exchange raw materials to the Royal City in exchange for manufactured goods only it can produce.

Another thing to consider: might the pomp, beauty, and ceremony of monarchy or religion be of greater perceived value to people living permanently in sterile, cramped space settlements than it is to people on Earth, who can go enjoy natural beauty, art museums, etc. at will? Might space settlements develop a social "vibe" closer to monasteries and medieval villages than modern First World towns?

Cordwainer said...

I like your original thinking KevinC at least your being creative unlike some of these stuffed shirts.

As for Kyle Allen's remarks I never said there would not be a logical progression to things in fact I sort of outlined how both banana republics, monarchies and democracies could fare in the colonization of space. I just think given the current rate of technological progress and political climate in the near term most colonization efforts will be a slow expansion within our own solar system and democracies, theocracies and democracies will no doubt have an equal share and say in how that colonization occurs. You may have strongmen and banana republics but just like Saddam Hussein they won't last long if they rub others the wrong way. Also one has to take into account social custom. If most of your entrepeneurs are coming from free and democratic societies they will probably be less likely to set themselves up as dictator. Even if they do they will no doubt have a reasonable excuse and make a show of democracy to gain the publics sympathy and will no doubt allow some kind of capitalism as long as it doesn't threaten their own cash cows. You could have monarchies developing from this route but your just as likely to have a series of despots replacing one another over time. Theocracies seem a good route to getting to a space monarchy and it seems likely that some Middle Eastern Sheik might set up some sort of colony. Problem is unless you do come up with a good means of transporting large groups of people and supplies quickly then the slow pace of colonization which we most likely be dictated by whatever profitable resources we can glean in space will tend to put a choke hold on either banana republics and theocracies. Unless you can get enough people far flung enough from Earth where they can do there own thing and not be bothered as well as prevent the possibility of those who aren't to happy with how the regime is going from buying a ticket back to Earth then it tends to put a choke hold on the size of these regimes. Some caveats of course being with trans-humans, aliens, interstellar travel and post-singularity events that changes things entirely.

Cordwainer said...

Where did I ever say interplanetary travel would be dependent on torchship travel I'm kind of the mind that they won't exist ever but if they do they won't be used entirely in the way Tony is apt to describe. Humans are just to creative for that. I was merely pointing out that from a point of political realism that torchships will make some things easier and other things harder just as air travel has. If anything air travel has made it easier for despots and banana republics to prosper and as I mentioned before torchships might serve the same purpose but in the end humans are humans we are not a monolithic group. There will be some who will advocate mega-states and others who will remain jingoist outliers. Their will be theocracies and banana republics and "company towns" as well. I just tend to think that given certain parameters certain groups will fare better then others in the long run. Those parameters depend on a lot of variables from the profitability of space travel, the type of space travel we will be capable of as well as different rates of technological and cultural progress versus cultural and technological conservatism.

Cordwainer said...

I meant to say monarchies, democracies and theocracies would most likely have a mostly equal footing in an era of slow interplanetary expansion trying to go back and correct the errors I make in typing on this crappy wireless keyboard is making me jumble my sentences up.

KevinC said...


Thanks for the complement.

"Problem is unless you do come up with a good means of transporting large groups of people and supplies quickly then the slow pace of colonization which we most likely be dictated by whatever profitable resources we can glean in space will tend to put a choke hold on either banana republics and theocracies."

I think that for the foreseeable future, we can forget all about "profitable" when it comes to space colonization. When it costs thousands of dollars to get a kilogram of anything out of Earth's gravwell, no "resource" out there is worth the cost of going to fetch. Maybe you could make some money selling moon-rock paperweights to status-seeking billionaires willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money for them, but the bottom would fall out of that market as soon as moon-rock became a "resource" rather than an equivalent of fist-sized perfect diamonds.

Otherwise, "space resources" are only worth extracting so you can use them in space, instead of shipping them out from Earth for $10,000/kilo. To get to that point, somebody's got to be willing to shove container-ship loads of $100 bills up the arse-ends of rockets and set them on fire for longer than anyone who even has to think of the word "budget" would ever consider doing.

I doubt that an oppressive monarch or religious order would work in the PMF. Astronauts are highly-trained people making enormous sacrifices to go. It would be more like recruiting for a monastic order or elite military unit than rounding up slaves or peasants. There would be strict rules (sorry Libertarians, you can't wear an Uzi on your hip; no smoking, no having a baby whenever you choose, etc.), but adherence would be a matter of pride or holiness, not imposed force. Children born in the colony might need to go through grueling rites of passage to avoid being shipped to Earth. I think the nature of the space environment would make cultures there very different from anything on Earth.

Captcha: ofetyte--the Maguffin space element that finally makes colonization profitable! Fails: 1

KevinC said...

WRT torchships: you can't change just one thing. A society able to contain and utilize the stupendous energies of a TS in a ship-portable package and keep it running for arbitrary lengths of time would be able to do all kinds of other things that would radically alter its way of life. Sure, we don't use cryogenic liquid-fueled rocketry for anything but propulsion, but we use the tech surrounding cryogenic liquids for everything from superconductivity to trying to buy a shot at resurrection (cryonics).

In addition, cryofuel rocketry tech can't be used for power because giant SSMT-sized tanks of fuel get burned through in minutes--it can't be sustained. You can't run a city on that, so why bother? A TS engine that can churn out 150 GW of power for weeks/months/years is a whole different animal. There's all kinds of incentive to miniaturize it and/or use the tech in different ways if at all possible: just ask Iron Man.

BTW: given that such an absolutely awesomesauce torch-worthy power source can be made small enough to fit in a man's chest cavity without waste heat making him a pile of ash (etc.), how long would everybody else really still be stuck driving gas-powered cars? :)

Cordwainer said...

I think KevinC just summed up what I've been trying to explain in my past arguments quite succinctly. Ethos, Pathos, Logos......hmm!

I would point out though that once you do find the profitability in space and the technology is developed to get us there that highly trained workforces may not be the majority within a colonies makeup. A mining colony might be more profitable if you have a mixture of highly trained managers and not as well trained skilled and semi-skilled workers. While automation will probably make space industry easier while at the same time lowering the cost and need for large crews. That doesn't mean that you would need highly trained and skilled workers to run and fix your automatons and equipment. Plus you would still need support crew to take care of the needs of those perhaps more skilled workers. As compulsory education and access to knowledge bases through modern media more and more people will have the necessary skills that space entrepeneurs will be looking for. After all many past industrial and scientific developments were created by self educated laymen or accomplished by trained semi-skilled craftsmen not scientific or engineering elites.

Damien Sullivan said...

"Democracy and technological progress are the RESULT of prosperity, not the cause of it"

Simplistic. Obviously technological progress *can* cause prosperity. And by modern standards ancient Athens or the 1790 US were extremely poor, yet largely democratic. India's democratic, despite being pretty poor per capita -- poorer than autocratic China. So neither "democracy causes wealth" nor "democracy needs wealth" are supportable there. If there's a correlation, it's not perfect.


Megastates: the EU has imitators: Union of South American Nations, African Union. Both very young, so haven't done much, but 40 years from now we might see 3 EU-like bodies.


"An autocrat sitting on a giant pile of wealth who can spend it on space colonization just 'cause he or she thinks it's frickin' cool."

One monarch can start it, but they can't bind their successor to it. If it'd a dumb vanity project it's likely to get axed a generation or two in.

Thucydides said...

IF you look at the March 23, 2013 at 5:00 PM post, you will see my arguments against autocracies and oligarchies. While they *may* be able to marshal resources for a sustained drive into space (or to conquer the world, which seems to be the more popular option for these kinds of people), Liberal democracies with free market economies simply have access more resources and are far more flexible in the long run.

Even if you have an autocratic state or corporation build colonies in the first place (for whatever reason), the colonists will eventually have to rebel against the system and its rulers/local governors out of sheer desperation; the systems imposed upon them will be inflexible and unresponsive leading to a very real danger of death as the systems break down. (Systemic breakdown on Earth is no picnic either, but at least you can still breath, forage for food and water etc.).

The current trend on Earth seems to be large States or federations in the center, with balkanization as you go farther towards the edges and at the contact zones. This may still obtain in Space; the colonists will develop a differing culture both due to being "self selected" to go colonize (hence having somewhat different values from the parent culture), and as a means to develop appropriate responses to the environments they find themselves in.

Incidentally, Libertarianism only applies to things like "carrying Uzis at the hip" in cartoons. I can actually see forms of Libertarianism developing in the colonies since

a. the people are highly educated and can thus make rational calculations about voluntary cooperation to meet their goals, and;

b. There won't be much ability to carry deadweight either to the colony or to support a bureaucratic class after the colony is founded. There may be a small professional administrator class, but nothing like the drones at the DMV for example.

Cordwainer said...

Bravo! Damien Sullivan. I didn't want to correct Kyle Allen's comments on the correlation of why democracies tend to be more prosperous or whether democracy is a result of prosperity. The correlation is hard to define as you say. Athens democracy was founded on trade and silver mines but they were already culturally practicing a form of democracy before Socrates time and were in some ways culturally predisposed to it even before they developed a large educated class. Wealth may make a society more free but in some cases it makes a society more conservative. Technology, cultural predisposition due to shared history and political institutions, geography and allocation of resources, and external influences on learning, customs and security all have a role to play in the founding of nations and governments. Sometimes history is the result of technology, sometimes its geography and sometimes its the need to deal with an external threat. Most of the time its a complex set of variables. What I tend to be most interested in is the profound effect that simple advances in technology like the stirrup, gunpowder, transistors and microchips have had on history and the development of nations and will no doubt have in the future.

Cordwainer said...

Thucydides makes an interesting point regarding Libertarianism ideaology having greater weight within a selected pool like a space colony. I wonder though if those colonies within close proximity to Earth like the Moon would develop governments closer to their parent polities or diverge from strict libertarianism to a more bureacratic form more open to opining "deadweight" as they become more industrialized and populous. Too much government minimalism can be ineffective when dealing with large and varied populations with all the social problems that that entails.

Damien Sullivan said...

The problem with libertarianism is externalities. It can work well in a dispersed frontier where one can keep interactions only voluntary. Not so well when there's intrinsically shared resources or public goods around. Resources like the atmosphere of a space station or city-dome, say. Also not when one person's poor decisions can threaten many others; the freedom to shoot guns and start fires looks different on a 40-acre farm than in an urban apartment building.

And rational calculations don't help when the individually rational thing to do, absent government enforcement or equally coercive social norms, is to be socially harmful, as with pollution or overfishing.

Iain Banks postulated "an anarchy of socialisms" for space colonies. Maybe not socialisms, but I'd predict very strong regulation. Bujold's Kline Station, where Security had to respect civil rights but Biosafety didn't, seems more likely than libertarianism.

Cordwainer said...

Woke up to the picture of Kim Jong Un looking out the conference room on the demilitarized zone with a pair of binoculars. Found it humorous since there is very little to see out of those windows except South Korean gaurds and a few bungalows. God, the rule of three really is scary stuff!! Either he is an idiot or was trying to make his comrades laugh. Either option doesn't bode well. It is my guess this latest round of saber rattling is just that. But those theatrics will no doubt have to played up with something of substance or he will lose face.

Thucydides said...

Actually you can keep interactions voluntary even in crowded situations (for a simple example, consider the act of giving up a space on a bus or subway train).

Libertarianism can be "enforced" by social norms (if person "x" is a real a**, he will find it very difficult to find people willing to collaborate with him to reach their particular goals), and of course real Libertarians do accept the role of the State in things like protective services, protecting property and other rights and providing neutral arbitration for disputes (courts of law).

A minimally intrusive State that protects rights, enforces contracts and allows unfettered use of personal property (subject to not infringing on other people's rights) is the goal of Libertarian philosophy. Such a State will be different in character from contemporary States, for example any military force will resemble the Swiss Citizen Militia rather than the USMC, and there won't be either the character, inclination or even resources available to engage in offensive action against other States.

Cordwainer said...

Yes but where are the real Libertarians I'm not seeing much of them in either the Tea Party or the Justice Movement. Also part of enforcing social norms is providing the citizenry good education and the social services necessary for them to make informed decisions . Without coercion from the State in some manner people tend to be coerced by other special interests or their own desires and peer pressure is only as effective as the baseline level of rationalism within that society or more often within that persons own subculture. Morays to some extent depend on culture, environment, and socio-economic status and are not entirely formed by concepts of reciprocity,gnosis, natural law or objectivism. Without economic planning and proper education one can only weed out so much of man's improper behavior. Incarceration without rehabilitation and limited social services without any set goals to make that person a wholely productive citizen only leads to a revolving door problem. The point of social services is to provide a form of social insurance and the point of insurance is to make the individuals loss of worth or sense of worth whole again. People should not be forced into dependance to their government but government should be responsive to the peoples needs and provide the proper example or incentives to allow people to make informed decisions about their lives. Governments that help the poor and elderly are no different in their actions then families or individuals that do so. Where it tends to get grey is when special interest co-op the government to get their way rather than government providing the example or incentives to those groups to make informed and conscientious decisions. Laissez-faire capitalism does not seem very objective to me. While the market probably needs different regulation in the United States then is does and less regulation in some matters I don't believe all economic regulation is a bad thing. I know the idea of conscientious businesses like whole foods is one solution currently being touted but unlike its author I don't believe that government is necessarily the enemy in this. Just like partnering with all aspects of ones market are a must to achieve a scenario of all winners, partnering with government is probably a necessary part of that scenario as well. A strong government that values and encoutages capitalism through participist and distributionist strategies is far more likely to succeed in the long term then a bunch of bean counters who's only concern are meeting the short term goals of their constituents or balancing the budget through purely austerity measures. Argue with President Obama's policies all you want but he is right about one thing. We don't have a debt problem, we have a revenue problem.

Thucydides said...

People do not need to be coerced into following social norms (although there have been many societies which did this in the past, and indeed a lot of bureaucratic time and effort is being spent on coercing people to follow what a small group would like to be the social norms-Mayor Bloomberg and the 16 ounce drink cup, for example).

In the past, social norms were transmitted via families, local teachers (schools not being part of the State apparatus until fairly recently in historical terms) religion and what might be called "culture".

The TEA Party movement is a political expression of desiring smaller government and less spending (which is part of the Libertarian philosophy), but bloggers, home schoolers, the Khan Academy, Kickstarter, Paypal and a host of DIY projects and technologies that evade or bypass traditional gatekeepers are all expressions of what I call "Libertarianism as a social movement".

You don't have to be a card carrying member of the Libertarian Party (or a member of a TEA Party group) to be a libertarian. Indeed the Libertarian Party resembles an attempt to herd cats, so is probably not the proper vehicle for political change. The only downside is the gatekeepers and social engineers can use their control of the State apparatus to continue to reward cronies and attempt to force society to conform to whatever they view as the "correct" form of society.

Of course this illustrates the weakness of the current way of doing things; while MAyor Bloomberg was working on his crusade to ban large drink cups, NYC is being overrun with bedbugs, and old diseases like TB resurface. Which public health issue do you want your politicians to focus on?

Cordwainer said...

Family values and local teachers work well enough in less populated societies but not so well within large heavily populated centers. Also modern media and the internet make culture far more fluid then in the past. Public education has existed in some form for awhile now it is only recently it has expanded to its modern level. There are positives to having a public school system and downsides, and certainly a more open and community inclusive system would help to solve some of these problems. Religion has many of the same problems regarding cronyism and social tyranny. Pietism and Humanism might be historical exceptions to this. Limited government can sometimes mean more centralized government or less effective government which can lead to less watchdogging of the gatekeepers. If you don't like your local government then create public funding for elections or better voting and selection system at the local level don't cry over spilled coffee cups. Changing things at the local level is a lot easier then the state and national levels due to less constitutional preemption and the smaller size of campaigns. At the national level tax reform and changes to the mission statement and oversight of non-governmental organizations should be the main focus not arguments over spending. Rational men know to make allies not create enemies unnecessarily. Demonizing government is just as irrational as demonizing big business and is often counter-productive. Limited government is not always effective government nor is it always less expensive. Also, currently it seems that government programs like insurance exchanges and charter schools which have a libertarian basis are the ones under the most attack by that very same herd of cats. While social libertarianism may no doubt offer some solutions to our current dependance on government market forces are not always sufficient watchdogs to provide people with informed decision making. There needs to be a way to set the example and encourage good policing if you want these systems to be any less devoid of special interests, cronyism and tyrannical social views. Government offers ways to do this either through regulation, partnership or competition with government programs. Social media and transparency programs can further enhance social movements and market based solutions. It's not that I don't believe libertarianism doesn't offer advantages or is not a valid movement. I just think it's leadership lacks the creativity and ideaological flexibility to become a real mover and shaker at this point in time.

Damien Sullivan said...

" Actually you can keep interactions voluntary even in crowded situations (for a simple example, consider the act of giving up a space on a bus or subway train)."

...that's the biggest non sequitur I've seen today.

'Libertarianism can be "enforced" by social norms (if person "x" is a real a**, he will find it very difficult to find people willing to collaborate with him to reach their particular goals),'

As I said. But norms can be as coercive and oppressive as laws, and harder to change as well. Either way you're prevented from doing things by your 'intrusive' neighbors.

"People do not need to be coerced into following social norms"

Yeah they do. It's called 'shunning'. Also in the past, beatings and lynch mobs. Sure, the norms get transmitted, but they have teeth to make sure they're obeyed.

Cordwainer said...

Perhaps coercion was a bad choice of words, perhaps persuasion would be a better choice. I would point out that within any system that by whatever name you call it influence is often won and sometimes must be won by less than amicable terms. As you pointed out the selfish behavior of some groups and individuals tends to make war inevitable. The same could be said of both government and economic influence. Examples of economic coercion include, sweatshop labor, peonage, indentured servitude, debtor's prison's, protectionism, liens, civil suites and the various practices of modern credit card services. Exploitation at some level is always a risk and libertarianism is unlikely to be free of such strong-arm tactics. The best we can do is develop institutions whether public or private that help to prevent such tactics. To me it seems that limited government in many cases would be an impediment rather than a helpmate in this respect. While government needs limitations and needs to accept certain limitations. Setting proper limitations is more a matter of mission statement and proper design of institutions than smaller less expansive and supposedly less expensive government.

Thucydides said...

Perhaps if you read my posts again you will come across the observation that libertarians accept the role of the State is to protect individuals, property rights and provide a neutral arbitrator for disputes (the courts of law).

This is applicable in Hong Kong or the Kalahari desert.

Many of the abuses of the past have actually been perpetrated or sheltered by the State, and were eventually overturned by the work of individuals who inspired and motivated others to work the change the laws and institutions of the State that permitted the abuses. William Wilberforce led the fight to abolish slavery in the UK and British Empire virtually alone and against very powerful and well funded opposition, and is an inspiring tale.

Lets not continue to flog cartoon versions of libertarianism, or pretend that libertarianism is anarchy. This blog is about informed speculation so get informed.

While Wikipedia can be questionable, this is a good place to start and find the references:

Tony said...

Let's see...

1. To reiterate, rockets are not energy creators. They're energy consumers. There's no reason to presume that a torch drive would be anything different. It's conceivable that an interplanetary society could expend 90+% of it's available energy on transportation, in the form of torch drives, but otherwise resemble ours not too distantly, simply because it can, and it's economy requires it. For example, if you suppose a torch drive to be some kind of antimatter consumer, then there is no dearth of suggestions to ue solar energy, collected very close to the Sun, to make antimatter that does nothing but powers spacecraft propulion systems.

2. Libertarianism is nothing but the elevation of the individual above society, for purely philosophical reasons. IMO it's more important to strike a practical balance between the two.

The question of coercion WRT libertarianism is, to me, just a misunderstanding of the political uses of force. All politics is based on force. There would be no reason to have politics if it were impossible to enforce consequequences for undesirable opposition behavior. In libertarian models, the force is supposed to be self-restraint, kep honest by what others can do to you if you don't play ball. That's still force.

Tony said...


"Lets not continue to flog cartoon versions of libertarianism, or pretend that libertarianism is anarchy. This blog is about informed speculation so get informed. "

What you call "cartoon" versions of libertarianism are often just realistic understandings, with all of the philosophical argle-bargle stripped away. It's all about an overwhelming fascination and infatuation with the individual as a philosophical entity. That doesn't make for realistic politics, no matter how hard one tries.

Cordwainer said...

I don't believe libertarianism is anarchy nor do I believe that it's founding principals are indeed at their core anti-government or even one of minimalistic government as it is most often been associated with. At their core they tend to fall into two main bodies those that advocate natural law, which incidentally some of those early advocates were part of the anarchism movement. And, Those who advocate social contract who tend to be minarchist and propertarianist in their views. There are libertarian socialists but this is essentially guild socialism and mutualism carried to an extreme where propertarianism is collectivist and communist in scope. My main complaint against minarchism is that it lacks the means to promote effective wealth creation and capitalism for the masses to make social welfare obsolete and would most likely create a night watchmen type State. To truly promote this state you would have to take an almost communist like view that the State would have to evolve into an autocratic power capable of effecting such change. Something that I don't think libertarians would be fond of. Of course there are other solutions like social libertarian movements and distributionism which if properly balanced between the support of the State through social contract and the activities of private citizens could create a more libertarian State, although I have my doubts whether we could completely eliminate welfare of social programs run by the state. At best one could change these programs management and scope to allow more individual freedom in some cases and reduce the populations dependance on these programs. The key to any proper government is social contract whether you believe that such contract is derived from the benevolence of the State or from the natural inalienable rights of individuals has very little to do with the goal of libertarianism so the herd of cats should stop arguing about such things and just act already. Action is better then inaction, and putting something into action that really addresses social problems rather than addressing problems from a completely propertarianist or utilitarianist position would be a profound change from the usual tired rhetoric. A political movement is far more effective if it's aims are not entirely concerned with stopping the actions of government but instead actually uses government as a tool to enhance peoples liberty and place in society.

Tony said...


That's a lot of isms. Having lived through a significant portion of the recently concluded and mostly unlamented century of isms, I ask you as a friend: can we just...not?

Cordwainer said...

Well John Lennon wasn't too fond of isms either. When it comes social movements I agree with his sentiment of you can count me out, count me in. Most social movements are good in theory and come from good intentions but when put into practice by the masses they often have unintended consequences. To quote another musician though, "What is so funny about peace, love and understanding".

Tony said...


"Action is better then inaction, and putting something into action that really addresses social problems rather than addressing problems from a completely propertarianist or utilitarianist position would be a profound change from the usual tired rhetoric. A political movement is far more effective if it's aims are not entirely concerned with stopping the actions of government but instead actually uses government as a tool to enhance peoples liberty and place in society."

That's a bit...tangled. You want people who believe that any positive use of government power unfairly favors one group over another to advocate positive use of government to get their way.

And you know, as much as I think libertarians are politically unrealistic about a lot of things, they are right about that. Because if somebody started to use government to positively enhance "liberty", the question immediately becomes: whose idea of liberty? To what purpose? Some social justice idea of group privileges, in order to redress perceived historical injustices? Some social Darwinian conception of individual autonomy, devil take the hindmost? Something else, for some other reason? Those are all somebody's idea of enhancing "liberty".

Tony said...


"To quote another musician though, 'What is so funny about peace, love and understanding'."

Peace to whose advantage? Whose aspirations to be curtailed in order to establish it?

The problem with peace is that it isn't what people think it to be. Peace is just forced inaction, pursuant to temporary disadvantage of one of the parties at "peace".

Cordwainer said...

Well yes those are all someone's ideas of what liberty should be and it is those individuals civil right to address those issues through the use of government. That is how all governments operate at some level. As I said before social groups are not perfect in either there opinions or the applications of their ideas but that is why government needs limitations and checks and balances. Humans don't need to perfection and I am hardly advocating a libertarian utopia or any other utopian view. I just believe we can do better, because thats what humans do. We Progress! People who live in a democracy have very different views as to what democracy is but we still forge communities with common values. While any government will mutually exclude some individuals in some way that does not mean government is unnecessary or the boogie man. Also governments are not the only organizations capable of creating institutions for the less fortunate within society. Private citizens and social groups can create them as well through their own activity or by proxy by forming social contracts with the government. I just believe government is merely one tool for the protection and evolution of liberty in a democratic society, one that libertarians need to rethink their use of in the pursuit of their goals. Personally I would advocate a Third Way through distributionist policies and the creation of institutions that enhance greater participation in ones government and community.

Cordwainer said...

Man, Tony chill even if life is as bleak and hopeless as you make it sound there is no reason not to have a little faith in your fellow man. Like I said I'm not advocating utopia or anarchy or autocracy. I am merely saying that humans can try to be a little more civil. Peace may be a fallacy as you say since there will always be winners and losers but human beings have make great strides in the past six million years in regards to the areas of peace, love and understanding. There is no reason that we won't continue to make more progress and no reason for us to stop trying.

Tony said...


"Personally I would advocate a Third Way through distributionist policies and the creation of institutions that enhance greater participation in ones government and community. "

Make everyone a member of the great government club? To howl and grab and beg some piece of the spoil? No thanks.

"...human beings have make great strides in the past six million years in regards to the areas of peace, love and understanding. There is no reason that we won't continue to make more progress and no reason for us to stop trying."

What is this "progress" of which you speak? Is it evident in the Holodomor, or the Holocaust, or the Great Leap Forward? Is it manifest in the bodies piled up on Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima or in the ruins of Stalingrad? Or the tens of thousands of aviators falling from the skies? Or the tens of thousands of mariners and billions of dollars of treasure sunk beneath the waves? Does Rwanda or 9/11 make exclamation of these "great strides"? What of the nuclear-armed stalemate of the Cold War? It is only hubris that allows men to claim themsleves the betters of the ancients.

Thucydides said...

You can always trust Tony to get everyone grounded again (and certainly in much more succinct posts than I, a skill I need to cultivate).

To reiterate, rockets are not energy creators. They're energy consumers. There's no reason to presume that a torch drive would be anything different. It's conceivable that an interplanetary society could expend 90+% of it's available energy on transportation, in the form of torch drives, but otherwise resemble ours not too distantly, simply because it can, and it's economy requires it. For example, if you suppose a torch drive to be some kind of antimatter consumer, then there is no dearth of suggestions to ue solar energy, collected very close to the Sun, to make antimatter that does nothing but powers spacecraft propulion systems.

You have indirectly identified the point I tried to make upthread. If torchdrives are huge energy consumers, then that energy has to be gathered or created somewhere, and that energy can be provided in divisible units for other uses, hence my contention that torch drives are a marker of a post scarcity economy.

Massive solar arrays around Mercury to power the antimatter factory can send surplus energy directly via beam to receptive collectors in range, and while you might need grams of antimatter for a ship, the company can also sell milligrams or nanograms of antimatter for small scale uses anywhere in the Solar System. If the torch is a massive ICF drive, it still impies that ICF reactors are possible, and smaler fusion reactors can be built for other purposes. Even exotic solutions like extracting the Hawking radiation from microscopic black holes can be tapped for other purposes, and market pressures will cause capacity to increase to supply energy to markets outside of the spacecraft industry.

Libertarianism is nothing but the elevation of the individual above society, for purely philosophical reasons. IMO it's more important to strike a practical balance between the two.

Stipulated and agreed. Most Libertarians and libertarians are in agreement the balance has been tipped far too much in the direction of Statism and collectivism, and want to bring things back into balance. IMO, this will happen more as a result of the rise of Libertarianism as a social movement and the collapse of the Progressive project due to bankruptcy and fiscal distress (social libertarians will be able to continue to function in the post progressive environment much better than many other groups, unless the collapse is so total that we go to a "Road Warrior" environment. Even there the organized and cooperative group hunkered down in the oil refinery are probably better off than the barbarians led by lord Humungous...

Cordwainer said...

While man's capability to create killing fields and tyrannical rule has certainly increased it is hard to say whether are appetite has decreased or if new ways of killing just make our ability to enforce our desires through violence more surgical in some respects. I am of the opinion though that we are living in an unprecedented age of wealth and social cooperation. If that is naive to think that somehow points a way forward to an age of post-scarcity or greater political or social progress that is your civil right to your opinion Tony. You are right that we are no different than the ancients in are base desires or emotions, but we are certainly different in are level of organization. Again, whether that is a result of greater capitalism or democratic values is debatable both of these things tend to support each other to some level although the greater distribution of wealth was most likely the starting yeast to that brew. Man has a violent and selfish nature which is why I advocate a progressive stance because to do otherwise is to let him languish in his own self-pity. One needs strong nation-states among other institutions to keep that nature in check and allow man's creativity to develop new ways to meet our selfish desires. This internet blog itself could be seen as at least a small effort in the direction of that creativity. To howl and beg at governmnent's door for every scrap and bit, where did the idea that government by the people, for the people lose it's focus. I suppose it's a product of the directionless, loss of sense of belonging and feeling of powerlessness that comes from the inability of individuals and fringe groups who feel disconnected from government or are unwilling make compromises to their ideaologies for the betterment of the group. I did say I wanted a more participative form of government then the current oligarchical democracy.

As for Thucydides comments on the collapse of Progressivism and "Road Warrior" techno-barbarism. First of all that sounds a lot more cartoonish depiction of libertarianism then what I have tried to avoid in my posts. Why would post-modern economies collapse in a possible post-scarcity or near post-scarcity society? For that matter why would the majority of the population get on board the Libertarian boat after this recent round of recessions? If anything it looks like Progressivism has made as many leaps as the Libertarianism in this environment. Whether progressivism will wane and libertarianism will rule the day is highly debatable and it seems more likely the public at large will pick and choose those elements and ideas from both groups to suit their needs as they have always done.

Cordwainer said...

I would also make the case that institutions like government, the concept of liberty and capitalism are not static "isms" but instead are constantly changing things meant to meet specific needs. Though these changes can be toxic to societies in the short term, incremental changes over time can have profoundly positive effects. Like for instance the concept of written law evolving into "organic documents" like a constitution. "Improvements" to these concepts will no doubt continue in the future and have been made in the past in part to due to some of the very travesties Tony mentioned. Also I would not call the loss of blood and treasure during World War II as being without good reason, suppressing madmen from taking over most of the world can hardly be thought of as a pyrrhic victory.

Why I tend to be a progressivist and positivist is garnered from personal experience and what I consider a practical assessment of human nature. Personally I have gone from being a cynical angry young man who faced economic and legal hardships to someone who is a trusted and productive member of society. As for my assessment of human nature it is one based mainly on the human tendency to change and progress. While libertarianism and progressivism could result in future changes to institutions in positive or negative ways I think it for more likely that some sort of balance between the two will be struck in the interest of creating more sustainable institutions. Even if a social collapse were to happen I think it far more likely that it will be the result of political polarization then economic woes. I see a Gundam-esque future rather than a Road Warrior-esque apocalyptic future far more likely which is another reason I tend to push for a moderate Third Way, because failure to find some sort of compromise between these opposing views is just too sad and dangerous to allow.

I am of the belief that government, private enterprise and social activism all have limitations and are subject to exploitation. That is why we have written laws and checks and balances to limit that exploitation. I see participism, distributionism, conscious and conscientous philosophies and market based solutions as all being tools that people can use to improve themselves and enrich society. If this means creating modifications to our concept of liberty or creating laws to prevent entitlement or mutually exclusive behaviors that is for society to decide on its own and not for us to whine about. If you want to change the world or your own position in it then you need to take the reins of your own destiny into your hands. Creating a cooperative playing field between government, business and the private citizen where these tools can be used more effectively is what I advocate not a fall into an autocratic fascist economy and state or some version of private sector fascism or corporate anarchy.

Thucydides said...

The Road Warrior is the vision of total collapse into a failed state or a state of anarchy. I merely noted that the people who chose to cooperate with each other for mutual protection were still better off than the barbarians.

As to why societies and institutions might collapse, you simply need to go to the financial pages. The United States managed to pile on $5 trillion dollars in new debt over the last four years, the vast majority of the money going to funding consumption. While there might have been some merit in borrowing that amount of debt to rebuild the entire infrastructure of the United States, the money was spent on consumption items like food stamps and entitlements, so had little lasting effect on the US economy.

Looking a bit farther down the road, entitlement spending on Social Security and Medicare will firmly enter net deficit in a very short time frame (perhaps as early as 2016, according to some calculations), and of course we also have fun long term issues like a cumulative $2 trillion dollar unfunded liability for government pensions (State and municipal), and the even longer term issue of a tidal wave of seniors depressing global equity markets because they will be cashing out their retirement savings plans (401K's in the US and RRSP's here in Canada), as well as selling their homes and properties for cash. Being a buyer in the 2030's will be a dream, being a seller will suck (and the seniors will still need loads of cash for medical expenses, either through direct payments or as tax dollars for their "free" healthcare).

Since the State will either radically downsize or face massive resistance to imposing high fees and tax rates to pay for the debt and entitlements, you can see why alternatives like libertarianism as a social movement will seem attractive to those who are able to participate by virtue of training, education, inclinations and skills.

Sadly, this also means that large areas of post progressive society will suffer badly during the transition period (those people without the skills, inclination, education or training are out of luck until they correct these deficiencies).

Cordwainer said...

Well I do agree that many will be in a world of hurt due to the expansion and funding of certain entitlements. Ending those entitlements would create solvency issues for those without the means to adapt through their own skills. It would make more sense to have spent that money on rebuilding the infrastructure of social welfare itself into something more sustainable with greater flexibility of choice. A sudden change to such infrastructure though would have drastic effects whether you get rid of, change or expand those programs. So we were going to be in trouble one way or another.

Thucydides, I think the logical approach would be as I said before to offer greater choices in the market between private and public funded programs as well as open up the tax code and change regulations to allow private-for-profit, non-profit and government privatized programs to compete more effectively in providing many of those services; while still maintaining a splinter of social insurance. Reforming the current systems of education and making the focus of current welfare programs one of correcting those deficiencies rather than perpetuating a revolving-door system. Work for welfare keeps the rolls from climbing during good periods of economic growth but do little during an economic down-turn. Education for welfare would be better since it would prevent at least some people from returning to the rolls and get people off the rolls faster during economic good times. While you will always have winners and losers I think it makes sense for the government to have some skin in the game to provide those that do lose their shirt some insurance since even if you have the skills you mentioned you can still make mistakes or suffer misfortune. Allowing people to do more for themselves and not be dependent on government for a hand-out is a good thing and social libertarian or market solutions should be endorsed, but I don't think they will replace the need for social welfare entirely since they are often predicated on a particular set of social skills that are constantly changing to keep up with the dynamism of a free-market. Also historically and realistically societies are quite capable of paying high fees and taxes for certain services as well as paying off public debt. The U.S. and Canada pay much less in taxes than many modern industrialized nations and even compared to those countries that pay less taxes towards their welfare the U.S. and Canada actually receive far less for the money they spend in terms of both quality and quantity. Even with Canada's horribly run "free healthcare", Canadians still rate their system more highly than Americans rate their own health care system. Government can either hinder the development of new systems and institutions or it can get on the band wagon to making reforms, either way I don't think progressive programs are under as much threat as minarchists like to claim.

Thucydides said...

State intervention in the marketplace is the cause of many of the problems we have today, so ensuring the "State has some skin in the game" is no call to change things at all.

Jane Jacobs wrote an interesting book many year ago called "Systems of Survival" which was pretty explicit in calling for a separation of the "Protecting class" from the "Productive class". Although Jacobs was be considered quite Left wing in her day, her point is actually well supported. The "Protecting" class, by virtue of their ownership and ability to use weapons, physical power and enforcement of the laws and regulations, have an absolute advantage over the "productive" class (if only by their ability to seize the fruits of other people's labour). If the Protective class starts dabbling in "production", they are unable to compete, so use their physical power to fight over and seize wealth. At the same time, they also pervert their role and stop paying attention to their protective roles.

In Japan, Samurai were under legal and social prohibitions from engaging in trade, and in many European societies, the nobility was expected to "look down" on trade, or at least refrain from engaging in trade themselves.

Since the role of the State is (in Libertarian philosophy) to protect, then the State and its agents fill the "protective class" role of Jacob's example.

Cordwainer said...

We aren't living in a world where the "ruling class" and the "warrior class" either have the power they once had or work as closely as they once did. Modern militaries are controlled mostly by elected governments, except in the case of totalitarian states which are currently a minority among the autocratic states of the world. Beware the military industrial complex is certainly a valid warning but not one that cannot be gaurded against by both a vigilant public and responsible government. Also there are plenty of historical examples of governments which were quite stable even with a warrior class controlling the economy. Similarly the theory that because the "protecting class" can't compete is probably not the reason that the protecting class would seize wealth or subvert their role, simple greed and human nature are certainly reason enough. The problem of course is whether one create government that is both responsible and responsive to its constituency. That is a problem that even libertarian socialism, anarcho-capitalism, minarchism or any other version of libertarianism as a group would have to develop. Democracies limit abuses of power and corruption through checks and balances and other mechanisms but are still fairly bad at it. While allowing the protecting class too much power to make or access profit certainly increases the likelihood for abuses and corruption. Allowing privatization, public-private partnerships and other government sponsored mechanisms to provide greater choice and encourage entrepeneur-ship and competition does not have to result in a failure of government to do it's job as "protectors". While there are compelling arguments for the complete separation of government from economic affairs there are also compelling arguments for at least some government regulation and economic planning as well.

Cordwainer said...

I may be mistaken, but the Tokugawa Shogunate who started out as samurai and later elevated themselves to nobles, were strongly allied to the merchant class of their time. In fact there is some evidence that the Tokugawa House from which the Shogunate derived while put in place by their retainers were actually heavily involved in the business of war-profiteering and played the various political factions and their own retainers against each other to conquer Japan and seize power. Also plenty of samurai were known to engage in illegal trade or were given special rights by the Shogunate to engage in trade and economic activities. The occupation of the Ryukyuan Islands, piracy and economic warfare against the Late Ming and Early Quing Dynasties, and the Red Seal Ships are all examples of this.

Cordwainer said...

This blog is probably getting too politically rarefied and straying from its original intent. I would like to make the suggestion that Rick do a blog on something like the possibilities of FTL travel and communications or maybe the realities and practicalities of space piracy or other forms of future techno-piracy next time. Its a timely meme given recent magazine articles and social happenings.

Geoffrey S H said...

Peace forced inaction? For merchants crossing the Atlantic ocean in the 18th century and groups migrating across secure borders throughout history, I would say that peace is an enabler for such actions. Trade war and diplomacy are all different yet interconnected actions- "peace" is made up of a great many of those activities.

Cordwainer said...

Well yes trade, peace, diplomacy and war are all tools that governments and social groups use to get what they want and to enforce social norms. In fact you could make the point that a form o social libertarian activism was a contributor to the Spanish-American War. Libertarian groups and governments are no less likely then progressive ones to marginalize people within their societies or fall into conflict with other groups, although is some cases the scale would be lessened if we adopt a system of mostly small autonomous states. The problem is that such a system would probably require a post-scarcity economy to be effective for the majority of the worlds population. For instance Belgium is composed of mostly self-governing autonomous provinces, but the population has been very good at investing in the right infrastructure and has a highly distributed economy and great wealth for a small nation. This inter-connectedness of actions between war, peace, trade and diplomacy when applied by groups also seems to cast doubt on the idea of the effectiveness of a solitary "protector class" since any group, even a libertarian one can employ and manipulate "protector groups" of their own. Most of the history of the High Middle Ages and Post-Rennaisance Europe is one of "free companies" of mercenaries being hired out by essentially "libertarian" groups who saw the economic and political hegemony of traditional feudalism and absolute monarchy an impediment to their way of life.

Tony said...


1. The point I'm trying to make about libertarianism -- and indeed any "ism" -- is that people subscribing to the philosophy would do things on principle whether or not they are practical. That's not the way to run a railroad...or a government.

2. WRT to energy availability and usage, the problem with a "sovereign" use of energy is that it makes whoever holds that much power a maker of policy. No human society would ever allow an individual to gain that much influence -- except as the a sovereign of all the society, or as a highly regulated and constrained representative of the sovereign authority. If a society had the ability to generate torchship levels of power, it would highly regulate that ability and control its use.

Geoffrey S H:

Consider your own examples. Peace is the result of the power to keep security. In your examples, would-be pirates at sea and brigands on land would be forced into inaction by the ability force of governments, applied to constrain them.

The same principle is just as true of states. Force, or the threat of it, keeps aggressors from taking what they want. Refusal or inability to use such force tempts and enables aggressors.

Cordwainer said...

Well you could take an approach of doing away with Nation States all together a moving towards a form of anarcho-capitalism or guild socialism through some form of social libertarianism, the social pressures needed for such a thing to occur and the obstacles that nation states and competing social movements would place in their path makes it seem unlikely. A society of "Free Traders" that are grouped into workers cooperatives who perform various "cottage industries" and then cooperate through some sort of guild network to accomplish larger more industrial tasks seems workable but unlikely. It would probably require some form of patronage from a "minarchist protector class" who would no doubt be prone to some sort of market manipulation.

The likelihood of mega-states forming in a post-modern society and providing the frame-work for a post scarcity future wherein a greater level of self-determination, balkanization, and small state autonomy might form as a consequence of post scarcity and the cultural fusion of marginalized groups into larger libertarian groups. Since these mega-states might be be less concerned about the formation of these autonomous states than their neighboring states this could lead to the mediation or use of economic and military force to mandate bringing these culturally aligned or independant libertarian states into existence.

Tony said...


Can we be a little bit -- no a lot bit -- less dense and obfuscatory in our prose?

Rick said...

Whew! I'm not going to even pretend I've actually read through all these posts, but even a skim through has its entertainment value.

Beating up on Tony about peace or Thucydides about libertarianism is tempting, but others on the thread seem fully up to the job.

But I will take a moment to note that even US government debt is widely reported in some quarters as bringing on the End Times, the extremely unsentimental bond market not only takes it in stride, but is happy to snap up US bonds at close to zero interest.

And I'll take note once again that spacecraft and space operations are extremely bureaucratic activities, even if operated by externally 'private' firms. Space travel is like running a railroad, to the tenth degree.

All that said ... carry on!

Cordwainer said...

Sorry, about that Tony. The gist I was trying to get at that any movement toward Libertarianism will probably require a number of incremental changes over time and will probably not be the only competing social movement in the future. Also, that progressivism itself could help to bring about those changes in a less apocalyptic or anti-government way. Progressive governments through their overuse of social welfare and poor money management are largely used as an explanation and as fuel for a move towards more libertarian institutions but their support of other activities like globalization, unions, market subsidies, free trade, and inter-governmental and inter-cultural institutions could also provide the networking architecture for creating libertarian communities and movements.

Also it wouldn't hurt if they adopted a looser interpretation of limited government and voluntary association to include social insurance type welfare and the use of mutualist solutions as opposed to advocating entirely free-market capitalism. If you think my prose is obfuscatory then just read Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Tony said...


"Beating up on Tony about tempting..."

I deserve a beating, Rick. I really do -- but for greater crimes than being realistic about human nature.

Tony said...


I don't read political theories. I study political practice.

Also, the presumption that libertarianism has any more practical future than any other ism just leads me to shake my head in wonder. People will always do waht seems necessary at any point in time. Political principles beyond practicle justice and practical security are so much argle-bargle to me. Totally meaningless, in fact.

Rick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick said...

A new post is up on the main page: Let's Get Whimsical.

Not, alas,
a blog on something like the possibilities of FTL travel and communications or maybe the realities and practicalities of space piracy or other forms of future techno-piracy next time. Its a timely meme given recent magazine articles and social happenings.

But those things have certainly been discussed, for example in this old post on piracy.

Cordwainer said...

Agreed, people will do what is necessary for them to do given the circumstances. Hence my argument that any future will probably be a patchwork of different political theories and platforms. But to say that politics is always practical in its application or that it's practices are not rooted in political theories would not be a realistic assessment of human nature or social group theory. Collectivist practices under Communism were not very practical but they happened. Modern politics is rooted in the platforms of political parties that are largely based upon different political theories as well as the practical application of policy. Even in a total democracy where decisions would be based on popular vote "human nature" will no doubt take different forms due to the fact that humans are not a monolithic group but a variegated community built upon numerous environmental factors. (culture, history, geography, economics, natural resources etc.) What human nature "is" is anybodies guess we have yet to really define what genetic or biological determinants to human behavior there are, if any. It is my opinion that we certainly do have instinctual behaviors but they tend to create a very wide milieu of behaviors and can often be impaired due to mental illness. Our emotions and cognitive abilities might be seen as part of those instinctual behaviors but if that is so then they often work at cross-purposes to mute and variegate our behaviors to allow for a high degree of adaptability and social cooperation.

Cordwainer said...

Also person or societies and ideas about practical justice and practical security are probably quite variegated as well. Maintaining nation states , bureaucratic government and international institutions are if not the best solutions for practical justice and security then they may well be the best we can come up with given "human nature". While part of human nature is to seek progress I'm not currently seeing the possibility yet for a big transformative change, I'm merely postulating on some of the possibilities given the Zeitgeist of current times. Obviously the spirit of the times that creates the basis for political change in the far future could be very different than what we can imagine.

Tony said...


With all due respect, sounds like you swallowed a whole library of political and social theory, then shat it out at random. I'll address just one point, since it seems to tie the rest together (by however narrow a thread):

Yes, people do try to impose their theories on the real world through government -- anywhere and any time, not just in nominally communist states of the 20th Century. And where they fail, we can point at practical reasons why they failed. No theory necessary.

It's a particular human blindness that happens everywhere, not just in politics. Just ask somebody that designs databases for practical purposes what he thinks of Date.

WHich means I guess I had better address this too:

Simply put, it's not enough to say that we don't really understand human nature. Of course we do. The Athenians' response ot the Melians remains just as penetrable today as it was 2400 years ago -- and just as universally applicable, as an example of common human thought, if not a particularly pratical governing principle. In fact everything we do is pretty much predicated on understanding what other humans will do, given certain stimuli.

Cordwainer said...

You know I don't know what we are arguing over anymore now Tony. Whether it's that all politics is the practice of what is possible. That politics should be more practical or that it can or cannot be due to human nature. Or that political movements and change can progress beyond the institution of a nation state or create new forms of nation states. I was merely postulating on what future governments might look like if you don't feel my postulations are correct or politically realistic I really don't see you contributing much to either disprove those ideas or present ideas of your own. Also while I do agree human beings have certain commonalities even when dealing with humans in a group I am of the opinion that in general we cannot really know what the effect that future technology and environments will have on political developments, we can only make educated guesses by using past examples. As always it is an "I don't like it, it isn't practical", which is odd considering the impracticalities that some of your own ideas have been met with on this blog.

Tony said...


It's real simple. I'm a practical man. Political theories are impractical. I don't have a use for them. I'm not even sure why you think we're having an argument.

Cordwainer said...

Sorry, Tony I though you were joining a conversation about political theory. Didn't mean to draw you into that conversation or disparage your views on the subject, albeit it is a bit hard to disparage a subject that you don't have a use for. If practical politics is even possible I'm sure someone will come up with some idea of how to achieve that although that in itself would be a political theory now wouldn't it.

Cordwainer said...

thought not though

Tony said...


"If practical politics is even possible..."

See, to me that' a nonense statement. The whole point is that -- when done properly -- politics are in fact nothing but a practical pursuit.

Cordwainer said...

When done properly, by whom. Human beings always make mistakes in some form or another. Also policies must change over time to meet the needs of those they effect, society is not a static machination. Which is why I do agree that political theory is not practical. Since any theory even one's that consider practicality as their cornerstone will inevitably prove impractical over time. The problem with saying you are only interested in political practice and not theory is that you sound as if you have no interest in political theory. Which would no doubt have to take some form of theory or anti-theory of government based upon political theories as either a benchmark, backdrop or reverse barometer when crafting practical policy. Even if you do not wish to be defined by political theories your actions will be labeled in one way or another due to the modern political environment. To have practical ideas is fine but to put them to practice one must know how to communicate those ideas to the public and navigate the political theories of ones day, which means you must have some interest in political theory. To not be like leaders before you you still have to be able to anticipate what the crowd will do, what it thinks, how it behaves and how you can influence or harness that behavior in a practical way.

Tony said...


Let me see if I can phrase this in language you can understand. (Not saying you're stupid or incompetent, just that you have particular habits of thought that shape your reading comprehension in certain ways.) I have as much respect for political theory as political theory is a descriptive discipline. Where you and I appear to part ways is the prescriptive power of political theory, which I think is nonexistent.

Thucydides said...

The late Baroness Thatcher demonstrated how you could indeed adhere to principle while practicing politics as a practical art. While many people may not have agreed with how she achieved her goals for the UK, achieve them she did.

Sadly, in the UK (and to a lesser extent here in Canada), political parties tend to undermine or even stab their own leaders, regardless of their relative success or failure in the political arenas (former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien won 3 back to back majority government and was still ousted by an internal party coup).

Cordwainer said...

I think we are actually in agreement we are just dancing around semantics here as usual Tony.

1. Yes, if practiced properly then politics is at its core the practice of what is possible and indelibly practical in its application and acheivements. Where we differ is how political theory can be prescriptive in fostering those achievements.

2. I do agree that political theory is a bad prescriptive tool but no tool is perfect and one man's prescription is another man's poison. The best politicians are able to compromise, even the principled one's. In the case of Thatcher she made a number of concessions to the Labour Party which were unheard of in that day for the Tory or Conservative Party while still holding to her key principles. In fact the modern Labour Movement that formed in the late 80's and early 90's and that took power under Blair owes a lot to Thatcher's influence both in what they had in common and what they disagreed on. Chretien's party was originally formed from 3 different factions that had strong differences but joined together to form a power sharing government because they all espouse certain Conservative values, Chretien pissed all of those factions off in some way by some of the choices he made particularly with his relationship with the U.S., free-trade and education reform.

As in war it is best to negotiate from a position of strength if you can. If you can't then you usually have to fight it out. I tend to think that no one form of government, economic system or political theory is "perfect" or offers the best set of solutions to social problems, but I don't see the harm in studying those theories for practical use. I also do think that politicians should be more practical and policy minded rather than blinded by ideaology. But humans will be humans and party politics are probably an entrenched institution within representative governments so if you want to be in politics then you have to deal with political parties and political theories even if you are independant of them.

I'm sorry if all my arguments sound circular, mundane, uninformed or illogical in some way to you Tony. I'm self-educated so my use of the English language is not always technically or grammatically correct but I think it is about as good as some of the journalists I have read who write opinion columns. Personally I find your comments often contradictory and way too simplistic incomplete and unimaginative in tone, not to say your boorish or lacking in descriptive powers.

Tony said...


"I'm sorry if all my arguments sound circular, mundane, uninformed or illogical in some way to you Tony. I'm self-educated so my use of the English language is not always technically or grammatically correct but I think it is about as good as some of the journalists I have read who write opinion columns. Personally I find your comments often contradictory and way too simplistic incomplete and unimaginative in tone, not to say your boorish or lacking in descriptive powers."

Let's understand a few things here.

As a computer software professional, It would be the ultimate in hypocrisy to criticise your efforts to educate yourself. You have to be able to teach yourself one new technology, complete, every year on the average. And that's just to keep up. Getting ahead takes considerably more effort.

Having said that, there is a signal value in formal education -- it teaches you how to discern between reliable and unreliable information. Autodidacts often don't know how to make that distinction. To them everything is equal, because they don't know what fits in an organized framework and what is outside of it.

I think that is the big hole in a lot of what you expound here -- to you it is all equal, and all relevant. The wide net you cast to address any question is evidence of that. Your prose is unfocussed and impenetrable, simply because you don't understand how to come to the point and then hut up.

Which, I think, is also why you claim -- if indeed you're not just being facetious and gratuitously insulting -- that my proe is incomplete and unimaginative. You've simply never been taught good communications skills. You think quantity is quality, and that covering every imaginable angle is a necessary thing. But it's not. Good communication is based on coming to the point, and not getting sidetracked. Quite honestly, the more words you put in a statement, the less seriously people take it.

Cordwainer said...

This is a blog about future government, namely neo-monarchism not a public forum for political debate. I thought I had room to be imaginative and bellicose. Where is your sense of fun Tony? Besides I thought I came to the point quite along time ago. I was merely expounding on your nitpicks and Thucydide's remarks which at least make succinct points unlike either my ramblings or your illusive and inflammatory statements.

It is only through my chiding that you seem to have actually come to anything like a point. Also determining what is reliable data in the social sciences and politics is difficult and takes an inter-disciplinary approach, making broad or generalized prescriptives is likely to lead to bad consequences.

So being able to explain your views in both a broad and generalized way via labels like political theory and in a more sincere and simple to understand way via political policy, "stump speeches" and interactive community forums is necessary. Of course not all things are equal or relevant politicians can be very successful using just "buzzwords" or plain language, while not revealing anything of real substance. Eventually though they have to educate themselves and get down to the work of turning out policies that have substance, which is why their policies often turn out different then what they originally campaigned or planned for.

Cordwainer said...

Looking in retrospect, Tony I could have been more polite in asking you to explain your views properly. That being said you have often been the one to bait others into entering into the debate over your claims and opinions by not being more open or explanatory in your remarks. I apologize once again for any offensive remarks I may have made.

Tony said...


I have to ask a few serious questions here:

Do you honestly think that politicians in the real world (not political theorists, Cause Guy, or academic commentators on their work) actually know all the labels you throw around?

Do you think the electorate would understand them if they did?

Cordwainer said...

I sort of implied already that they wouldn't, although I think a fair share of educated politicians might and the electorate is becoming far more educated about these things since the creation of the internet and search engines. Plus my Dad's generation back in the 60's and 70's were no political slouches. As I said this is a speculative blog about science fiction and it sort of suggests a certain amount of education and interest in this sort of thing. Also, I'm not the one that introduced Social Group Theory or Didactic computation and organization into the conversation.

Tony said...


"Also, I'm not the one that introduced Social Group Theory or Didactic computation and organization into the conversation."

Actually, you did. Whatever you think I wrote that touched on those things, I certainly didn't do it consciously, because I've never heard of either. The one gets 6.6M hits on google, suggesting that it means basically what one wants it to mean. (A quick scan of the first couple of pages of results confirms this.) THe other gets precisely seven hits on google, suggesting that it's not important at all to know what it is.

The second example shows that just becaue you've heard of something. That doesn't make it important. As I said earlier, as important as self-learning can be, a formal education still gives you one thing that autodidactism doesn't -- an understanding of the shape of knowledge.

Cordwainer said...

While you and I did not formally introduce those concepts into this blog other participants did, Tony. Why don't we keep the "importance" of these concepts within this blog which is a "special case". Also I already agreed with you on the fact that many of these concepts are not necessary or important to running a campaign or even necessary to good governance. Although in some cases some of the aforementioned ideas can be helpful tools for good governance or for galvanizing one's political base if you know how to inform those involved in a manner that is understandable. I'm not knocking the idea that one should stick to what is consequential and substantive when constructing policy or that one should communicate in a direct and easy to understand format. I'm merely making the point that this blog is a "special case" and others have already shown a propensity for flowery speech.

Cordwainer said...

To put simply while I agree I have a roundabout way to coming to the point and have a tendency to throw around broad labels and generalizations at times. I would put forth Tony that you need to be better at being a "social chameleon" and clarifying your positions better, unless you like your positions challenged as they have been in this blog. Talking to people at a high society gala is different then how you talk to your neighbors in your neigborhood. Discussions in a literary circle are different then discussions at a town hall. In plain language "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight".

Cordwainer said...

Personally I like a healthy debate and a blog is a good place for such things. On the other hand Tony if I were to encounter your method of argument in a political arena I would probably find you off-putting. Which could be a good thing if your interested in only dealing with those within your own political circle but might lead to difficulties when crafting policy with people that you don't necessarily meet eye to eye with. But then again a broad political base is not always necessary to craft good policy, if the policy is good enough on its own merits to gather wide support. Also it is sometimes possible to find a good front-man if your showmanship or social skills are lacking.

Tony said...


Let's see...

This blog is a special case, but when somebody gives people credit for knowing the basics, he's witholding? I think you need to rethink that a bit.

Yet at the same time, your idea of being clear about a subject is to wordgasm at every opportunity. I think you need to rethink that too.

Just so you get where I'm coming from, my day job is software design and development. Being concise and focused is my stock in trade. I have to tell you, I see no reason why people can't be the same in their evedryday dealings with each other. Why you do is an absolute puzzlement to me. The only excuse I can see is, as I have alluded earlier, that you just haven't been taught effective communication techniques. And that's not for me to adjust to. It's for you to improve.

Thucydides said...

But then again a broad political base is not always necessary to craft good policy, if the policy is good enough on its own merits to gather wide support.

But of course the true question is "gather the broad support of whom?"

Our current political system of crony capitalism has the broad support of the rent seekers who profit from it, and very little from the people who pay (opinion polls indicate that politicians are pretty much at the bottom of the heap of people or trades that are trusted or respected).

Since the "system" is largely rigged to discount your and my input (the City of Montreal recently awarded a municipal contract to a company widely accused of corruption despite an overwhelming referendum result against such an award by the taxpayers of the city; the referendum being non binding), there are various pressures building up and various responses by the taxpayers; most of which have worse long term consequences for the polity in question (tax avoidance, the growth of underground economies or the physical removal of taxpayers, business and investment capital as people "vote with their feet").

Damien Sullivan said...

"crony capitalism... Since the "system" is largely rigged to discount your and my input"

Hey, as conservatives and libertarians like to tell me, "we're a republic not a democracy".

Anonymous said...

You know, I've always been taught that democracy and capitalism are different things; democracy being a political system and capitalism an economic one, with a republic being a way to organize your country into a nation. I'm not sure what forms of governments will evolve in the future, but they should be interesting, and probably strongly shaped by their unique circumstances.


Anonymous said...

Since this comment thread still seems alive, I thought I'd add some input. There was a good essay by Paul Krugman back in 1996 called "White Collars Turn Blue" which tried to predict what the economy would look like at the end of the 21st Century - While some bits are already dated it offers a possible base for monarchs in a rocketpunk type future. The basic assumptions were:

1. The information revolution will eliminate most white collar jobs and in general drastically reduce the value of college education. At the same time manual dexterity is not easily duplicated - such jobs still remain.

2. Therefore, the work of the future involves manual labor or people skills. Information type jobs - including science and scholarship - are held by relatively few people.

3. The wealthiest people are distinguished by ownership of natural resources, not mastery of the most highly skilled jobs.

OK, how does that apply to monarchy? Well, you're got an upper class that looks like it did for most of history - based on control of natural resources. You've possibly got a gentry of elite white collar workers who are in theory a meritocracy but in practice more like Mandarins - winners of a rigged competition. That gets you something looking like lords and their immediate servants. And then below you have the bulk of the population, possibly including a lot of talented and ambitious people with little chance to move up. That might in turn give you a push to move into space - you need humans for the hands on work, and you have able people looking for a chance to move up. And need for resources might give a reason to move into space. Toss in something like Tony's torchship engine that can push things but isn't good for practical energy generation and you might just get your retro future back.

Cordwainer said...

Tony, I get where your going with my wordgasms and I am the first to admit that I am lacking in social skills. Although I have always been told I have good communication skills and should become a teacher since I tend to break things down into simply understood analogies, even if they tend to be wordy sometimes. As for where you come from I should explain where I come from I was in the Military for 12 years working in the Signal Corps and am now in Information Systems. From my own experience software programs and technical manuals are some of the most poorly written and user unfriendly tripe that software designers can hardly be called the paragon of good communicators.

As for infornifics post I do wonder how automation would play into such a "computers make us stupid future". If your robot requires a ton of code and a dedicated electrical engineer for every mission it is given then your yeoman class might be much larger and your peasant class smaller then in a medieval society. Also if space travel is expensive as it is likely to remain so then the majority of resources "out there" will no doubt fall under the control of the "resource-based nobles" who fund such ventures, reducing most people to "mandarins or reeves".
That beings said most resource based wealth is owned collectively in this day and age either directly by government or is heavily regulated by government and large shareholder trust-type corporations to limit the wealth and power of individuals. Just because you have money doesn't mean you can effectively lobby or participate in government and even if you can your power is limited by bureaucracy, laws and other special interest groups. Most of the time governments and large businesses don't know what their left hand from their right is doing.

Cordwainer said...

Also I'm only human Tony not a Vulcan so please don't say the ship won't fit. Humans tend to be prosaic not precise for a reason, because it's not what you say but how you say it. Something which does not translate well to written communication, hence the wordgasm.

Cordwainer said...

To comment on Thucydides and Damien's post regarding a republic versus a democracy, I would like to defend my arguments on the grounds that I do tend to be a political optimist. My political optimism is largely grounded in the idea that human's tend to improve things over time and even though history may have gyre in and out or progress in stops and fits, generally speaking human institutions and our quality of life has improved over time. I am a pragmatist also so I realize that no system made by imperfect humans can be fool-proof or without corruption. Which is why I would rather regulate and harness the power of "crony capitalism" in a positive way . I tend to think Third Way type distributionism of wealth and limits on government interference in the public and private spheres would be a good first step. That along with a more equal playground for special interests rather than a wealth driven/maintained one, and a more pluralistic form of government could solve a lot of the problems we see today. That does not mean we have to give up much needed social programs we merely need to improve them and make them more sustainable in those cases where they can be made more sustainable. I don't believe keeping people fiscally solvent into their senescense or taking care of those that are not physically or mentally fit to be fully productive of take care of themselves is an unworthy pursuit or will bankrupt the economy, if anything it will make the economy more vibrant and lessen the debt on private citizens and businesses that would have to pick up the slack without those programs in place. Where many nation states can really improve is limiting welfare spending on people who are able bodied and capable of work, as well as getting those able bodied individuals work and the training to get or create a job rather than take the welfare dime.

Kevin Long said...

Niven and Pournelle said w/r/t "The Empire of Man" that they used ancient monarchal terms simply because they were useful. If they hadn't used "Viceroy" and "Count" and "Dutchess" and whatnot, they've have had to invent new tersm for more-or-less the same jobs and social positions, which would be pointless *and* a distracting strain on the readers. I think that kind of explains monarchism in SF: it's not so much that authors support or oppose kingship, it's that *everyone knows what a king is.* President is somewhat harder to define, in that it means half a dozen things in half a dozen different situations and cultures (President of a country, president of a company, president of the senate, president of the synagogue, president as titurlar head of state with no real powers, president as a prime minister, etc) so if you're writing a story and you want to get across the idea of "The guy in charge" then kings are a go-to image.

Also, SF that deals with politics is frequently along the lines of "This is how I'd run society if everyone stopped being an idiot and listened to me." There's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," and other examples of "Heinlein's Republic." In situations like that, where the idea is some experimental new form....nah, envermind. I'm not going anywhere with that idea. Thought I had something, but I don't.

Damien Sullivan said...

But 'king' isn't just "guy in charge", it's generally "guy substantially in charge for life" and defaults to "...with hereditary succession" unless someone calls out to elected kingship. Likewise 'Count' will be expected to be a hereditary nobility, not an appointed governor (even if that's kind of how they started). They're good terms to use if those are the sorts of things you need terms for; whether your starfaring post-industrial universal-literacy society should be having hereditary rulers and governors is another matter.

Anonymous said...

They said you can convert a fantasy into science fiction by converting swords into lasers, but the problem is that, after converting to sci-fi, your fantasy monarchy will become an evil dictatorship that violates human rights and possibly hires child soliders.

Cordwainer said...

Of course such a design would make the reator heavier, but it would allow liquid cooling of the windows and bimodal operation. Another possibility would be to use some type or cermet fuel to moderate the neutron flux sufficiently to keep the windows from melting, problem is operational temperature of the rocket exhaust would probably be lower so I imagine ISP and thrust would be relatively low. Using MITEE style design and light-weight composites for such a reactor might allow a decent thrust-to-weight though. If they could get dusty plasma reactors to work that might solve the problems associated, I imagine electromagnetic or magnetic constriction would make a "light bulb" style reactor too heavy for launch. Such a design could solve some of the issues regarding dusty plasma fission fragment rocket designs low ISP and throwing away of isotopic fuel for thrust in some deep space applications.

Anonymous said...

Possibly trying to revive a dead horse here, and possibly restating something that has already been said in the 349 previous comments, but a feudal, if not completely monarchical, society actually makes sense in a non-space opera SF setting.

I am not an expert on medieval history, but as I understand it the feudal system was a complex net of rights and obligations going up and down the social ladder. In a (probably grossly oversimplified) nutshell, you provided land to those below you, and loyalty, tax, and service to those above.

The holdings of the nobles were, at least nominally, the property of the king, which he "allowed" the nobles to use. In exchange, the nobles would provide soldiers for the king's army in wartime and tax for the royal coffers. A similar procedure happened between the nobles and their knights and peasants, where both were provided with land (actual ownership for the knights, more of rented use for the peasants) in exchange for military service and tax income, respectively. This let the lower classes work the fields and make a pittance to feed their families while the nobles and kings enjoyed their power and wealth. And even though the king was nominally in charge of the entire country, the nobles' estates were passed down for so long the king would have been forced to pry them away by brute force, and rebellious nobles became a possibility. All of this with the disclaimer that I may be entirely wrong (I'm fairly sure I'm coloring European feudalism with its Japanese counterpart here too, though I'm not sure how much).

That seems useful in a space setting, either interplanetary near-future or interstellar where FTL travel is long, dangerous, expensive, or otherwise difficult. You are a would be space hegemon and have a territory that you can't effectively control from your Grand Capital? Appoint someone who has sworn loyalty to you--be they a governor, a duke, or whatever--and let them run the show from on-site. You get someone who can keep the money flowing in and the pesky peasants in line (and who has a little battlefleet handy that you can use to get rid of the annoying rebels trying to depose you), and they get a lucrative cut of the tax revenue and protection from someone more powerful. Now you don't have to worry about every little happening. The Duke of Jupiter simply reports all is well, after he deals with that famine on Ganymede in whatever way he sees fit. Until, of course, they decide they could do even better on their own, or worse, aligned with your rivals...

On second thought, the concept of satellite states might be more applicable. When Napoleon went on his little jaunt through Europe, for example, he didn't try to ostensibly add all of Europe to France. He re-drew the borders of the minor powers a bit and installed friendly governments, and kept the major powers--Austria, Prussia, and Russia--friendly by threats of another visit by the Grand Armee. These states were nominally under their own rulers, but they still obeyed France and even sent troops for her army. And there was no question of who was superior.

Or, for another analogy more modern than feudalism, the British Empire during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The government in London could not effectively run the day-to-day operations of its far-flung colonies, so the Royal governors had greater or lesser degrees of autonomy. Of course, if they screwed up too bad, they risked the Crown's displeasure and a quick visit from the Royal Navy.

Transplant this system to space and let it develop over a century or two. It becomes easier to make the post of governor a lifetime one, and to pick a new governor from the planet's (or moon's, especially for near-future SF with no FTL) population, and if that happens to be the old governor's son, so be it. And just like that, you have a society that might not be ostensibly feudal, but that has all the trappings of kings and nobles nonetheless.


Damien Sullivan said...

Yes, I'm afraid that's totally old hat, TDA. SF authors like Pournelle have been saying that for decades. But while I suppose it's certainly a possible outcome, it's far from inevitable, or the only way of having a dispersed 'empire' under one government. Another way is *federalism* -- the early USA was far bigger than most feudal states (like France or the Holy Roman Empire), with no better communications apart from the printing press. And presumably space empires would have mass media and Internets, not just printing.

Tangentially, Regine Pernoud argued that the 'kingship' of true feudalism -- first among peers, living off the revenues of his own land, needing approval for new taxes, and bound by many rights and customs -- is basically an entirely different office from the 'kingship' of putative absolute monarchism like the Sun King. We use the same word for both, and there's some historical continuity, but in essence there's vast difference.

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