The Proceedings of the 1989 NanoCon Northwest regional nanotechnology conference, with K. Eric Drexler as Guest of Honor.

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Appendix C: The Cosmic Pie by Tracy Harms

Although Mr. Harms was unable to attend NanoCon, he has submitted the following discussion of the "Inheritance Day" concept proposed by Eric Drexler.

Dividing the Cosmic Pie:
The Political Economics of K. Eric Drexler
by Tracy Harms

Postal Box 7033
Boulder, CO 80306
(303) 499-3337

In the words of Marvin Minsky, "K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation is an enormously original book about the consequences of new technologies. It is ambitious and imaginative and, best of all, the thinking is technically sound." Even granting that this opens the foreword of that very book and is thus something of an advertisement, this statement is true enough. Engines of Creation is certainly one of the most interesting books on projection of future advances in technology ever published, and it deserves widespread attention. But even if "the thinking is technically sound", it is severely flawed in its attempts to address political aspects of technological advances. This paper will address only these errors, but there is much more to the book than the points to be discussed here. The reader is encouraged to investigate Engines of Creation for themselves. The heart of that book, discussion of molecular assembler technology, is essentially correct and highly important. It is precisely because this is a book so worth reading that the political stance taken in it must not go uncountered.

Both K. Eric Drexler and I fall under the label "libertarian," in a general sense of the word. The term is so broadly encompassing, however, that standing under the same political umbrella is not much assurance of similarity. Drexler may be characterized a libertarian democrat, for he values and relies upon democratic institutions and traditions. My position, in contrast, is egoistic, and clearly a more radical departure from the mainstream of modern politics.

This paper details my criticism of the policies advocated in Engines of Creation, and of the assumptions which underlie them. My first concern is with Drexler's proposed division of wealth; the arguments against it are straightforward applications of Austrian economic theory. Next, I rehabilitate a modified version of Locke's criteria for property, which Drexler dismissed in the process of formulating his property division plan. I then focus on the fact that conquest, not philosophical standards, have historically been the support for property rights as prevail today. In holding a democratic value system, Drexler is not only unaware of the political oppression which underlies the institution of property title, he further trusts governmental power to oversee nanotechnology research and development. I explore how this trust is unrealistic, as is most clearly shown by his predictions regarding nanotechnology and taxation. I also note that while advancement of such technology promises overall increase in wealth, it will not necessarily produce greater equality of wealth.

Eric Drexler soft-pedals his libertarian bias, never making it overt over the course of this book. Evidence that his views differ from the mainstream is his certainty that the property system of today will not serve with justice the extension of humanity into space habitation beyond Earth. Eric Drexler is an advocate of social reform, and his concern for justice finds expression in a plan to provide equal opportunity. Concerned with the problem of finite resources, he makes a proposal for division of wealth. But the pie-in-the-sky idea he serves us is half-baked.

Tucked in the notes at the back of the book is a discussion of how the real finitude of existence should be dealt with as a socio-economic problem. Here is Drexler's analysis:

But the limits to exponential growth ensure that universal, unconditional abundance cannot last indefinitely. This raises questions regarding the distribution and ownership of space resources. Three basic approaches might be considered:

One is a first-come, first-served approach, like the claiming of homesteads or mining sites through use. This has roots in the Lockean principle that ownership may be established by mixing one's labor with a previously unowned resource. But this might allow a person with a suitable replicator to turn it loose in space to rework--and thus claim--every unclaimed object in the universe, as fast as it could be reached. This winner-take-all approach has little moral justification, and would have unpleasant consequences.

A second extreme would be to distribute ownership of space resources equally among all people, and to keep redistributing them to maintain equality. This, too, would have unpleasant consequences. In the absence of universal, stringent, compulsory limitations on childbearing, some groups would continue to grow exponentially; evolutionary principles virtually guarantee this. In a surprisingly short time, the result of endless redistribution would be to drag the standard of living of every human being down to the minimum level that allows any group to reproduce. This would mean hunger and poverty more extreme and universal than that of any Third World country. If 99 percent of the human race voluntarily limited its birth rate, this would merely allow the remaining one percent to expand until it absorbed almost all the resources.

A third basic approach (which has many variations) takes a middle path: it involves distributing ownership of the resources of space (genuine, permanent, transferable ownership) equally among all people--but doing so only once, then letting people provide for their progeny (or others') from their own vast share of the wealth of space. This will allow different groups to pursue different futures, and it will reward the frugal rather than the profligate. It can provide the foundation for a future of unlimited diversity for the indefinite future, if active shields are used to protect people from aggression and theft. No one has yet voiced a plausible alternative.
Let's begin with the easy case to reply to, the "second extreme". Drexler is correct to reject this pattern which has been enshrined in orthodox Communism. The logic of his rejection is also valid, although there are other factors by which equalitarianism can be criticized. Drexler is pointing out, in a rather mathematical sense, that if complete equalization of wealth could be maintained, it would result in disaster. He is only to be faulted for not making clear that such redistribution is not possible in the first place.

This absence of recognition of the impossibility of equalizing wealth is a significant error because Drexler's proposed solution relies upon being able to do exactly that. It is not more feasible to do an impossible thing once than to do it again and again. 'Equal' is impossible to define because value is subjective, and as there cannot be equal division without assessment, there cannot be assessment without communication of these subjective values. Further, the only such information which is reliable comes from situations of trade, and then it is in the form of inequalities, not of precise measurements. Prices are subject to precise objective measurement, but values are not. All anyone can know following a free exchange is that each trader valued what they received more than what they relinquished.

If the resources of space are to be divvied out equally, there must obviously be a concern for the physical properties of various locations and the unequal valuation which arises from these real inconsistencies. Giving everybody an acre of earth surface would not be an equal distribution of value, for the differences between an acre of arctic ice and an acre of Manhattan are severe. Since the division is not a simple division as of area, someone must decide the relative values involved. Eric Drexler is not oblivious to this difficulty: "What "equal division" actually means is a messy question best left to lawyers." Best left to LAWYERS? Such a proposal leaves me incredulous. Would you give definition of the matter to those who have made a profession out of ceaseless disputes and verbal trickery? Remember, a tiny cut in your share could easily mean the loss of a hundred million stellar systems or so.

Which reminds me, after you get your slice of the cosmic pie (on April 12, 2011 by Drexler's recommendation) don't forget April 15th. Receiving title to so vast a portion of real estate will likely put you into a higher income tax bracket. Counting the title as wealth makes it subject to taxation. With inheritance taxes at each generation, how long do you think it would take before the governments owned title to this galaxy, or the entire galactic cloud? I'll leave the math to you.

There is another key economic point which the vastness of space emphasizes. Variance in accessibility creates variance in value. Ten dollars today is worth more than $100 thirty years from now (or maybe three years from now), and a bowl of food in hand is worth more than title to a quasar, at least to me. By creating title for the entire universe, there must occur a discounting of the remote and a premium to the immediate. Otherwise, it could be claimed that we have received the same if I am allotted 1kg gold in my hometown and you are allotted 1kg of gold in the Polaris system. And Polaris is right next door relative to the bulk of the resources which are to be divided. How much of the wealth of the Earth at present shall be included in the pie? If little or none, then certainly we must expect many to trade title to distant resources for immediately practical ownership. (They would not fail to be "frugal" in doing so, they would just show less interest in speculation.) Or will present owners of terrestrial wealth and title be stripped of their possessions so that all may receive an equal share of what is near? Or will the presently wealthy on Earth receive a smaller portion of the cosmos at large?

Whichever combination of details are chosen, it is obvious that any approximation of equal distribution would last not more than an hour as people set about trading to better match their actual preferences. The descendants of those who chose to consume their holdings in their own lifetimes would be in no different situation from the poor today. The granting of an enormous section of space to their ancestors instead of to them was an arbitrary call they had no part of. Why bother with the gesture of dividing the pie-in-the-sky in the first place? Only one reason is evident--to establish legal title over all physical reality. Thereafter, it matters little who holds the title at the moment, the ultimate power is that of the agency which endorses and enforces that title. Indirectly, it would all end up being the province of the lawyers, 'in perpetuity.'

Legal title over real estate (the Royal State) derived out of feudal baronage, the subjugation of regions by warlords. The vaunted advances in political history are much paler than they are painted. Magna Carta established the rights of local lords to continue their status as statists. And in early America, while it is supposed that rule by the titled was done away with, the truth is rather that title, land title, was opened to any who could pay, as opposed to the European limitations by birth. Rule by the titled remained, for only land- owners could vote.

Accepting land title as compatible with just property rights has been a failure of too many libertarians, and schemes like K. Eric Drexler's will be the result until the issue of property is clarified. Though Drexler is unaware of them, there have been voiced several plausible alternatives, at very least a century ago when one voice was that of Benjamin R. Tucker. For this moment, though, the voice is mine, so let us return to Drexler's rejection of classical property and examine why Locke's standard has fewer problems than Drexler supposes.

The heart of property is a claim over the use of a thing. Locke asserted that he who transforms material has claim to the new thing made, which is the result of both labor and 'land' (resources). This formula gives a method of discerning original ownership of all artifacts, but resources themselves are not covered. The absence of a standard by which to resolve conflicting claims to resources is why Drexler expects a race to transform everything. Locke's criterion is not so much bad as incomplete. It simply does not address the issue of raw resources.

Further, there are questions regarding ownership beyond original claim. This is a point at which I disagree with Locke, who held that property once made is permanently property. But property requires a proprietor: If I make something which I have no interest in, I forego the claim I could have made. If I use a thing for awhile, then cease to care about it and attend to it, it no longer is mine. When abandonment is considered it becomes clear that not everything which is a mixture of labor and land is property.

A person who designs and directs construction of a molecular device, such as the replicator Drexler posits, owns property in that entity, I agree. Drexler fears that such an inventor may conquer the cosmos if this device transforms all accessible matter. But if such a replicator generates a zillion copies of itself and they tweak everything they contact, why should I consider this to extend the property of that distant inventor? Ownership is established by use, and in the absence of a someone making use of material, there is no obstacle to my making use of it and hence being the owner. Perhaps by unleashing this device the inventor can sway people into treating him as owner of the whole universe, but it is not the action of the device which is effective but the ideas in the minds of the cowed. The same effect can be gained, indeed has been gained many times, without any technology at all.

The basis of ownership is not first use which establishes ownership for all time, but ongoing use which establishes ownership for the duration of supervision. The justification for legal title evaporates with this correction. The threat of conquest by mere transformation is an empty threat once one sees property as established by utilization of the currently unowned, not the previously unowned.

Once the establishment of ownership is not seen as an eternal categorical transformation from "the untouched" to "the owned", there is not such a rush to decide who "gets" the Andromeda Galaxy, etc. Whoever makes use of it owns whatever part of it they make use of. This is but the skeleton of an ethic of property rights, but it is a matter-of-fact foundation which by its simplicity marks other attitudes toward natural resources as contrivances.

When property is viewed as deriving from use it is clear that there is no need for the universal division of resources which Drexler calls for. Proclamations of such division would undoubtedly become the butt of ridicule, for the inane vision of the conquistador declaring the continent to belong to the King is not improved by extending the frontier to all of reality; rather, it becomes all the more absurd.

That we do not need to divide everything equally cannot be a great surprise since it has been pointed out that such division is impossible, anyway. But it is not just an impossibility due to the knowledge problem of discerning subjective valuations, but even more obviously, due to the enormous degree to which humans lack information as to what resources lie where beyond this solar system. It is as ludicrous as expecting the Europeans to establish an equal division of the resources of the Americas in 1500. Nobody had a good idea of what resources existed where on the uncharted continents, and certainly the only justification for the invaders to consider it their pie to divide was pure conquest.

The culture of conquest which forced itself onto this hemisphere is quite invisible to K. Eric Drexler, it seems. He sees government as a benign, if clumsy, institution. "Democratic governments are big, sloppy, and sometimes responsible for atrocities, yet they do not seem evil, as a whole, though they may contain people who deserve the label. ... Democracies suffer more from sloth and incompetence than from evil."

Drexler raises and banishes the issue of evil too quickly to present much of a target for a critic to take aim at, but he does phrase the problem of evil in these terms: "are we too wicked to do the right thing?" A democratic bias leads Drexler to weigh people collectively. I suggest, instead, that the choices of individuals and the effects of institutions occur at different scales. Though the latter emerge from the former, it is insufficient to gauge the wickedness of individuals in a statistical fashion and interpret that as predictive of the overall wickedness of the system.

Institutions, while resultant from individual actions, also influence actions, facilitating some kinds and inhibiting or interfering with others. While it may be arguable that democratic states have tended to interfere less with productive actions than other kinds of states, like all states they have proven to impede individual accomplishment on the whole. The evident pattern of systematic intrusion is my basis for rejecting Drexler's optimistic appraisal of democratic government.

Drexler is not ignorant of the power they wield: "Democratic governments already have the physical power to blast continents and to seize, imprison and kill their citizens. But we can live with these capabilities because these governments are fairly tame and stable." The scope of his 'we' indicates a sense of involvement, and it extends to all who join him in social control.

On this he is quite specific: "We will need a suitable system of institutions. ... We won't start from scratch; we will build on the institutions we have. They are diverse. Not all of our institutions are bureaucracies housed in massive gray buildings; they include such diffuse and lively institutions as the free press, the research community, and activist networks. These decentralized institutions help us control the gray, bureaucratic machines." He claims, then, to exercise control over government; this is typical democratic ideology. Like with all his fellow representationists, I'm sure his role stops just short of responsibility for the institutions he boasts of controlling. It seems ballot and proxy provide a convenient way to wield power yet remain innocent of any bloody results.

Eric Drexler is undoubtedly sincere and well-intentioned. His view that government is clumsy, not malicious, arises from his confidence that it in fact expresses the will of the people. If this were so then actions which impoverish or otherwise harm the people would necessarily be accidental. Such characterization of governance strikes me as naive. This may be demonstrated by examining Drexler's expectation that, with advances in molecular technology, taxes will fade to insignificance.

After telling how much wealth can be possible through nano-tech, (enormously abundant wealth, much of which will be so compact as to make gold and gems very poor stores of wealth by mass) he goes through a list of things which might limit the production of such abundance. Regarding taxation he says: "Most taxes take a fixed percentage of a price, and thus add a fixed percentage to the cost. If the cost is negligible, the tax will be negligible. Further, governments with their own replicators and raw materials will have less reason to tax people."

The notion that greater wealth will make taxes negligible is rivaled only by the idea of letting the lawyers carve up the universe. Taxation will certainly not become less onerous as wealth becomes more abundant. The best proof of this is the present century, in which wealth has become more easily obtained than ever before in human history, while the tax burden has likewise soared. As less and less of a person's creative effort is required to provide them sustenance, a higher and higher tax imposition may be levied without eliminating that producer from the economy. If wealth per unit labor increases tenfold and taxes increase from 50% to 90%, the net wealth received still doubles. It seems reasonable to expect that people who are willing to devote an effort to earn their present income will be willing to devote equivalent effort if they receive twice as much.

The lesson here is that taxes are a fixed percentage only at any given point in time. Over time, taxes are a moving percentage precisely because they can be moved by the legislators who "fix" them.
Governments with "their own" productive tools and raw materials have not shown less interest in taxing so far. The U.S. federal government holds about a third of the land area of a very prosperous nation, yet it exacts 38% of the annual productivity, a percentage which has doubled in the last forty years. These were forty years of great technical advancement. Just think how fast taxes can go up when nanotechnology accelerates the wealth production even more!

Governments gain wealth by plunder, not production, so there is no reason to expect them to tax less when the people they plunder gain more. On the contrary, they must remain cautious against their victims gaining enough wealth to have real power to resist their encroachments. Molecular technology will make this more so. Governments will not only possess the new technology from the start, it will be intent on monopolizing, or at least heavily regulating, all of it. Once nano-tech is going, all other technology will be little-league. To tax the populous is one way of limiting how quickly individuals can accumulate enough wealth to pose effective resistance, especially since the wealth robbed increases the strength of the State.

Molecular technology, like technology in general, will both provide power to liberate and power to oppress. The ends to which tools are bent is not a function of the tools themselves, but of the inclinations of the tool-users. The values we embrace will be amplified by more potent tools. Nanotechnology will serve the aims of friends and enemies alike. The challenge is for each of us to use it to our best ability; the distraction is the futile hope of keeping it out of the hands of others.

In any case, it will cost plenty to play with these new toys. The last of Drexler's economic errors I wish to speak to is that costs will become negligible with nano-tech. The wealth increase which it will produce will certainly allow us to get more for less, that much is true. But expectations rise faster than capabilities. Even if the products of molecular assembly are cheap, the assemblers themselves will cost plenty. Cost is a function of how much a thing is desired, not how much raw material or labor went into producing it. And as assemblers (and the labs to produce them) are very desirable indeed, they will be very expensive.

They will be worth the cost, of course. Yet those who will be able to put molecular technology to work will be few, and the number of people clever enough to actually design custom molecules will be fewer. Most people will remain ignorant and indifferent toward the field. This suggests a reproduction of the industrial problem of imbalance in ownership of means of production, except that nanotechnology could make the gap far wider than occurred under industrialism. The assumption that everybody will share in the new technology is kindly but not realistic. Even if access to it is quite open, only some will avail themselves of these tools. And if access is centrally restricted, the people at large will face a technological tyranny more effective than any in history.

I hope that the people who recognize the great promise of this field will work against attempts to isolate the technology. There are sure to be voices which deem monopoly necessary because of the fearsome weapons which could be developed. But if monopoly is granted, then only those who hold it will have such weapons, and all others will be at their mercy.

I am not suggesting that propagation of this technology not be restricted. Rather, I hold that it is the responsibility of each individual to enact restrictions as they personally judge security risks. The stakes are too high to delegate such decisions. Confidential classification of data is rightfully the concern of everybody who even dabbles in developing molecular technology. It is worth taking this extra effort, for as bad as the abuses of such technology could be, the hopes for life-enhancement are far greater.

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