Archive for August 6th 2018

SF is full of stories of global, or interplanetary, or even interstellar governments. Government just like today, except vastly larger.

But it’s not going to happen in real life.

Government follows production. When production is centralized, as it was in the industrial era, government can collect much of that centralized wealth in taxes, and use it to expand into a big, centralized government. And it can justify those acts by claiming that big, centralized production needs a big, centralized government to make it efficient.

And the politicians have a point. If you want your country to be wealthy in a world of big, centralized production, you don’t want to be constantly dealing with localized regulations that get in the way.

So you’re about as likely to see a small, libertarian government in an industrial society as you are an ice cube in volcanic lava. All the incentives are pushing against that, and it would take a herculean opposition to prevent it.

At which point, your neighbours with their big-government, big-business economy would probably invade and take you over.

But that’s rapidly coming to an end. 3D printing, cheap CNC and similar technologies mean more and more of the things we use are going to be made locally, many of them at home. The kinds of technologies we have to develop to survive in space are going to make small communities self-sufficient on Earth, too.

And then, why would they want to be told what to do by governments hundreds or thousands of miles away? What would they gain from a big government when pretty much everything they encounter is made or grown within a few miles of where they live?

So the natural incentives in the future are for small, localized government, or no government at all. A single family building a home from an asteroid aren’t going to want anyone telling them what to do, and a small tribe doing the same aren’t going to want anyone outside the tribe telling them what to do.

Now, one obvious counterargument is that those who have access to the most resources are going to use them to build giant robot armies to enslave the rest. But that’s not going to work well in space, where the distances will make any kind of warfare rather difficult. On Earth, perhaps, but if you have a giant robot army, you don’t need to enslave anyone. You wouldn’t be invading their territory to govern them, you’d be invading it to kill them and steal their resources.

And, of course, those who have power will fight this trend tooth-and-nail. We’re already seeing this with the ever-increasing calls to censor the Internet, and the open censorship of their users by many of the big Internet businesses who only exist in their current form because of a cosy co-dependency with those in power.

Some government will ban all innovation and go full North Korea on their citizens, even as North Korea is going the other way. If a government can force people to live in an industrial society even while their neighbours are decentralizing through localized manufacturing, it could continue to exist for some time. But, as soon as that country becomes a problem, their more advanced neighbours will come in and free it from its backward government.

So, my forecast would be:

  1. Big government will become less and less useful and more and more an impediment to technological innovation. Instead of helping the country become wealthy, as it did in the distant past, it will help the country become poor.
  2. Many governments will try to ban new manufacturing technologies that lead to the decentralization of production. But they’ll eventually fail, because nations which do that will become technological backwaters.
  3. Even as we see a resurgence of nationalism around the world, it’s unlikely that it will become the norm before tribalism takes over. If there’s a planetary government on Mars, it will only last until the second colony is built.
  4. Earth will be a death-trap, as those who want its resources for the automated production of weapons will just take them, and not care whose they were before. The kind of person who would care won’t be building a giant robot army to steal your stuff.
  5. As we spread out across the galaxy, centralized government will become even less viable as the distances involved will make such control impossible. Maybe a government on Earth could control Alpha Centauri with an eight-year communication round-trip. But a star fifty light years away? A hundred? A thousand? How can you control a colony when communication of orders from the central government takes longer than the entire lifespan of the Roman Empire?

Of course, yes, I still do have big governments in some of my stories. Just because something seems inevitable in the real world doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for a sci-fi story. But those stories also generally include faster-than-light travel and other technologies that I don’t really believe in either.