I wrote recently about how I think that capitalism is incompatible with -- indeed inimical to -- any meaningful human incursion into space. (Or robot for that matter. Sure we have a few robot probes, but they haven't been carving out a presence in space. When space robots start building new things out there, give me a call.) This is a position I arrived at while working on my (now defunct) science-fiction blog. Here's what I wrote then:
Space exploration was largely impossible in the Financial Age. Science had to ride the coattails of industry, and space travel could not be monetized unless the price was low. But space travel was enormously expensive, and it could not be made cheap without massive investment in research and infrastructure that no one was willing to make. It was a giant game of chicken -- any corporation that spent the money to make space travel affordable would have opened the way for others to exploit their investment. Whoever made the first move would lose, so the vast potential of space went unrealized.
The "Financial Age" is the name my future historians use to refer to now. I.e. late-stage capitalism. In my future history it plods along for another 90 years or so until it's overthrown by a radically different economics I called the Princeton system. Just as I worked out the operation and consequences of my FTL drive, I also worked out how my economic system pays for it. I'm rather proud of how it works. So proud in fact the I almost ruined a cocktail party by starting to describe it. To avoid catastrophe in the future I'm going to write it all down here. Then if I ever have a desire to pontificate, I can just refer to this URL.
Under the Princeton system there is no money, and ownership is highly socialized. No one is ever denied anything they need. If someone is hungry they can get food. If someone is sick they can get treatment. If someone wants high-fashion clothes they can get them, though less easily than necessities. It's a post-capitalist society, not a post-scarcity one. Despite everything being free, everyone works hard. Young people entering the workforce will look for job opportunities they can fill, called "volunteering" because, of course, no one gets paid. The best volunteering gigs are those that help other members of the community directly, such as childcare or food service. If young people have creative or artistic talents they are encouraged to develop and share those as well. Parents are happy when their teenagers start bands.
The Princeton system is fundamentally cooperative and generous. This is in direct opposition to capitalism's values of selfishness and greed. These are all part of human nature, of course, but why not have a system that fosters the traits we consider good instead of trying to harness the ones we consider evil?
This is not a utopia, however. People argue and fight. People can be unable to get things they want in ways that seem unfair. People scheme and plot to improve their own lives at the expense of others. People commit crimes small and large, and police will arrest them and judges may punish them. None of this is different from now, of course, I'm just pointing out that some ills are not fixed by an improved economic system. The big issue is this: everyone is constantly being observed. There are cameras everywhere and it's illegal to disable them. I know for many people today that smacks more of distopia or is even a deal breaker. The Princeton system depends on it and the people who live under it are comfortable with that trade-off. I'll explain more about that at a later point.
So how does it work? The first part of the answer relates to how resources are allocated. As I've said there's no such thing as a post-scarcity society and this is certainly not one. Decisions have to be made about how much of something to produce and who gets to consume it. Money is one way to do that, but it's a terrible system that can generate grotesque outcomes. The answer under the Princeton system is deceptively simple: queuing. People who want a thing stand in a line, and the next one available goes to the person at the head of the line.
Of course we're not talking about physical queues. This is the 22nd century for cripes sake. This is a virtual line managed on a server somewhere. Also there are an infinite number of lines that move at different speeds, but let's start simple.
Let's say you want shoes. Of course you can always get shoes because they're a necessity, but you may not have much choice. If you need shoes today then you'll have to take what's available. Still better then nothing. But if you have time you can shop for shoes you like, and then put yourself into the queue for the next available pair. If there are 100 before you who want the same shoe, then you'll get the 101st one available. And many times it's as simple as that. Many common goods are made using freely available patterns in local workshops or centers. What you're queuing for is essentially time on the fabricator. When your order comes up someone loads it into the next available machine and runs it off. When completed it moves into another queue to be sent you you using the next available transport.
But what if there's a good reason why you need something sooner? I'm not talking about a one-off issue like a specific deadline, although those do happen and they can generally be managed. I'm talking about a persistent, socially-relevant reason for someone to have priority. A successful chemist having access to reagents; a great musician requesting a quality instrument; a person (or an organization of volunteers called an "enterprise") that builds housing needing building materials; a cook who serves everyone in a dorm asking for ingredients. In every case this is a raw material that will be used by skilled hands to improve the lives of others. It's a public good if they get some kind of advantage.
The solution is to have multiple lines. Let's say there are two lines, normal and priority, and the next product available alternates between lines equally. If there are fewer people in the priority line then they will wait less to get their product. It's just a little calculus to generalize that model into an infinite number of lines and infinitely divisible product. Which line you wait in then is a continuous value from 1 (normal) to closer to zero (priority). This number, called Gamma, determines how long you'll wait in line for something relative to the number of other people who want it. And it's not just ingredients for a cook and instruments to a musician, it's for everything. Having a lower Gamma means you wait less for anything you want.
Gamma is a very important number, so how it is assigned? That's the subject for the next installment.