Vote “Yes” on the MEFTA

I think every thought experiment should conducted n times, where n is the number of unique moral agents contained in the experiment. Doing so might help mitigate the risk of our inborn proclivities toward The Fatal Conceit.

(Finally – finally – I have been given an excuse to invoke Hayek on these pages, a rarity for the pulpit-pounding Misesian of the group. But that is just what impact Samuel’s recent argument against free trade had on me.)

Re-conducting the thought experiment n times will hopefully provide us with a certain moral weight.

Let n = k + s, where is the number of kings, gods, aristocrats, wonks, and watchmakers in the world and s is the number of serfs, plebes, average joes, peons, and Trump voters. Let us further note that in every system across the totality of human history, including the present system, s > k. And not just “>,” but “much >.”

Let us further acknowledge that, at the time of this writing, the only person who stands to profit in the near term from terra-forming Mars is the most vocal proponent of doing so:

Humanity could colonize Mars with a few key technological advances, Elon Musk said. Chief among them are fully and rapidly reusable rockets, and the ability to produce rocket propellant from local materials on the Red Planet….

For example, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket costs about $16 million to build, but the fuel for each of the booster’s liftoffs costs just $200,000, Musk said Tuesday. So finding a way to fly rockets again and again has the potential to slash the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100, he added.

Musk hopes to be a key player in the spread of humanity to another planet, but he doesn’t expect to be around to see the full fruits of his labor.

Emphasis mine. $16 million (plus margin) is a lot of cheddar. You can bet that’s going to show up in the marginal tax rates and rates of inflation borne by s. To be sure, k will also bear some of this cost… but then again, it was their choice to do so. (They’re the k‘s, remember?)

And while I’m banging away at libertarian hobby-horses, let’s briefly tackle “what is unseen.” The chief cost of terra-forming Mars is the opportunity cost of spending hundreds of billions of dollars and countless human lives mitigating against a risk that never comes to pass. (Yes, Elon, such as superintelligent killer robots.) There is a whole other trajectory of human progress that may unfold if we choose to do pretty much anything other than protecting ourselves from non-existent killer robots. That trajectory will impact the quality of life for both the k‘s and the s‘s, but it will make the best and most important impact on the s‘s.

Okay, now go ahead and re-run the thought experiment n times. Run through the billions of poor people who will continue to die in the streets for lack of improved economic development. Run through the billions of dollars that could have been spent on increasing the number of cancer screenings in the world, or on reducing the cost of insulin analogues, or on increasing the wage rates of the desperate, or etc., etc. Do this s times, for every s alive in today’s world, and for every s that will ever live over the course of the development of Musk’s Mars plan. Then do it again for every s living on both Earth and Mars, who could easily trade with each other and improve their lots in life, but for the k‘s who just happen to “know” that the hypothetical risk of an imaginary killer robot or et cetera is too great to justify raising the total amount of calories consumed by an abandoned Bangladeshi child.

Then, when you’re done with all that, go ahead and run through the k‘s. They probably won’t save themselves (no matter how rich they get) because they’ll be long dead before the plan ever comes to fruition. But they do get a substantial utility boost, after all. It’s not just the money, it’s the knowledge they have that they’re saving humanity – perhaps not today’s starving child, but some child who never would have existed otherwise! Just think of how many lives are saved or created by this process! And since “humanity” is infinite (especially if “we” save it), and “starving child” is finite, that’s a whole lot of salvation the k‘s get for their money.

Still, after all this, I have a difficult time believing that anyone who went through the thought experiment n times would walk away concluding that, yep, we gotta break a few eggs and cook ourselves an omelet. That is likely why Samuel ended with the Tyler Cowen quote that he did: when our growth plan involves redirecting calories from the mouths of today’s starving to the future of humanity many generations from now, the decision just doesn’t make sense.

This, too, is part of the “neoreactionary” ethos – an important part. We can deride them for being “populists” or “anti-elite” (sometimes called “anti-intellectual”), but when our thought experiments place us in the position of k‘s, while they can only ever be s‘s, their criticism sticks. It’s not as if it’s irrational to think that the elites might cook up a plan that comes at a terrible cost to the rest of us. It’s happened before. If we are to take neoreactionism seriously, we’ll have to acknowledge this.

Now, I’m not an unreasonable man. If a few eccentric k‘s want to spend their own money, combined with voluntary donations, on interplanetary colonialism, I say more power to them! Fair is fair: I spend my disposable income on too many guitars and too much cognac, they spend theirs on space ships. But that’s a choice any n can make, be she a k or an s.

But if we succeed in colonizing Mars, then I’m already in favor of MEFTA. Free trade is fair trade. No moat!


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