Saturday, June 25, 2005

Libertopia and the fabrication bomb (a parable)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, there was a land called Libertopia. In Libertopia, the right to private property was absolute and there was no taxation. Law enforcement, infrastructure construction, national defense, and nearly all the other supposed "functions of government" were all handled by private companies.

In fact, the only government was a system of courts, which were funded by a system of voluntary donations; these donations were run through a secure cryptographic protocol for anonymized electronic cash that erased all information about donors, and even the amounts donated, so that nobody could effectively claim to buy influence. Yet the courts always met their budget needs exactly (the donation servers were shut down for the year as soon as the annual goal was met). Libertopian judges were subject to a training and apprenticeship regimen so rigorous and effective that they were known all across the planet for their fair-mindedness and keen insight.

Of course, Libertopia also had the planet's most efficient and flawless market. First, they had a virtually cost-free electronic cash transfer system. Second, they had the planet's most pristine standards for corporate accounting and transparency (set by private-sector certification agencies, a sort of Libertopian Underwriter's Laboratory for corporate governance). Third, they had a ubiquitous nationwide information technology infrastructure which made sure that buyers and sellers always had the best possible information about the current state of the market. And, of course, all of Libertopia's citizens were rational market actors, as they had been educated in private schools that, due to market pressures, were the envy of the planet.

Although this system led to vast disparities in personal wealth, nobody was subject to poverty in an absolute sense --- for an elementary result in Libertopian economics (which was far more advanced than Earth's) demonstrated that, in a frictionless market, the economic value of an active, healthy human being's outputs was always greater than the inputs required to sustain his or her life. And as for the unhealthy, disabled, or elderly, there was the insurance market: prudent citizens bought enough insurance against these eventualities for themselves and their children. And all Libertopian citizens were prudent.

And so, all of Libertopia's citizens were prosperous and happy. It was universally held by the planet's economists --- who, of course, understood the theory of markets exceptionally well, having been provided with such a magnificent concrete embodiment of their theories --- that Libertopia was the best of all possible nations. Except for a few irrational holdouts, all the world's peoples were busily remodeling their societies after Libertopia. Become Libertopia, went the dictum, and the market shall provide.

One day, a Libertopian nanotechnology researcher named Alice came up with the Holy Grail of nanotechnology: a universal fabricator. The physics behind the universal fabricator is far beyond the ken of mere Earthlings like us, so I will not bother to explain it. The universal fabricator was so efficient that it could generate arbitrary physical objects, using only an equivalent mass of matter of any sort, plus a token amount of energy. Being a savvy individualist, Alice quit her job at Nanogen, waited for the non-competition clause of her employment contract to expire, and founded a startup. Shortly afterwards, Alice Inc. started producing nearly limitless quantities of every imaginable good under the sun, all pouring from a single cornucopian factory located in a heavily guarded complex in the middle of the desert. Alice Inc.'s stock price shot through the roof, and Alice became the world's richest person by several orders of magnitude.

Many of Alice's competitors went out of business, but the nimble and resourceful Libertopian people found new jobs, either working in the vast supply chain that distributed and resold Alice Inc. goods, or providing personal services (as butlers, sex workers, etc.) that could not be performed by mere objects.

Nobody could duplicate Alice's technology. Any publicly traded company that even came close was shortly bought out, taken over, and liquidated. After some years, only one small, secretive, privately held company succeeded, by partnering with a network of the world's foremost university researchers in nanotechnology.

They were horrified at what they found. For it turned out that the Alice Fabricator's operation caused a localized fluctuation in the strong and weak nuclear forces; and the fluctuation was harmonic, so that as more matter was fabricated by the Alice Fabricator, the fluctuation's magnitude increased. They calculated that at the current rate of production in the Alice Inc. plant, this localized fluctuation would cause the entire planet's atoms to spontaneously collapse inward on each other within ten years.

They published their results. The initial skepticism gave way, gradually, to a near-universal consensus among nanotech researchers that the results were correct. All the nations of the world quickly embargoed Alice's goods; and even many Libertopians decided to boycott products with the Alice Inc. label.

But Libertopia's largest businesses had been built around the new economic order of Alice: countless retail distributors, shipping companies that hauled garbage to the Alice plant and hauled goods away, and resellers who built value-added services around Alice Inc. products. And the stockholders didn't want to go broke; the boards of directors didn't want to lose power; the employees didn't want to lose their jobs; the consumers didn't want to give up their cozy material comfort. So these people began looking more closely, and they found a myriad of reasons to continue with business as usual:

"Think of all the jobs, all the communities, our entire way of life! Surely we shouldn't destroy all this based on the word of a few anti-business eggheads. Another series of studies, conducted by the Libertopian Institute for Environmental Science, shows that the Alice Fabricator will not destroy the world at all. In fact, recent results in quantum mechanics suggest that there have been random fluctuations in the strong nuclear force since the beginning of time, or that the observed fluctuations are due to an artifact of the instruments used to measure the nuclear forces. Besides, Alice is brilliant; she invented the Fabricator, so she'll probably come up with a way to fix the process pretty soon anyway. Plus, the issue's less pressing now, since worldwide embargo of Alice Inc. products has already reduced the output of the Alice fabrication plant a great deal. And these Chicken Little doomsday prophets are all hypocrites --- why, the food they eat was probably produced using Alice brand farming machinery, and the gas that fuels their buses was probably produced using Alice brand petroleum extraction robots! Just by riding the bus to the supermarket and buying an apple, they're doing more to make the strong force fluctuate than the average die-hard consumer of Alice Inc. products!"

That some of these statements contradicted each other, or were simply tendentious, didn't bother the people who uttered them in the least, for they were defending their very way of life. The nanotechnologists continued to shout, but their cries fell largely on unsympathetic ears. A majority of Libertopians continued buying Alice Inc. products happily.

For three years, as the evidence continued to mount, Alice Inc. kept on merrily humming, inundating the Libertopian populace with a tidal wave of material luxury. Eventually, a desperate group of citizens --- mostly scientists and a few wealthy philanthropists --- sued Alice Inc., on the unprecedented grounds that potentially destroying the world was an actionable tort, and demanding an injunction against further fabrication. But Libertopia had absolute respect for private property rights, and for the market. A series of court rulings, going all the way to the Supreme Court of Libertopia, upheld Alice Inc.'s right to continue doing business. Here are a few selected quotes from the Supreme Court's unanimous and strongly worded opinion:

The plaintiffs make two distinct principal arguments. First, they argue that continuing to operate the fabricators constitutes a credible and imminent threat of violence. However, although their comparison to 'a cosmic gun held to the planet's head' is colorful, it cannot be sustained conclusively by the science. An equal number of experts have been called on both sides . . . This court is reluctant to make a ruling on a matter of science, overriding the normal processes of the scientific market . . .

Second, plaintiffs argue that even if the nuclear force fluctuations will not have the dramatic effects predicted by some scientists, the production of nuclear force fluctuations constitutes a market externality, which must be corrected to maintain efficiency, as per Levine v. Terrence. However, even granting, arguendo, that the observed fluctuations are due to the defendant's activities, it is unclear why injunctive remedy is required, rather than fair compensation. . . .

Additionally, this court finds unconvincing the extraordinary claim that the defendant's actions constitute a tort against the entire planet's population. In support of this claim, the plaintiffs cite the Bayard v. Northeastern Regional Electric standard for determining the size of the population affected by market externalities. However, Bayard only establishes such liability when a specific and demonstrable chain of causation connects the act to an injurious effect on the plaintiffs, which does not hold in this case. To date, no injury by Alice Inc. has been demonstrated against any specific party. Indeed, if we were to follow the plaintiffs' line of argument to its absurd conclusion, then all non-nano-fabrication based industrial plants in the economy would be held liable for their carbon dioxide emissions, since the global atmosphere is shared by all . . .

Seven years later, every atom in the world imploded on itself at the speed of light. All that remains today of the magnificent Libertopia, and the planet upon which it resided, is a black hole.

Q1: Whose fault is the destruction of the world?

Q2: If the Alice Fabricator had only a 50% chance of destroying the world, how would your reaction to this thought experiment change? Only a 10% chance? A 1% chance? What if, instead of destroying the world, it would simply destroy several cities and kill a few hundred million people?

Q3: Is the difference between the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the Alice Fabricator a difference of kind, or one of degree?

Oh, uh, file under .


  1. This was awesome :)

  2. Too bad they didn't have a central government to stop their suicidal materialistic orgy. When are people going to learn that markets never work. Freedom and property rights never work. You need someone to set the standard and tell everyone else what to do, otherwise there's anarchy. This thought experiment is alot like real life with the whole global warming issue. I mean, there are so many possible doomsday scenarios. Without a government funded bureaucracy to tell us which one to take seriously, we'd be lost. I think what this thought experiment shows is that, if you let technology run amok, your world turns into a black hole.

  3. I quit reading after "courts."