Colonising New Planets, Peace and Trade

I have been reading quite a lot of science fiction recently, and one of the themes I have noticed is that science fiction authors by-and-large seem to believe that international rivalries (and wars) will be superseded by interplanetary rivalries in the future. In many cases, this leads to interplanetary wars, or an interplanetary empire that eventually disintegrates and devolves into opposing factions. My question, then, is under what conditions this would take place in a hypothetical future in which we colonize other planets.

The obvious place to start, then, is to look at what accounts for peace between some nations today, and why other nations engage in warfare. One of the most important stylized facts is that no two democratic countries with significant trade ties have ever had a meaningful war with each other. In game theoretic terms, they have reached a stable equilibrium as neither side wishes to risk losing the gains from trade for the uncertain spoils of war. This liberal view of international affairs is predicated on two important factors – physical and legal barriers to trade that are not insuperable, and the existence of comparative advantage in production. Trade will only take place if the transaction costs are lower than the relative difference of production costs, or if one product (such as a natural resource) is not available in another country. How well does this transfer to the interplanetary context?

Legal barriers to trade are more of a political issue, so I will set that aside for the moment. Physical barriers to trade are quite large, however. At present, one uses fantastic amounts of fuel to just be able to escape the Earth’s gravitational field, and long travel times in between planets would further increase costs and make storage more difficult. Technological advances could play a large role in decreasing these costs; for example, a space elevator would dramatically reduce the cost of transporting goods into orbit, and if faster-than-light travel is possible and practical then navigating interplanetary voids will be less of barrier. I would venture to guess that these two factors may have a large bearing on the peaceful survival of humans into the future.

The last factor is whether or not different planets would have a large enough comparative advantage in producing different goods to justify interplanetary trade. Between nations, comparative advantage is easier to achieve as physical boundaries limit natural resource endowments and cross-border trade has trivial costs. I wonder, however, if there will be large resource differences among habitable planets. Certainly, in the beginning of space colonization Earth would import natural resources to restore depleted stocks, and export technology and labor. However I am not sure if in the far future it will ever be economical to transfer anything other than luxury goods and people to and from different planets. Here’s to hoping that it will be, as one of the largest positive externalities to trade is peace.



~ by danplechaty on September 21, 2010.

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