The Proceedings of the 1989 NanoCon Northwest regional
nanotechnology conference, with K. Eric Drexler as Guest of Honor.
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NANOCON PROCEEDINGS page 12
Appendix C: The Cosmic Pie by Tracy
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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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