Arthur C. Clarke vs. Economics and Capitalism

A few years ago in honor of Arthur C. Clarke’s then-recent birthday, I wrote on my own blog that he must never have read Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard,

because according to this quote cited by Gregory Benford in his happy-birthday letter in Locus Magazine (January 2008), he claims that “there are some general laws governing scientific extrapolation, as there are not (pace Marx) in the case of politics and economics.” Well, far be it from me to disagree that Marx was wrong about a lot of things, but Clarke is wrong here. Sir Clarke, you may be 90 years old now, and happy birthday by the way, but it’s never too late to acquire a firm grasp of sound economic theory.

As disappointing as it is, it’s not surprising that he had a natural-scientistic bias against economics. Sadly, he died only a few months after my post.

In a more recent article in the Sri Lanka Guardian, more of Clarke’s economic ignorance is on display:

While researching for this article I came across a searing indictment by Clarke on the American capitalist system. After observing that the structure of American society may be unfitted for the effort that the conquest of space demands he continued, “No nation can afford to divert its ablest men into essentially non-creative and occasionally parasitic occupations such as law, insurance and banking”. He also referred to a photograph in Life Magazine showing 7,000 engineers massed behind a new model car they had produced as ‘a horrifying social document’. He was appalled by the squandering of technical manpower it represented. All this indeed makes one wonder whether he really was a closet socialist.

It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance. — Murray Rothbard

Maybe not a socialist, at least not of the Marxist variety, but there’s definitely a technocratic central-planner streak in there. Now, there may be government policies that divert more people to work in the legal, insurance, and banking professions (particularly legal) than otherwise would in a free market, but somehow I think Clarke has in mind here a more general dismissal of the value of these professions — which is just silly ignorance.

As for so many engineers working on automobiles rather than spaceships and space elevators, well, there’s just more money in it, bub. Deal with it. And, quite frankly, as much as I dream about space exploration and colonization, I’d rather keep driving ever-improving cars than make do with horse-and-buggy for who knows how long while the nation’s resources are diverted to centrally-planned space projects that will undoubtedly waste vast resources and trillions of dollars and may not come to fruition in my lifetime. So sue me for having high time preference.

But in my old blogpost I did identify some good quotes from Clarke, again reported by Benford:

“[F]or the one fact about the Future of which we can be certain is that it will be utterly fantastic.” Sounds more American than British to me.

“[E]xact knowledge is the friend, not the enemy, of imagination and fantasy.”

Here’s one that evokes, for me at least, the evils and waste of war: “All this effort, all this death, when we could be building the staging area for a seaborne space elevator.” But Clarke probably had in mind using the state to direct all that effort and money toward his pet space elevator.

In his May 2008 memorial letter for Clarke, Benford added two more quotes that I like:

“There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.”

“New ideas pass through three periods: It can’t be done; it probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing; I knew it was a good ideal all along!”

[Cross-posted at Prometheus Unbound.]

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