in Economics, Hugo-Nebula Series, Science Fiction

On Risk, Time, and Living: Niven’s Ringworld

I know economics isn’t the first thing to spring to mind for most people when reading a science fiction classic, but bear with me anyway. Something stood out to me in the light of Austrian economics while reading Ringworld. Something that I consider a huge credit to Larry Niven for believable world-building. It has to do with the Pierson’s Puppeteers and how they handle their immortality.

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll try to explain the Puppeteers without spoiling the story. In the Ringworld universe, the Pierson’s Puppeteers are one of the older space-faring species. They are bizarre, three-legged, two-headed creatures with very high intelligence. Once upon a time they governed a gigantic commercial empire, but at the time of the novel, they are confined to their own home world, too averse to danger to risk leaving it. The one Puppeteer in the cast of the story, Nessus, is considered insane by his people because he has not only dared to leave home, but is taking a group of aliens (two humans and a Kzin) on a dangerous expedition.

So why do they act this way? The book explains this behavior as a consequence of the Puppeteer’s development of immortality. If they’re careful and can avoid being killed, they never die. So naturally, they’re careful to a fault. This intuitively makes sense when you’re given all the information, but thanks to economics we can roughly anticipate the Puppeteers’ preference for caution just by knowing about their longevity.

In the Austrian view of economics, there is a concept called time preference. Someone with a high time preference is willing to discount the future in order to have something sooner. Someone with a low time preference is willing to delay gratification, to discount the present in order to get something later. You see this all the time when people work for wages (high time preference), loan money or start an entrepreneurial venture (low time preference). Our time preference is also very much influenced by the length of our lives. None of us live forever, so every choice you make with your future self in mind has the end of your life (usually before age 100) as a furthest boundary. This is why people try to save during the early part of their adulthood, and switch to mostly spending during the twilight years of their lives. It’s not so common for an 86-year-old man to work twelve hour days and save like a miser the way an unmarried 20-something running a startup might. When your future is likely to be short, you tend to favor the present.

But what if your future was effectively infinite? Two things: First, you might not mind taking the long view and making plans that take a long time to develop because hey, you’ve got plenty of future in which to reap the rewards. Second, think of what kind of loss death represents. How many years are lost when a human dies? Probably somewhere less than 100. An effectively immortal creature stands to lose trillions. For a Pierson’s Puppeteer, virtually all of life always lies well into the future, and deserves a level of protection bordering on the paranoid.

Perhaps most importantly, this piece of Ringworld is a lesson in the value of our mortality. The Puppeteers manage to make very clever plans, but by and large they are selfish and cowardly. Their own lives loom so large in their futures, there’s no room for anyone else. We mere mortals can only spend so long thinking that way. Eventually we have more of our life behind us than we have before us, and if we want to touch the future, it will be through other people: your children, extended family, and friends.

My great uncle lived only about 77 years, cut short by disease earlier than I would have liked. Even though he is no longer with us, the dent he made in the world is going to last for generations. The old dairy farmer was gruff and sometimes short-tempered, but he lived his life by giving generously to anyone who had need. He didn’t die rich as far as I know, but over 700 people attended his funeral in a small country church, each of them profoundly touched by him at some stage of their lives. And not just family. Some were friends that hadn’t been seen for years, some were the type who were afraid to even set foot in a church, but they showed up all the same to say thank you one last time. To put it in Austrian terms, living like he did is a matter of keeping a low time preference for the sake of other people’s futures, in spite of your own dwindling time on earth. A creature who never dies never even has the opportunity to make that sacrifice.