In A Hundred Years, There May Be No Politicians

pants on fire saying cartoon

Although the current way of organizing society may seem like the only natural way, democracy and the nation state are relatively recent phenomena, and we shouldn't take for granted that they will stay with us forever. Most people would probably agree with that, but 100 years isn't exactly forever... Could it really change that fast?

Society has already changed enormously over the past couple of centuries, and technological progress has been a very important factor in bringing about this change. The rate of technological change has been speeding up until the present day and is expected to continue to accelerate in the foreseeable future.

It's hard to predict how society will change in the future. It's probably a lot easier to predict some of the ways in which technology is going to improve. A somewhat correct understanding of the future of technology will at least make it easier to predict societal change than if you don't have this knowledge.

So let's start with the future of technology.

Many science fiction movies depict a future in which one specific technology has advanced well beyond today's capabilities while every other technology has seemingly stagnated at current levels. An example is the movie Passengers, where they've had interstellar travel for at least a century, yet they still age and die exactly like people do today... Naturally, it's extremely unlikely that the future will unfold in this way.

Scientists and engineers all over the world are working hard to make progress in countless areas, all at the same time, and progress in one field may hugely benefit other fields, so sort of the only likely future is one where a wide range of technologies have advanced far beyond current levels. And when we know how fast technology is advancing today, and that it's actually accelerating, and we also know that the acceleration is expected to continue in the future, then 100 years suddenly seems like a very long time.

In this article I will assume that Ray Kurzweil is essentially correct in his predictions about the future. Kurzweil is one of the most optimistic futurists in terms of time scales. But he also has a very good track record for his predictions. If you disagree with Kurzweil's vision of the future you may also disagree with this article's conclusion that there may be no politicians in 100 years.

Kurzweil's main prediction is about how fast computer technology is advancing, an aspect of the future he says is amazingly predictable. If computer technology isn't advancing as fast as he predicts, the other specific technologies he predicts will likely also be similarly delayed.

Kurzweil started making predictions around 1980, and now, in 2017, computers are almost exactly as capable as he predicted back then. That's good reason not to dismiss his future predictions out of hand although some might almost seem a little too incredible.

Some of Kurzweil's predictions:

  • Within 10 years, most diseases will be conquered. During the following 10 years, the remaining ones will be conquered as well.
    So, what does that mean? It doesn't mean that every human on Earth will be cured of their diseases by 2037, but that we at least have available treatments for almost all diseases (at least 75% of currently untreatable diseases), although some may still be expensive or not approved in every country. Prices should go down rather quickly, though, since medicine is becoming an information technology (a technology that utilizes computers and computing to a large degree).
  • Around 2030 human life expectancy will increase by more than one year per year due to new medical technologies making use of nanotechnology. That's not just infant life expectancy - that's your life expectancy. Which means that - barring accidents or armageddon - you may live essentially forever.
    An organization that does really good work in the area of rejuvenation technology is SENS Research Foundation (you can donate here).
  • The nonbiological (artificial) intelligence created in the year 2045 will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today. Many people are fearful of artificial intelligence outpacing human intelligence. However, it won't be an us versus them scenario. Instead we'll merge with the "machines":
  • By around 2035 we'll have the technology to connect our brains directly to the Internet. This will allow you to get answers to your questions merely by thinking. Several companies, including Elon Musk's NeuralLink, are already working on brain-computer interfaces, though the technology used to implement the brain-computer interface will be quite different and more advanced in the 2030s than now. In the 2030s we'll probably have tiny robots - nanobots - in our brains (and bloodstream). These nanobots should be able to communicate with our neurons and each other, transferring data to and from the brain. It might become possible to download knowledge and skills to the brain in this way. 1)
  • In the 2040s people will spend most of their time in virtual reality. Virtual reality is another technology that will make use of nanobots in the brain. The nanobots could control what signals reach our neurons, so by filtering out data from our real senses and instead providing fake sensory data, the potential is no less than 100% realistic virtual reality. We will also be able to interact with real human beings in virtual reality. This will likely lead to many business meetings taking place in virtual reality and fewer people traveling long distances in the real world.
  • By the 2030s, we'll have real nano-technology in the form of atomically precise manufacturing. Or maybe even before 2030. This year Kurzweil said that "We know exactly how to create the medical nano-robots if we have the enabling factor of being able to do atomically precise manufacturing. That's coming. We'll have that by... Well, I've been saying the early 2030s. That's increasingly looking conservative. We may have it in the 2020s."
    Atomically precise manufacturing means we'll be able to build physical objects with atomic precision. 3D-printers will be created that can make objects where every single atom is positioned according to a predetermined plan (a computer file).

When Ray Kurzweil says we'll have some technology by a certain year, he does not mean that the technology will be mature at that time, and it may not yet be widespread. Some of the technologies mentioned will probably not reach maturity until some time in the second half of the century. Still, that's actually not that many decades away...

Let's discuss how some of these technologies could contribute to transferring tasks away from governments, and over to the private sector.

  • Aging is cured
    If we can stay healthy, energetic and productive indefinitely, then there's no need for a retirement age. Without retirement pensions, the state's largest expense goes away. But don't worry; increasing automation will lead to lower prices, so you don't have to work that much, anyway. Since it will be cheaper for the state to pay for life extension treatments than to pay out pensions, governments may actually offer life extension treatments free of charge (well, paid for by the tax payers) to all its citizens some time in the relatively near future.
  • Diseases are cured
    If we we're healthier, then the government's expenditure on sick pay, medicare, medicaid (or similar programs for countries outside the US), and maybe even hospitals (if nanobots can heal us from within) should go down significantly.
  • Brain connected to the Internet and information downloading
    If we can learn and acquire new skills simply by downloading information to the brain, then there's no real need for schools (as a place to learn), which is another big expense for governments today. This, in combination with biotechnologies that can heal and enhance human beings, could also enable anybody who wants a job to get one. Even if downloading information isn't that cheap when the technology is relatively new, companies could pay the cost for new employees to learn (download) the skills they need. The reason I think companies would be willing to make that investment is that the cost of downloading knowledge would still be very low in comparison to the added value the employee could provide with the downloaded knowledge.
    If anyone can get a job, then very few people will need charity to make ends meet, which means the amount of money governments would need to spend on a social safety net would go way down. And then the task of helping the needy may even be performed adequately by private charities. 
  • Atomically precise manufacturing
    When everyone can make almost any physical object with their own 3D-printer, then global trade will look very different than today. The need to transport things around the world will likely decrease substantially. That means governments aren't going to get that much revenue from tariffs. Other trade barriers will also lose their importance. It also means that banning or restricting certain items, such as guns, recreational drugs or medical drugs, will be difficult or impossible. I think it's likely that the laws will change in response to this, so that we don't continue spending excessive amounts of resources fighting "wars" that just cannot be won, such as the current war on drugs. This should mean less government spending on police services.

I'm not the first person to point out that new technologies are going to impact politics. In a series of articles libertarian author Onar Åm has explained how several new technologies have been, are, and are going to disrupt politics, taking power away from politicians, something which should lead to smaller governments. In part five of the series he attempts to explain why these emerging technologies are disrupting politics:

When everyone has affordable access to a technology, it becomes practically impossible to control. People then don't need to ask politicians to be able to do the things they want. They can just do them. That's precisely why these technologies are politically disruptive.

Others have said essentially the same thing using the term decentralization. "The 21st century technologies are decentralized rather than centralized", according to Kurzweil.

Peter Diamandis uses the term democratization. Technologies that are being digitized become disruptive (though growth could be deceptively slow at first), then they become demonetized (cheap), then dematerialized (virtual), and finally democratized. (According to Diamandis, these are the 6 Ds of technology disruption.)

Actually, Ray Kurzweil himself recently talked a little about whether technology will end the nation state:

In the video Kurzweil says that nation states, due to the Internet and its globalizing effect, have already become less influential than they used to be, and that he thinks they're going to continue to get less influential.

He doesn't say, however, that nation states will go away completely, but he doesn't say it won't happen, either.

So as far as I know, neither Kurzweil, nor Diamandis, nor Åm has said that governments are going to disappear completely, and thus it's probably not obvious that that will actually happen. Even David Friedman, who has written an entire book describing how all the tasks that are now performed by governments, could instead be performed privately (in a system called anarcho-capitalism), suspects governments will still exist 100 years from now: 2)

I think predicting that far ahead is hard. The most likely [anarcho-capitalist] scenario, I think, is for anarcho-capitalism online and states still controlling realspace. If enough of life is online, states end up competing for very mobile taxpayers, so are more like landlords than states.

But the world is changing very rapidly due mostly to technological change, so any prediction is more nearly a guess.

So I cannot be sure that governments and politicians will disappear in 100 years. But I do feel quite confident that governments will get significantly smaller towards the end of the century, possibly sooner. And the possibility that they may actually disappear altogether is at least worth consideration, in my opinion.

Bitcoin/blockchain
In addition to Kurzweil's predictions, there's one very exciting technology we need to discuss, namely internet money (e.g. Bitcoin) and one of its underlying technologies, the blockchain.

I think the internet is going to be one of the major forces for reducing the role of government. The one thing that's missing, but that will soon be developed, is a reliable e-cash.

- Milton Friedman

As he explains in this video, Milton Friedman thought that the Internet, in combination with "a reliable e-cash", would make it harder for governments to collect taxes. He made this statement in 1999. Now, 18 years later, we do have e-cash - in the form of Bitcoin (among others). It may not yet be as reliable as Milton Friedman intended, but we're getting there.

Bitcoin is a form of internet money or e-cash, also called a cryptocurrency. It's a decentralized currency - which means that it's not controlled by a central authority, such as a government, a central bank, or even a company. It's also peer to peer, which means that the two parties to a payment transaction don't need to involve a trusted third party in order to avoid the double spending problem. They only need to trust Bitcoin itself (the Bitcoin software).

The total number of Bitcoins in the world is limited and will never exceed 21 million. At the moment almost 80% of all Bitcoins that will ever exist have been created, and after the year 2140, no more new Bitcoins will be created.

Although new Bitcoins are still being created today, the demand for Bitcoin has increased at a much faster rate than the number of Bitcoins, so the value of a Bitcoin has risen exponentially (with some ups and downs, though), and one Bitcoin is currently valued at more than $4000. Contrary to this, government currencies, like the US dollar, tend to lose value, due to government-controlled expansion of the money supply (the more money in circulation, the less one unit of money will be worth - all else equal).

Bitcoin is not perfect, though; still in its infancy, it's far from a mature technology. I've heard people comparing it to the Internet of the early 1990s. However, it's also not static. It's being improved continuously, something which is absolutely necessary in order to cope with a growing number of users and transactions. Bitcoin also has many competitors, and if Bitcoin isn't able to solve one particular problem, another cryptocurrency probably will and could potentially take over for Bitcoin as the biggest cryptocurrency. Billions of dollars are being invested in these technologies. E-cash is definitely here to stay.

Bitcoin is built on top of the blockchain, which is a distributed database that stores every single payment transaction made with Bitcoins. In other words, every Bitcoin transaction ever made is stored forever, and it's stored on countless computers all around the world, which makes it extremely hard to make fake changes.

These properties - that everything is stored and can't be changed - can be very useful in other areas too, not just for money and payments.

However, it may be hard to implement a successful application using the blockchain without also including a cryptocurrency in the implementation, since an incentive is needed to make people invest the computing power necessary to validate transactions. For Bitcoin it's possible to create new Bitcoins in a process called mining, a digital equivalent to mining gold. When people are mining Bitcoin, they're simultaneously validating transactions. So the Bitcoins they receive as a reward functions as an incentive to validate the transactions.

Keeping this in mind, the blockchain can also be used to keep track of who owns what (ownership). It can be used to store contracts - in Ethereum some types of contracts ("smart contracts") can even be executed automatically when some condition is met. Ethereum, by the way, has implemented its own currency, Ether. It would also be possible to store things like birth certificates, wills, and who is married to who on the blockchain, just to name a few examples.

Today, most governments are heavily involved in these areas, and in some countries this works well, but in other countries where the government may be more corrupt, it unfortunately does not. With the new blockchain technology, people in poor third world countries might finally stop having to worry about their property being confiscated and given to someone else, since, if ownership is logged on the blockchain, they can prove that they're the owner. Secure property rights are extremely important for economic development, so this could actually translate into many more people escaping poverty much faster.

Bitcoin can also provide banking services without a bank, and Bitcoin and the blockchain technology might have a bigger impact in developing countries than in the developed countries - at least in the short term, and especially if transaction fees can be kept low enough. Also, people in countries where the currency experiences runaway inflation will have a great incentive to start using Bitcoin.

Some anarchists believe that Bitcoin and the blockchain technology on its own is going to bring an end to the nation state. I'm not sure how many non-anarchists are of the same belief, so it may be just wishful thinking. Personally, I believe we're going to see the end of governments at some time, but the reason, I think, will be a combination of Bitcoin/blockchain, and other technologies as discussed above.

Jeff Berwick is one anarchist who believes that Bitcoin and blockchain will bring an end to governments:

It goes way beyond just money. Money is important enough. This could be where everything is based, and there's so much innovation going on now. There's a company called BitNation, for example, and they're trying to, essentially, put governance on the Blockchain, so all contracts, all property deeds, everything would be on the Blockchain. They're actually starting in Africa, because many of these countries never had a sort of a system of private property, and a way to have a good system to tell who owns what, and that's why they've had problems for so many years, or even centuries. But they're trying to put that into place.

People start using these sort of systems very quickly. There becomes really no need for government whatsoever, I think there's no need for it now. But for people who think there is some need for it still, contracts, adjudication and things like that, that can all be taken out by these blockchain technologies, so that's why you're seeing billions of dollars actually going into this right now. Many people don't realize it. This is sort of where the Internet was in 1994, is where Bitcoin is in 2015/2016. And I was there for the start of the Internet, so I remember. It's very similar. Your average person still doesn't know what a big deal is going on behind the scenes, but this is going to revolutionize the world. It's not just going to be Bitcoin. In fact, who knows about Bitcoin? It could be gone in a couple of years because the innovation is happening so fast, and there's going to be so many things built on top of this technology, that it's going to change the world.

But what if governments also start using Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies? Maybe they issue their own cryptocurrencies? Could Bitcoin still be a force for smaller governments?

I think Yes. Bitcoin and other non-governmental alternatives would still be available, in competition with the state currencies. That probably means that the inflation rate for the government currencies can't be that high, or else more people will switch to e.g. Bitcoin, which is getting more valuable over time - not less.

So if I can choose between money that appreciates in value or money that gets worth less, all else equal, that's an easy choice. But all else isn't going to be equal, so many people are going to choose government coins over Bitcoin anyway. But the bigger the difference in inflation/deflation, the more people are going to choose Bitcoin.

So it's not unnatural to think that the state, in competition with Bitcoin, will have to lower its inflation rate - create less new money - if they want people to continue to use their money. If they can't create as much money as they would like, the government will lose some of its power - or options. I'm in particular thinking about the option to fight wars in faraway countries, which is arguably the worst and most brutal thing states do.

War is extremely expensive, and if you or I am asked to pay so that our government can make war in the Middle-East, we would probably say No thanks if we could, or we would protest if taxes were raised to finance the war. But the way wars are financed is by creating - or printing - money, which is much less visible to most people. In other words, wars are financed by decreasing the value of the currency. If Bitcoin, as a competitor to government currencies, is able to lead to less inflation in the government currencies, that could actually make it harder for governments to go to war, which could mean less wars and a more peaceful future.

 

Are there some set of tasks that, no matter how technologically advanced we become, we absolutely need governments to perform? According to the minarchist libertarian position, there should be a government, but it should be limited to protecting the rights of the individual, so it should be responsible for police, courts and national defence, and nothing else. However, both policing services and arbitration is done by private companies today in addition to being done by governments, so it's not such a long stretch to imagine that they could be completely privatized. And in the future, when the world is much wealthier, even more globalized than today, where governments may be really small, where people can get almost everything they need in a decentralized way, and where governments can't finance wars with inflation, then who has anything to gain from war? I think world peace is achievable this century, and then, who needs a military?

So for me, a much more logical end point than minarchy is anarchy, where there is no government at all. And although it may sound terrible to most people right now, I think you won't mind it if/when that future world arrives.

Does anything point towards bigger governments?
OK, I've talked mostly about things that are pointing towards smaller governments in the future. But we should also consider the opposite. What factors could lead to bigger governments, or at least slow the decrease in size? I see two main possibilities in the short to medium term:

  • Universal basic income
    The fear of robots taking over many jobs that are today performed by humans has made the idea of a universal basic income more popular, with some countries and organizations doing experiments with basic incomes. I wouldn't be surprised if it's implemented more broadly in the coming decades. If so, I hope it will be a replacement for existing government welfare programs, not an addition to them.
    If a basic income is implemented as a replacement for the existing welfare programs, that could open up for a private welfare market (since some people will still need more help than what a basic income can provide), where there is competition, leading to better solutions than today's. If that works out well, then in the longer term, government welfare (including basic income) might not be necessary (since it's taken care of by the private sector and also since fewer people will need help, as discussed above).
  • Government pays for rejuvenation treatments
    Since at some point it will be cheaper for governments to pay for rejuvenation treatments than to pay old-age pensions, I don't think it's unlikely that they will offer to pay for rejuvenation treatments in exchange for not paying out pensions. Although the cost of paying for rejuvenation treatments is lower than the cost of paying out pensions, paying for most people's rejuvenation treatments will be a significant cost - at least at first. If there's enough competition despite governments' involvement in the rejuvenation market, prices will continue to decrease over time, and if rejuvenation treatments get affordable for almost everyone, the need for government to pay will also go away.

I'm sure there are several other important items that could point toward bigger governments, but the way I see it, there are far more things about future technologies that are pointing towards smaller governments than towards bigger government. But we'll see. Hopefully, both you and I will be alive to see the actual outcome in 2117.

Do you think governments will disappear? What are your best arguments that we will or will not have politicians and governments in 100 years?


1) I'm not quite sure about the timeframe for downloading knowledge and skills. In his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil writes: "The nature of education will change once again when we merge with nonbiological intelligence. We will then have the ability to download knowledge and skills, at least into the nonbiological portion of our intelligence. [...] We don't yet have comparable communication ports in our biological brains to quickly download the interneuronal connection and neurotransmitter patterns that represent our learning [...] a limitation we will overcome in the Singularity."

Downloading knowledge and skills instantly into our biological brains is a technology that will be developed in the second half of this century, according to Kurzweil's earlier book, The Age Of Spiritual Machines (1999). However, Nicholas Negroponte (cofounder of the MIT Media Lab and co-creator of Wired Magazine) has predicted that in less than 30 years you may take a pill, which dissolves, goes to the brain via the bloodstream, and alters the brain in just the right ways so that you may learn some topic - the examples he used were English and Shakespeare.

2) From an email conversation, quoted with permission.

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