Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins explains how some UFO enthusiasts are a bit beyond the pale (“The UFO Crowd Wants an Alien Invasion for Christmas,” December 23, 2022). He reports how, after a previous column critical of the UFO sect, a reader emailed him:

He asks some questions, though: “How much did they pay you to write this trash? Do you still have a gag reflex or did they take that along with the journalistic integrity?” He closes with a scatological insult, which, in an undeserved favor to him, I don’t repeat.

The hope of the UFO crowd is that extraterrestrials from an “advanced civilization” will soon establish contact with us earthlings, if they have not already done so. My question is, does political economy allow some reasonable conjectures about such a civilization?

Interstellar aliens would certainly come from a technologically advanced civilization. If they depart from an exoplanet orbiting around the star closer to us, Proxima Centauri, and travel at the same speed as we have reached in space, their spacecraft would take 6,300 years to reach Earth (see “This Is How Many People We’d Have to Send to Proxima Centauri to Make Sure Somebody Actually Arrives,” MIT Technology Review, June 22, 2018). If they travel at the speed of light, our visitors from the Proxima Centauri solar system would be here in a bit more than four years. Can we speculate on the kind of society where the required technology has a chance to develop?

If the understanding that classical liberal economists have developed since the 18th century is correct, our visitors’ society or civilization—that is their beliefs and institutions—cannot be centralized and authoritarian. If it were “run” by an authoritarian government or by some “social organism” of which individuals are mere cells, a technology appropriate to interstellar travel could not have been developed and sustained. An “advanced civilization” cannot be based on central planning or even on any serious industrial policy. It must be neither collectivist of the left (socialist) or of the right (fascist). Scientific progress requires free speech, open discussion, and constant criticism. Scientific and technological development also require efficient markets and trade. The economy must be rich, which requires entrepreneurship and competition. In brief, an advanced civilization requires the sort of spontaneous social order that Adam Smith or Friedrich Hayek conceived, with an efficient use of the dispersed knowledge in society. It must be the sort of “ordered anarchy” that James Buchanan advocated. Perhaps the traveling aliens’ advanced civilization has even discovered, after tens or hundreds of millennia, institutions that have allowed the withering away of the state and the birth of a liberal anarchy.

In other words, compounded technological advances are not only a matter of technology.

Note that I am assuming that our interstellar visitors are somewhat similar to us in the sense that they come from within our universe and are subject to the same scientific and social-scientific laws as we are.

If all that is correct, the aliens who would land on Earth would not be military men regimented in a tight hierarchy, but free men and women (of at least two sexes appear to be an evolutionary necessity) used to independence and liberty, that is, to a truly advanced civilization. At worst, it seems, they could be banned outlaws or escapees from such a society. The earthlings who hope that aliens will come with a ready-made model of socialist or fascist nirvana will be disappointed.

PS: The featured image of this post shows a UFO I sighted a few days after reading Jenkins’s column, right above the corn field where I regularly walk and hunt. Things do happen in Maine.