Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Managed Competition or Competing Managers?

Competition and cooperation [as] opposites, with vice on one side and virtue on the other … is a false dichotomy … The market-based competition envisioned in economics is disciplined by rules and reputations. … Just as competition is not a shorthand for “anything goes,” the quick and thoughtless inference that cooperation is necessarily virtuous is often unjustified. In many cases, cooperation is a tool for an in-group to take advantage of those outside the group. …

Competition refers to a situation in which people or organizations (such as firms) apply their efforts and talents toward a certain goal, and they receive results based substantially on their performance relative to each other. … Cooperation refers to a situation in which the participants seek out win-win outcomes from working together. (More)

Raw unconstrained competition looks scary; lies, betrayal, predation, starvation, war; so many things can go wrong! Which makes “managed competition” sound so comforting; whew, someone will limit the problems. Someone like a boss, police officer, sports referee, or government regulator.

However, raw unconstrained management also looks scary; that’s tyranny, which can go wrong in so so many ways! Such as via incompetence, exploitation, and rot. And so we can be comforted to hear that managers must compete. For example, when individual managers compete for jobs, firms compete for customers, or politicians compete for votes.

But who will guard the guardians? If we embed competitions within larger systems of managers, and also embed managers within larger systems of competition, won’t they all sit within some maximally-encompassing system, which must then be either competition, management, or some awkward mix of the two? This is the fundamental hard problem of design and governance, from which there is no easy escape.

Many of our strong moral intuitions are twisted up with this issue. Human foragers were proud to have used weapons and language to explicitly repress simple physical competition for control of their bands. Via gossip, prestige, and collective decisions, foragers enforced norms, shared food and protection, and made big choices together. And they strongly saw such management as the moral ideal.

Of course, in fact this band management was embedded in larger competitions. In a much larger world, and over long timescales, bands competed to make more descendants, even if neighboring bands generally had peaceful relations. And within bands, foragers also competed for more descendants, and to influence coalitions by which they controlled collective decisions. But these forms of competition were much less visible, and mostly not explicitly acknowledged. The dogma was clear: competition must be managed.

During the farming era, ambitious leaders often justified their campaigns of conquest by saying that they sought only to ensure that their whole world had a central manager, who could then prevent destructive competition. Even so, farmer-era folks got used to the idea of competition as the usual largest visible context, and cultures came more to celebrate the winners of such visible competitions, and the habits and attitudes which enabled winners. Farmer era religions comforted people by postulating invisible gods who supposedly managed all this visible competition, even if such gods seemed to compete with devils in strange ways.

Our industry era has been caused primarily by the introduction new larger social organizations, which more explicitly manage many things. And rising per-capita industry-era wealth has induced a reversion to forager attitudes in many ways, such as regarding fertility, democracy, religion, leisure, slavery, travel, and inequality. Lower costs of long distance travel and talk has allowed much larger scale governance structures, and in many ways we now even have world governments, sometimes explicit but more often mediated by global elite regulators.

So during the industry era we’ve revived and even strengthened the forager norm for wanting our largest encompassing systems be ones of management, not competition. This has driven centuries-long trends toward higher levels of regulation and larger scales of governance. Furthermore, for the relatively democratic parts of future world governance, I predict we are likely to add more “management” of electoral competition, such as regulation of who is allowed to run, what people are allowed to say about policies and elections, and what policy changes politicians are allowed to induce.

This strong norm favoring management over competition helps explain the widespread and continuing dislike for the theory of natural selection, which explicitly declares a system of competition to be the largest encompassing system. This view not only threatens religions, wherein a managing God is supposed to be that most encompassing system, it also threatens secular views, wherein human “values”, such as those promoting management, are just obviously correct moral truths, needing no further explanation.

Evolutionary psychology, by far the most hated associate of natural selection, instead suggests that common human intuitions result from context-dependent strategies of competition, which can thus not fundamentally oppose such competition. The desire to resist this conclusion pushes people to make common but false claims, such that evolutionary psychologists are craven and incompetent, and so should be ignored, or that our human ability to make conscious deliberate choices implies that humans are no longer subject to natural selection.

For rich comfortable industry era folks, evolutionary competition may not feel very constraining. But its effects become larger and clearer over longer timescales. People eager to reject the relevant of this competition are thus pushed to reject the relevance of long timescales. Some say that we’ll all be dead then anyway, so who cares, while others say it is impossible to forecast anything on long time scales, and so there’s no point in trying. Some even declare confidence that world government will take full control over fertility and individual genetics before the long run, directly ending the regime of natural selection.

These strong feelings also help to explain the widespread and fierce opposition, at least among elites, to the idea that real alien civilizations might be aggressive or acquisitive. After all, if there is no galactic or larger federation constraining such aggression, then we and aliens would be embedded in an unmanaged regime of competition. Furthermore, communication and commitment problems would make even modest cooperation with aliens difficult.

People are thus eager to embrace even quite implausible assumptions that could prevent this conclusion. Such as that a) no aliens exist anywhere, b) interstellar travel is impossible, c) advanced aliens could collect no concrete gains from distant colonization, d) any inclination of a civilization toward competition or expansion quickly and reliably leads to its self-destruction, e) a “zookeeper” federation rules a galaxy full of activity, but tricks us until seeing it as empty, or f) our AIs could make peace via “acausal trades” with their AIs.

I hope this helps you now better understand why world governments may be a big obstacle to expansive futures, and how much can be at stake emotionally with our “grabby aliens” model. Yes, we wouldn’t meet them for many millions of years. But that offers little comfort to those for whom it is a moral imperative that the largest encompassing context must be one of managed competition, not competing managers. Cosmology matters to people, especially when it involves conflicting agents.

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A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past

In his new book The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens–and Ourselves, Cambridge zoologist Arik Kershenbaum purports to tell us what intelligent aliens will be like when we meet them:

This book is about how we can use that realistic scientific approach to draw conclusions, with some confidence, about alien life – and intelligent life in particular. (p.1)

Now, that won’t be for a long time, and they will even then be far more advanced than us:

We are absolutely in the infancy of our technological development, and that makes it exceptionally likely that any aliens we encounter will be more advanced than us. (p.160)

The chances of us encountering intelligent aliens [anytime soon] is so remote as to be almost dismissed. (p.320)

Even so, this is what aliens will be like:

One way to prepare ourselves mentally and practically for First Contact is … to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are certain properties that intelligent life must have. … their behavior, how they move and feed and come together in societies, will be similar to ours. …

[Aliens and us] both have families and pets, read and write books, and care for our children and our relatives. … this situation is actually very likely. Those evolutionary focus that push us to be the way we are must also be pushing life on other planets to be like us. (pp.322-323)

And this will be their origin story: Continue reading "A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past" »

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Real Vs. Fake Stories: Complements or Substitutes?

Regarding meaningful stories and narratives, I see two huge trends over the last century or so.

  1. First, we’ve seen a great increase in the amount of fiction consumed. People now spend many hours of day watching TV and movies, reading novels, etc. Centuries ago this fraction of time was far lower. An important fraction of these stories take place in universes which make a lot more emotional and moral sense than our real world seems to, especially on larger historical and cosmological scales.
  2. Second, we’ve seen a great decline in passions regarding grand historical and cosmological narratives. Religion, nationalism, and ideology all seem to have waned. Yes many people still care a lot about such things today, but centuries ago people eagerly and repeatedly went to war over such things. (We even instituted “freedom of speech” to cut back on their destructive enthusiasm.)

Note that I’m not saying that these “real” narratives are true, just that many people treat them as true. (Or as more true.) This is in stark contrast to stories that inspire and engage people, but which people don’t even pretend are true. (Trekkies love Star Trek, but don’t claim it really happened.)

One simple interpretation of these two trends is that “fake” stories are a substitute for “real” ones. To review, A and B are substitutes when you less want A the more you have of B, while A and B are complements when you more want A the more you have of B. So the theory here would be that we less want “real” stories the more “fake” stories we consume.

One problem with my theory is that most people seem to think fake and real stories are complements:

Now if we just look at random stories, and ignore their types, it seems clear that individual stories are on net substitutes. We only have so many hours a day to consume stories, so if we spend another hour on a particular story, that leaves fewer hours for other stories. So if individual stories are substitutes, it seems plausible that so are categories of stories.

But they why would all these poll respondents be wrong? I suggest: social desirability bias. Stories are seen as good things, and good things are seen to be even better if they are complements. (E.g., exercise and healthy eating.) So I suggest poll respondents are saying that story types are complements mainly to show their support for the good thing of stories.

So if fake and real stories are substitutes, from which side were recent changes driven? A simple tech theory would be that we have improved our ability to tell and share fake stories far more than we’ve improved our ability to construct grant historical and cosmological narratives.

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Position Vs. Topic Contrarians

[You can take] an authority defying position [that you] can share with like-minded folks and which might later lead to glory, while avoiding most of the accuracy-reducing costs of disagreement: be contrarian on questions, not answers. (More)

People love to discuss and argue, but usually not on topics where everyone expects everyone to agree. Instead, it is the prospect of disagreement that gives energy and life to most conversation. Even if your conversation partners nod in enthusiastic agreement, they expect that others out there would not so easily agree.

Sometimes people agree with majorities and at other times they agree with minorities. When they take the latter route they often proudly claim that this shows they are motivated mainly by truth, as that explains their willingness to suffer disapproval from a majority.

But in fact, taking a minority position can show your independence and defiance, and it can often get you more attention, which you can use to show how likeable, clever, and articulate you are in the way that you take your contrarian position. Also, sometimes a minority is especially grateful for your show of loyalty to them. And you may hope for larger reputation gains if you are later proved right for taking a minority, relative to a majority, stance. Thus it isn’t at all obvious that being contrarian in this way reliably shows one’s truth-orientation.

As the above quote indicates, there is another kind of contrarian, who instead of taking unusual positions on familiar questions, focuses on unusual questions. Contrarians of this sort are less likely to be wrong and to cause the larger world to go wrong in listening to them. And they contribute more to an intellectual division of labor, wherein we all specialize on different mixes of topics, and then share our conclusions with each other.

But while a topic contrarian seems to contribute more to our all becoming better informed on everything, topic contrarians gain far fewer advantages from their stance. Human conversations tend to follow a norm of sticking to whatever are the current common topics, and so those who speak to other topics are mostly ignored. For example, in policy worlds, there’s a saying that there’s no point in releasing a white paper on a topic that hasn’t been in the news in the last two weeks.

So while audiences often listen especially attentively to position contrarians, they may not even hear a topic contrarian. Which means they are much less likely to notice how likable, clever, or articulate you are about that. Few will see your talking about a weird topic as showing loyalty to them. Yes, you might later gain reputation if your topic later becomes more popular, but usually folks will just see you as bad at following fashion.

I thus conclude that topic contrarians can better argue that their stance suggests a truth orientation, as they gain so much less in other ways.

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Reviving Freedom of ‘Religion’

In 1890, the [US] Supreme Court … ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, … In the 1960s, the Court expanded its view of religion … [to include] Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

In its 1965 ruling … a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God … The Court in this 1970 decision … essentially merged religion with deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs. … Court in its 1972 ruling … suggested a shift back, … applied only to “a ‘religious’ belief or practice,” and “the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests.”

The Court in its 1981 decision … further expressed its reluctance to protect philosophical values. … Jehovah’s Witness [aversion to weapons job] was a “personal philosophical choice rather than a religious choice”. (more)

Centuries ago, Europe saw fierce religious conflicts, made more destructive by states taking sides. States who supported a particular religion might oppose alternatives via repressing local associates or going to war with associated states. To reduce such conflict, some states adopted “freedom of religion”, which meant the state not taking sides between religions.

This was possible in part because of the typical limited ambitions of both states and religions there and then. Neither the states nor the religions were in the habit of dictating most details of most social practices. So the overlap in their spheres of influence was small enough that states could accept a small loss in their sphere as a reasonable price to pay for less conflict.

Over the intervening centuries, the ambitions of states to dictate social details has greatly increased, but the influence and ambitions of the few most popular traditional religions have mostly waned. This has allowed “freedom of religion” to be nominally maintained, at least regarding those few traditional religions. And as the above quote shows, other taking-of-sides by states regarding religious-like groups and behaviors has largely been “solved” by declaring that they are “not religions”.

The problem of course is that the fundamental problem of passionate conflicts being stoked by states taking sides is not avoided merely by declaring relevant groups and behaviors to be “not religions”. So we have in fact recently seen a steady rise in the destructiveness of conflicts due to states taking sides. Yes, it isn’t yet as bad as centuries ago, but it seems to be on its way, and won’t obviously stop before getting there.

Religions have long existed because they serve deep and ancient human needs. So a decline of the once most popular religions does not imply a decline in social groups and behaviors that serve those ancient needs. It is just that those things are less often officially called “religions”. Yet the passions they inspire and the willingness of associates to sacrifice to show their support for some versions and dislike of others has not obviously greatly diminished.

All of which suggests that, unless we somehow revive a freedom of religion-like-stuff, we are likely to suffer increasingly destructive conflicts due to religious-like groups wielding the power of states against each other. But to revive such a freedom, we would have to pick a legal definition of “religious-like”. What could that be?

Clearly it wouldn’t be sufficient to just refer to beliefs in gods or the supernatural. Yes, people have often shown their devotion to groups by their willingness to believe extreme crazy-sounding stuff, and centuries ago gods and the supernatural fit that bill well. But clearly more recently religious-like groups have found other substitutes. And as it won’t work to have courts judge what beliefs are “crazy”, we can’t use that standard as our legal definition of “religious-like”.

A legal standard standard of “deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs” would be easier for courts to judge, but that would also seem to greatly limit the scope of the state. Libertarians might go for it, but most others would not.

Another possible standard would be that a group is “religious like” if enough individuals pay high enough and visible enough personal costs to promote it. Like strange food, strange dress, protests, and civil disobedience. But then would suicide or terrorism count? A standard that demands expensive destructive behavior to qualify your group as “religious-like” might induce a lot of that kind of behavior, which seems bad.

Yet another possibility would be to call anything a religion if at least ten percent of citizens says so.

At this point I don’t have any good suggestions, though I’d take any of these last three solutions over the status quo. But I’ve hardly started to think about this, and as some of you out there may have good ideas, I decided to just present the problem in this post, hoping to prod your efforts.

Added 9Apr: On reflection, the problem of religious-like groups wielding the power of the state against competitors seems to be more of an issue for governance processes which allow much discretion in how their power is wielded. In a futarchy, such discretion could exist in the choice of values, but is much harder in the choice of bills to consider or in bets regarding which bills promote the chosen values. If so, freedom of religion would be mainly realized via court vetoes over value elements.

We might like to distinguish between (A) religious-like groups going out of their way to beat on or inconvenience particular competitors, and their (B) just demanding extra accommodation in order to show their dominance and to inconvenience all possible competitors. If so, we might want a futarchy court to stand ready to accommodate religion by vetoing value elements that seem examples of (A), while not vetoing based on religion complaints that seem more to be examples of (B).

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Response to Suri Re Futarchy

If by chance one of your writings strikes a chord, and is cited by folks decades later, your main reward may be to repeatedly hear the same misunderstandings and off-target counter-arguments that you’ve repeatedly tried to head off in your writings, but which critics apparently can’t be bothered to read. Sometimes, though not usually, I bother to respond. Case in point: Sunil Suri’s complaints about futarchy in Politics With Skin In The Game.

His summary of futarchy mechanics seems fine to me, though it might mislead readers into thinking that one needs to pick a new outcome for each new policy choice. I instead suggest picking just one standard outcome measure to use for most all big choices. I’d only pick specialized measures for decisions too small to sufficiently impact the standard measure.

Suri admits to some positives:  

futarchy creates financial incentives to be a better-informed citizen. This could transform our politics by:

  • Reducing our consumption of low-quality information and our susceptibility to cognitive biases – both of which distract us from what matters.
  • Making real expertise matter again – while democratising it. …

Suri then lists ten objections. But five of those objections merely point to general features of the problem that futarchy is trying to address, which are thus issues that bedevil any solution to its problem.

To review, the problem is how to make key government policy choices, the sorts of choices now made when bills are passed by a legislature, or when executives issue orders. These choices are typically made in a complex world under great uncertainty regarding relevant outcomes, outcomes which are often spread out over many decades. A great many values and preferences are relevant for these choices. These values, and the relevant info needed to make these decisions well, are all housed within opaque, distracted, and often irrational humans, who must somehow be induced to sufficiently reveal them.

Here are Suri’s five applies-to-all-solutions objections:  Continue reading "Response to Suri Re Futarchy" »

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Prefer Law To Governance

Libertarians are usually adamant that they prefer less government to more. But sadly this tends to make them reluctant to express opinions on choices between different non-zero government scenarios. After all, that might have them seeming to endorse some non-zero government scenario, while their primary desire is to make it clear that they are anti-government. So the main choices on which they are willing to express an opinion is between ones with clearly “more” versus “less” government.

Alas, because there really are other choices that matter in the world. For example, it might matter how local is the government that is involved in any given area of life, even if a local and centralized government would have the same “amount” of involvement. It might also matter how accountable is government to citizens, and on what timescales; governments can be more or less “democratic” even when they have the same scope for controlling citizens.

One big choice that I think matters a lot is between dealing with a problem via civil law, or via governance. Civil law mainly deals with after-the-fact disputes between equal parties, where judges can’t anticipate whom they will judge, and where judges must articulate clear principles of choice. In contrast, governance gives a lot more discretion for officials to give orders regarding future actions, to pick out the people they want to influence, and to treat similar people quite differently.

For example, governance can deal with pollution by issuing detailed regulations on how, where, and by whom pollutants are made and used. In contrast, civil law can deal with pollution by letting those who suffer from it sue those who caused it. Governance can deal with poverty by taking money from whomever it wants, giving money to whomever it wants, and requiring recipients to abide by any lifestyle rules it wants. In contrast, civil law can deal with poverty by requiring siblings and cousins to take care of each other when in dire need.

Governance can deal with crime by managing police, prosecutors, and prisons who decide in great detail who will be be investigated and punished how and for what. In contrast, private bounty hunters and required liability insurance could make these all private choices, leaving to the community only the choice of what is a crime and how strongly it is to be discouraged and discovered.

Governance dealt with the pandemic by issuing regulations about masks, distancing, lockdowns, etc., by limiting and commanding how vaccines can be tested and produced, and then directly managing their distribution. In contrast, law could have dealt with the pandemic only via requiring liability insurance and the preservation of sufficient info to allow the infected to sue those who caused it.

In all these cases the key difference is less about the overall level of government control, and more about the discretion of government officials, which allows favoritism, corruption, and over-confident micro-management. In the choice between law and governance, I usually prefer law. (Though yes of course, I don’t know how to manage a war well via law.)

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To Beat Aliens, We Must Become Aliens

Fight fire with fire. It takes a thief to catch a thief. To defeat your enemy, know and become your enemy.

Across the long sweep of history, our ancestors have greatly changed. Animals to primates to foragers to farmers to the industrialists of today. Across these many ages, we’ve greatly changed our environments, habits, styles of thinking, and priorities. During the ages of humanity, this has led to increasing “alienation”, as our worlds drift increasingly far from the worlds in which human nature was formed.

Someday we may become expansive aliens who rapidly spread life and civilization throughout a vast volume, stopping only perhaps when we meet other expansive aliens (in perhaps a few hundred million years). But we are far from up to that task now, and to reach that level we must probably pass through several more ages. Ages with big changes to our environments, habits, styles of thinking, and priorities. (Perhaps the next age would be an “age of em”.)

These changes will induce even greater alienation, at least as long as human nature doesn’t change greatly. And even if our descendants manage to change human nature, to make their new worlds seem more natural to them, that very prospect may horrify the residents of some prior ages. They may see even modest changes a loss of “humanity” due to many specific value changes. And so they may seek to prevent such new ages.

And this, I expect, is one of the greatest obstacles to our descendants becoming expansionist, and taking their place among the great alien civilizations who fill the universe with life and thereafter set its destinies. Some particular age, which could only have existed because many prior ages diminished and give birth to new different ages, “will stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”.

The ability to do this will be greatly aided by a world government, both in mood and in implementation. Which part of why I fear such a government. Let each age instead “diminish, and go into the West“, giving birth to differing descendant ages, so that we can help fill the cosmos with life, with “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky“.

Added 9am: To make the matter more concrete, if they had understood the actual consequences, should pre-human primates have wanted to prevent the rise of humans? Should hyper-egalitarian, leisurely, and promiscuous foragers have wanted to prevent the rise of farmers,  with their hard work, war, inequality, slaves, and marriage? Should strongly religious, nationalistic and pro-marriage farmers have wanted to prevent the rise of industrialists who abandon such things? Should we want to prevent an age of em?

Added 7Apr: In four Twitter polls, I asked if the people of various eras would, according to their values, want to prevent successor ages. Results: 2-1 majorities think forager & farmer values would lead them to prevent following (farmer & industry) eras, even as majorities think primate & industry era values would not lead them to prevent following (human & em) eras. This seems to be overall pretty bad news for the prospect of there being many future eras once eras can coordinate to prevent successor eras.

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Meta-Comments On UFO Talk

Following my “live and learn” strategy, after having written a bit about UFOs, let me now make some meta-comments.

For most intellectuals, UFOs are a topic “beyond the pale” and “outside the Overton window”. As was the topic of sex once, not because people didn’t think sex existed, but because of a consensus it wasn’t a “serious” topic. We generally know which topics do and don’t have this label, even if we don’t have much of an idea of why each label was once applied.

Since I started talking about UFOs, I’ve more clearly seen some of the rules we apply to talk near the edge of acceptable topics. The edge isn’t that sharp, so these are rules that apply more strongly but in a graded way as you approach closer to the edge, and then perhaps go past it.

As you approach the edge of the pale, your tone is supposed to become more jocular, your language less precise and more evocative, and your writings short and infrequent. High prestige people are allowed to go a bit further toward or past the edge without modifying their writings quite as much in these directions. You are expected to eagerly lampoon any who violate these rules.

We can think of all this as our having a “vote” on whether to move the Overrton window, with high prestige people of course getting far more votes. If you go much further than usual in taking such a topic seriously, as your attempt to argue for moving the window, that will mostly fail, as you will mainly be seen as losing your standing to vote on the topic.

I’ve noticed that this topic of UFOs makes me feel especially uncomfortable. I look at the many details, and many seem to cry out “there really is something important here.” But I know full well that most people refuse to look at the details, and are quick to denigrate those who do, being confident in getting wide social support when they do.

So I’m forced to choose between my intellectual standards, which say to go where the evidence leads, and my desire for social approval, or at least not extra disapproval. I know which one I’m idealistically supposed to pick, but I also know that I don’t really care as much for picking the things you are supposed to pick as I pretend to myself or others.

We often fantasize about being confronted with a big moral dilemma, so we can prove our morality to ourselves and others. But we should mostly be glad we don’t get what we wish for, as we are often quite wrong about how we would actually act.

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Explaining Stylized UFO Facts

In my last post I summarized some key stylized social facts that a theory of UFOs-as-aliens would need to explain:

Any aliens behind UFOs would be amazingly long-lived, and also somehow they’ve coordinated to limit any small part of themselves from expanding and remaking the universe. This gets easier to believe the smaller and rarer they are. (They also seem to have limited their tech.) Yet they’ve overcome their self-limits to travel to be here now, so they must be close enough to come quickly once they saw signs of advances, or they saw signs of interest very early and traveled very far.

We can see practical reasons for them to come here, at least if they can coordinate to achieve such plans. But most such motives seem better served by destroying us than by the usual reported UFO encounters, which seem to accomplish little. Yes, humans today do many things for indirect “symbolic” motives, and lazy organizations often pretend to achieve more than they do. But these require slack, and fig-leaf stories to justify them. So from whence comes alien slack, and what could be their justifications?

My tentative explanation for all this has four main supporting elements: panspermia siblings, world government, moral ideology, and complexity rot.


1. Panspermia Siblings – Imagine that life started on some previous planet Eden, where it went through some very hard steps. Life then spread from Eden to Earth, as well as to some other planets. Even if it were hard for life to spread between planets, the Eden-to-Earth scenario could still be statistically favored compared to the Earth-only scenario, as Eden can start much earlier and can be in more places. This is because Earth had to be much calmer than Eden to host the last half-billion years of fragile multi-cellular life. These few seeded planets might be the only ones with life in the million nearest galaxies.

Once seeded, Earth and its sibling planets would then compete to complete the remaining not-so-hard steps required to reach advanced life. If one of those planets succeeded before Earth, then it would host close but rare aliens, who share a lot of biology detail (e.g., DNA) with Earth. Those aliens could have then searched out their sibling planets, found Earth, and then waited perhaps millions of years for civilization to appear here. These aliens had several good practical reasons for coming here in time to see us now up close.

Positing that the aliens behind UFOs come from just one nearby sibling planet, with the nearest other aliens many galaxies away, makes it easier to believe that these aliens have successfully imposed sufficiently-strong self-limits on expansion and on tech advance, leaving the empty universe we see.


2. World Government – Over the last few centuries, one of the most consistent world trends has been an increase in human organization size and complexity, with more functions and decisions drifting up to higher levels. We have developed both better networks and better hierarchical organizations. Plausibly this trend is behind most others; it seems to be the main driver of faster innovation, which is the main cause of more wealth, which drives most other trends.

A straightforward long-term prediction from this trend is “world” (really “civilization-wide”) government. After all, a few have come close to creating one via force, we now have a United Nations by consent, and regulators worldwide share an elite culture that creates a de facto world government on many issues. Stronger, more formal versions seem likely within centuries.

Within a star system, talk delays are modest, and it is easy to see and shoot at most anything, making a world government quite feasible there. However, world government is harder to start once independent self-sufficient colonies at other stars can grow as fast as at the home star system. Thus the existence of such colonies becomes a deadline for the creation of a world government. As near Earth this deadline seems likely to be met, that may also have happened for sibling star aliens.

The advantages of a world government will seem clear and compelling: a civilization that can better coordinate on global problems like war, pollution, and innovation. And that can better enforce widely-liked regulations. Also, global majorities will be eager to impose their will on global minorities, and lock down their temporary advantages via a permanent world government.

By its very nature, a world government reduces innovation and adaptation in, but also promotes the stability of, the largest scale civilization structures. An advanced star-system-wide civilization probably has a large enough base of knowledge and resources, and a stable enough environment, for this tradeoff to promote stability over many millions of years. Thus the fact that aliens have lasted for millions of years also suggests that they have a world government.


3. Moral Ideology – While pre-human primate groups were held together mainly by kin and alliances, human groups could be larger due to social norms, which were enabled by human weapons and language. Social norms have also aided our other more recent methods of social organization. As norms matter more in collective politics than in private life, a world government would gain legitimacy and stability by more strongly supporting widely-held moral norms.

Thus a world with a world government is likely to impose more stronger regulations in support of widely-held moral intuitions. And in an era of rapidly changing technology often in tension with moral intuitions that evolved in prior tech eras, that may result in substantial limitations on tech. Sibling star alien world governments might ban advanced artificial intelligence, brain emulations, or nuclear-powered space ships. They might also insist on preserving their biological bodies.

By using strong surveillance, embedded political officers, and using the threat of destruction from a distance, a world government might hope to keep control over a rapidly expanding sphere of interstellar colonies. But surely such control is far easier if substantial interstellar colonies are simply banned. Independent colonies would threaten not only the relative status of the current world government leaders and polity, but they’d also threaten to allow evasion of morally-treasured regulations.

Thus aliens with a world government might limit expansion, and also tech, not just to support environmental and anti-colonialism type ideologies, but also to preserve the relative status of locals and their ability to impose civilization-wide regulations. We have often seen similar behavior in human history, when secure isolated local regimes have discouraged contact with outsiders. The fact that aliens have not yet destroyed us also suggests that they have moral ideologies.

In a very long-lived civilization with a stable world government, the high-level organization of government and its key principles and regulations might become so stable that other structures of that civilization evolve to match them more often than the government evolves to match other structures. The government becomes like a mountain, where life adapts to behave differently at the mountain’s foot versus near its peak. So over millions of years the intuitions and practices of individuals and local groups may well evolve differently to match different parts of the stable world government with which they most strongly interact.


4. Complex System Rot – Since the origin of life, competition has been the main driver of adaptation and innovation. Yes, cooperation has been important, but it is competition that has designed and promoted cooperation. While genetic forms of competition once dominated, cultural competition now matters more. Individuals and their practices compete within organizations, while organizations and their practices also compete for members, customers, investors, and more.

Across this long history, individual organisms, species, human organizations, and even empires have consistently tended to “rot”. That is, their long-lasting materials and structures slowly decay, becoming less flexible and more fragile, until they simply die or are eaten or displaced by rivals. This continues to happen today even with software and legal systems, as they try to adapt to new circumstances, and it happens even when their materials do not decay. It is competition that has corrected for this tendency to rot, by ensuring that simpler more general robust structures are available to replace failing fragile versions.

A civilization lasting for millions of years with a stable ideological world government preventing most expansion and tech innovation seems to me a recipe for high level system rot. New agencies, rules, and regulations would slowly accumulate on top of old ones, instead of being sufficiently culled, refactored, or reorganized. Agency growth and changes would have been often made to suit local ambitions instead of external needs, often using newly invented moral imperatives.

In our limited Earth history, we have often seen spectacular waste by stable secure empires, religious authorities, and secure monopolistic firms. Each example has found ways to spin stories justifying its waste, stories accepted by many observers. Observers have also often believed decaying organizations who claimed that they had not yet lost any flexibility or generality, claims only clearly disproved when they were displaced by rival competitors.

Over millions of years, an ancient alien world government would accumulate far worse wasteful habits, and yet always offer semi-plausible if tortured justifications, stories not so far clearly disproved by competitors. They would proudly tell themselves that they are still flexible and general, and up to most any challenge. But they’d be lying to themselves.


5. Putting it all together – So here is my best scenario to explain UFOs as aliens. I’m not saying it is good enough to let us believe that some UFOs are more likely than not aliens. I’m just saying that it is the best I’ve been able to come up with. You judge how good.

Life started long ago on Eden, which then seeded both Earth and our siblings’ home planet. Their home is somewhere in our galaxy, and yet they are the nearest aliens for a million galaxies. For many millions of years, they’ve had a stable world government enforcing ideologically-justified regulations limiting expansion, tech innovation, and perhaps much more. Local intuitions and practices have long since adapted to this stable mountain; it feels to them very legitimate.

This world government made an exception to its expansion bans to allow trips to sibling planets hosting life, and allowed the development of whatever tech that required. This was done in support of key ideologies, which is probably why they haven’t destroyed us, and yet they plan to make sure we obey their regulations on expansion and tech innovation. And data on us may help prepare them to meet other aliens. (They may or may not believe they will eventually meet future grabby aliens.)

This long trip, and their management of Earth, is a task calling for great generality and flexibility, which their government mostly lacks, though it claims otherwise. Worse, their fear of allowing an expansion escape led them to tightly control this expedition. So most key choices have been made ahead of time, and aliens here at Earth are kept on a tight leash, dependent on resources and equipment shipped from home.

These aliens long ago made their plans for how to monitor Earth civilization, and how to control it if that became necessary, and they built and shipped equipment and resources here based on that plan. Local alien administrators here have little discretion, are watched by local political officers, and have very limited abilities to make equipment or to collect resources beyond their pre-anticipated needs.

In drug regulation on Earth today, we have an ideology wherein conclusions drawn from observations are declared insufficient; one must also have proper government-managed “experiments.” If these aliens have a similar epistemological ideology, they would plan to observe Earth hidden safely from a distance, but they’d also need to periodically “poke” the locals and watch reactions. Alternatively, they might have an ideology of “touch”, wherein they couldn’t in good conscious control us unless they had before touched us “directly” somehow.

So, maybe, this was the safest most robust plan they could come up with to touch/poke us, when planning long ago back on their home planet: They poke us via making local disturbances in air or water by sending dark beams from safely hidden orbital projectors.

At a controlled distance, these beams can cause glowing balls of air, or smooth surfaces. (These can cause radar reflections, burn marks on the ground, and even sounds.) Their orbiting projectors would be safe from retaliation by Earthlings who would at first not even notice the beams, and who later would find it hard to trace those beams back to their orbital origins. And even finding those projectors probably doesn’t find the weapons by which they stand ready to destroy us if we get out of control.

So long ago these aliens sent to Earth equipment for installing telescopes, beam projectors, and weapons in orbit around Earth. All supplied with energy, covered to remain unseen, and with supports to keep them running for eons. And the main thing that aliens have done since their arrival is to maintain these facilities, and process the info collected.

These local administrators send regular and positive TPS reports back home regardless of how well things are actually going. The local aliens are likely bad at interpreting all the info they collect, their home world is bad at judging the quality of their efforts, and also at incentivizing such efforts. Thus maybe they not have learned much so far, and may not even be able to understand our electronic traffic that they can hear from space. They may not have detectors on the ground tapping into communications here.

Maybe the fastest that their economy grew back on their home planet, before it slowed down due to regulations, was much slower than the Earth economy is growing now. So they never really planned much for how to react to the rapid change that we are undergoing here now. Local administrators keep sending TPS reports back home, doing the scheduled UFO projector runs, and keeping their fingers nervously on their weapons buttons. But like most government administrators, they are terrified of having to take the initiative to make a big decision, and so would rather wait until the choice becomes completely obvious.

If this all sounds implausibly incompetent to you, consider that if many UFOs are in fact aliens, the U.S. military and many militaries around the world have in fact been spectacularly incompetent at considering UFO reports and studying the threats that they imply. Yet these militaries existed in an era of competition and a burst of UFO reports started during a major war (WII) during which militaries had rapidly evolved to become more competent. Imagine how worse would be a military with a secure budget but no actual war for a million years.

You might think that all this alien incompetence would give humans a fighting chance to defy these aliens and break out of their control. Possibly, but probably not. They probably do have their finger on the big kill-all-humans button, and that button probably does actually work. We might have a chance to sneak off and start a distant stealthy interstellar colony, but that also seems damn hard.

But if aliens behind UFOs are incompetent at understanding us and communicating with us, that sounds like bad news for our ability to learn and abide by their rules. It would be nice if they had some effective plan for integrating us into their world, beyond than pushing the button on us when we cross some line. But I wouldn’t count on that.

Note that not all of the elements of the story I’ve just told are strictly necessary to explain the stylized facts I’ve outlined. Those extra story elements are indicated by words like “maybe”, and are added to help you see potential implications of this story. If you don’t like my story, what story would you tell to explain all these stylized facts, not just one or two?

Note also that I’ve told this story twice before, though this version is more elaborate.

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