Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Before we surf the concepts of earth shooting up in intergalactic stature and wheeling and dealing with a myriad of alien cultures spread out over catchy-named star systems inhabited by both benevolent and cunningly greedy fellow traders, as if earth were like some under-weight developing country punching above its weight and then making a killing out of globalisation, think of the first meaningful trade that might actually come our way.
As probed previously, an Alien would value unique and transferable items from earth. No alien would come here to buy gold (unless to manipulate our economies) or real estate (unless they wanted to establish a physical presence) or stocks (unless they wanted to leverage their investment against us).
Earth money is relevant to earth, has no relevance outside of humanity’s spread, so what is transferrable with an alien currency?
Following the rules of supply and demand, inspect the visiting aliens’ shopping lists: Artefacts, art, memorabilia, specimens, information, friendship, a memento.
And what do we get in exchange? If not, then a handful of alien currency we can use with the next visitors. As in many first trades, the advanced civilisation was centuries ahead of the locals. Think of all the agreements where a tribe’s chief fumbles with a pencil across a foreign contract and remove whole islands or peninsular from his world. Trinkets, mirrors and nails were popular trades for early explorers. The worst case is we end up a visiting alien’s equivalent of fridge magnet promoting the wonders of their tourist hot spots. Come again.
After the initial ceremonial first trades comes the realisation that “we’re wasting each others’ time and worthless currencies” and then the thrusts for what is of real value.
Now, whatever is scarce become valuable (both ways), and out of the initial confusion and fanfare some economic theories will displace others. Yet the problem still remains, what can earth offer an alien culture other than saleable parts of our own culture, or what little reserve of alien currency we’ve amassed; most would be pilfered and secreted away by our untouchable financial elites anyway.
There will be minimal demand for precious metals because any craft that got this far will know how to repair itself while getting here and returning. A whole range of hard commodities are likewise excluded because minerals can be found in asteroids and many of our tradable objects would be completely worthless to an alien; toilets, toilet brushes, toilet paper, tooth brushes, tooth paste, televisions, time-share apartments... Anything else beginning with T?
However, some items are ‘collectible’s but not tradable. We do however have an abundance of objects that can be sold and transferred quite easily, yet even art, historical fragments and information (printed and digital) are possibly valuable but not enough, so entrepreneurial earthlings will step ahead to the next level.
Read up on any dirt poor backward nation that had the leadership with the moral fibre to say “We will do better” and you’ll see that their early years were spent doing the shit work few other equally shittier nations bothered with.
While earth can’t really manufacture cheap goods for an alien culture thanks to time and distance, earth can offer a service to a visiting Alien Culture. Be it washing their Star Cruisers, shampooing their hair, exfoliating their skin, fornicating for their voyeurs, who knows.
All we do know is that trade on earth is mature relative to earth. Peace is not so mature but getting there, science is forever pushing ahead and then sometimes sideways or backwards (think of scientific fads full of hot air), religion will always be religion, yet commerce is a beast unto itself.
The lessons from nations that changed their destiny is that they performed the grunt work not just out of dedication to work or some other magical social theory, but because they wanted to learn and profit from their masters. Modern China owes it modern military might to the formative years when they built their first Western inspired, designed and even owned (until shuffled out by the Communist Party) factories.
Who on earth scales a simple service agreement with visiting aliens to something larger will be gaining an insight and a stepping stone to the stars.
When earth is part of an intergalactic economy it will be because earthlings have built on their exposure to alien culture, profited from a transfer of technology, and taken the initiative to fill a gap missing the universe. Ultimately, budding capitalists may do more for the preservation of humans and earth by forging trade relationships with yet to be met alien cultures.
This intergalactic capital ethos, though at odds with what might actually exist and evolve out there, is the most pro-active method to get earthlings organised and efficient at arming and kitting themselves with alien equipment. No matter how we portray ourselves or who is in power on earth, we will be ‘aliens’ with funny ways, but what binds cultures from across un-charted seas and soon to be chartered space will be a form of money – not the money many associate with greed – but a form of money that recognises reward for effort and that is transferrable.
So, socialists, you won’t get us to the stars.
Copyright 2014 Simon Drake
Simon Drake.com contains information about my science fiction and non-fiction, (including where to paperbacks and ebooks), plus some short fiction.