Arnold Kling  

Imagining Alternative Futures

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Tyler Cowen offers six, not mutually exclusive. For example,

4. Energy becomes very cheap, destruction is easy, deterrence is difficult, power decentralizes, and we retreat to medieval-style fortresses.

In my view, the two most interesting variables in forecasting the future are (a) the path of biotechnology; and (b) the ability of the center to hold in U.S. politics.

For biotechnology, the question is whether the new pills (or what have you) do nothing at all, primarily help the disadvantaged, or mostly add to the advantages of the elite. For politics, we could have the center hold, we could succumb to a strong demagogue, or the central government could suffer a sudden loss of authority (what if investors lost confidence, so that the Treasury could no longer borrow?), with people (especially those with talent) either leaving the U.S. or setting up alternative government systems on its territory.

The most likely scenario is that the center holds and biotech does not do much. Also, I think that if biotech primarily helps the disadvantaged, then the center will hold.

The other possible cases are:

1. Biotech does nothing, and a strong demagogue takes over.
2. Biotech does nothing, and the U.S. central government loses a lot of its authority.
3. Biotech helps the elite, and a strong demagogue takes over.
4. Biotech helps the elite, and the center holds.
5. Biotech helps the elite, and the U.S. central government loses a lot of its authority.

I think that (5) is the second most likely scenario. I think that (1) is the third most likely scenario.

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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences

COMMENTS (8 to date)
liberty writes:

"Also, I think that if biotech primarily helps the disadvantaged, then the center will hold."

I'm curious to hear an explanation of why you think this relationship holds. I could see biotech (and other major technological advances) helping the worst off the most (as I think innovation tends to do) and this contributing to a more extreme change in government -- either more or less powerful.

Horatio writes:

What's your time frame?

I see biotech doing a lot for those in the upper-middle class, from the middle to the end of this century. It may be too late for us to enjoy a lifespan much longer than 100 years, but our kids may live to 200. It's also likely that you may be too old to enjoy many of the benefits of biotech, but I am young enough (24) that biotech will replace my major organs by the time they start to fail.

mk writes:

You think the three most scenarios are:

1) Bio does nothing, center holds
2) Bio helps elite, US gov't weakens
3) Bio does nothing, US gov't becomes autocratic

This ordering implies that "what happens to biotech" and "what happens to the US government" are not independent events.

Can you clarify the nature of the relationship between the two, which would lead you to say e.g. that "Bio helps elite" makes "US gov't weakens" so much more likely?

Kurbla writes:

My predictions are:

As power of the individual increases due to technology, either his morality must increase or his freedom must decrease proportionally, so the overall level of destruction remains sustainable. Less abstract, extremely cheap nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction resulting in global police state as only possible adaptation.

Biotechnology - practical immortality in the next 50 years.

Alex J. writes:

1) Biotech helps the elite, hence:
2) A strong demagogue takes over promising to extend the benefits of biotechnology to others, hence:
3) Biotech does nothing.

Alex J. writes:

A government can easily be too weak to do much good (in the sense of paying for good things in a currency worth something), yet still strong enough to disrupt "alternative government systems on its territory." Just look at Zimbabwe or the aftermath of Katrina.

In a crisis, I think three things are at play:
1) Most people look after themselves and help their neighbors.
2) A few people take advantage of the chaos (eg looters).
3) Many people want the government to "do something." They see the government as an all-powerful agent that can and should step in to right all wrongs.

The problem with #3 is that it forgets all about Mises, Hayek and Smith.

The interaction between #2 and #3 is pretty obvious. When #1 and #2 interact, you get Korean grocers sniping from their rooftops, which worked out ok. When #1 and #3 interact you get the police confiscating guns from peaceful people and FEMA turning away semi-trucks full of fresh water, Hayekian and Misean chaos, respectively.

If you're looking for a crisis to help things, you need to make a case for why #1 will be stronger than #3. If things are going badly, most people will see #3 as an important way to deal with #2. I think that in a crisis, people forget about Fiske's market-pricing and want to get by on only authority-ranking, community-sharing, equality-matching. Hence the underpriced generators.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Tyler had another interesting post today on mental performance enhancing drugs. I expect them to become as big a scapegoat for accomplishment in the creative sector as steroids have become for batting averages. Having known a few steroid users in my time and knowing that most of them were looking for a shortcut rather than looking for optimal performance, I'll hazard that in theory Biotech makes great advances, but in practice where pills meet people, it does next to nothing. At the same time, it fuels suspicion and jealousy and scapegoating. We end up in other possible case (1).

Personally, I would shy away from any new government created by really smart people. However, I will keep my eye on the market of societies. The USA is still the best deal going. Perhaps it won't be in 50 years. Or perhaps it will remain a great deal.

William Newman writes:

Big changes in technology don't necessarily fit easily into boxes like that. Did the introduction of affordable automobiles benefit the elite? Whether or not it did, that doesn't seem to belong high on the list of changes it caused.

What happens if all of biotechnology stagnates except for one innovation: an artificial womb which is clearly superior to natural childbirth? (E.g., superior because of vastly lower rate of birth defects.) It probably changes society somehow. I doubt its effect on the political center holding is the most interesting change.

Besides your interesting forecast variables (a) and (b), I would nominate a third and fourth. (c) How fast does technological change turn things upside down? (Half as fast as the twentieth century? Thrice as fast?) We've already seen various technological changes like electrification and automobiles and low infant mortality that took a long time to adjust to. How likely is it that we will get hit by comparably important changes faster than before? Should we expect to be ridiculously far from social and economic equilibrium? (d) How long will recognizably human brains remain the smartest things on the planet?

Unless you're pretty sure that the answers to (c) and (d) are unexciting, (a) and (b) seem only interesting, not overwhelmingly interesting.

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