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How would economics work if light speed travel were possible?

November 20, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’m reading Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead at the moment.  In it the main character, Andrew Wiggin, has spent the majority of his life travelling from planet to planet at near light speed. Thanks to relativity, even though Andrew is only in his 30s he has been alive for over 3000 years. Thanks to some clever investments and accumulating interest, he’s probably the richest person in the universe. This begs the question: how would economics work if near light speed travel and colonization of other worlds were a reality?

If we assume, like in the novel, that a journey of 30 light years only lasts a week for the travelers, then even a modest investment with a modest interest rate would skyrocket after a couple of weeks.  However, near light speed travel would be prohibitively expensive. The only time it would be used would probably be for the purposes of colonization of other planets, or other extreme circumstances. Importing supplies wouldn’t be economically feasible, so anything that a colony would have would need to be produced on the colony. A new economic model would need to be created for each colony because money, as we know it now, would be worthless. Trade between planets would be virtually nil.

However, the Earth’s economy would most likely continue as usual, but lets assume that cheap light speed travel somehow became feasible (let’s say a breakthrough in fusion, fission, dark energy, rubbing cats together, etc…). If someone were able to make a long range round trip, they would effectively succeed at the ultimate get rich quick scheme.  Such trips would be the exception rather than the rule, unless the traveller were already rich or powerful enough to charter such a trip, in which case, the purpose of the trip would be invalidated. Obviously, rising inflation rates would offset some of the wealth accumulated, but inflation has always lagged behind interest. Would the economy be able to support many of these people or would there be a law set forth governing how much money could be accumulated in such a fashion?

I unfortunately never took economics in any of my studies, so I’m not really sure what the precedent would be for such an endeavour. I’d assume that if too many people attempted to accumulate wealth in such a way, the inflation rate would rise to conterbalance the wealth of these people, but that would also impoversh many others.

You could see how such a concept would be appealing.  Someone could save up a bit of money, leave on a space flight, spend a couple years colonizing a planet, return to Earth and live the rest of their life on the money they had saved while travelling. The only downside is that leaving on such a journey would effectively kill anyone and everyone you ever knew. By the time you could get back to Earth, anyone you knew would be dead. If you were commited enough to colonizing a planet to leave in the first place, this wouldn’t be much of a problem.

There are numerous other possibilities that can be explored here. Once interstellar travel is established, the world economy could drastically change to make such a scheme unnecessary. We could adopt the Star Trek ideal of commerce, where money no longer exists. This leads to its own set of problems and nuances. I can’t even begin to imagine how such a system would work, but it’s still an interesting concept to mull over.

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