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Would ET Vote? The Likelihood of Extraterrestrial Democracy

Douglas Vakoch, SPACE.com, 8/15/02

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: If extraterrestrials some day pick up our radio and television broadcasts, hearing the latest news of political jockeying, will they be flabbergasted by our methods of choosing a leader? Would the idea of one vote per person seem hopelessly quaint to an advanced alien nation? Maybe not.

Although it’s still two years until the next presidential election, we’re already seeing signs of politicians positioning themselves for the Oval Office. If extraterrestrials some day pick up our radio and television broadcasts, hearing the latest news of political jockeying, will they be flabbergasted by our methods of choosing a leader? Would the idea of one vote per person seem hopelessly quaint to an advanced alien nation?

Maybe not.

If psychologist Albert Harrison is correct, ETs might feel very much at home with the notion of going to the ballot box. Or at least they would be familiar with the process of having input into the control of their lives, even if it doesn’t take the form of presidential elections. According to Harrison, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Davis, if we detect a signal from advanced extraterrestrials, there’s a good chance that the basic principles of democracy play a role in their society.

"When we intercept a transmission from an ancient society," Harrison argues, "that society is likely to have achieved its great age not through an autocratic, belligerent government, but through a democratic government whose emphasis on bargaining, negotiation, and peaceful solutions to internal problems are brought to bear in dealing with other democracies." In Harrison’s view it’s possible that "democracy involves a set of functional principles that will work for other intelligent species in other places and at other times."

Take Me to Your Dictator?

By a similar line of reasoning, extraterrestrial dictators may be very rare.

Autocratic governments on Earth face an uphill battle, Harrison says, and the same challenges may limit the life expectancies of fascist regimes around distant stars. For example, autocracies tend to ignore the desires of their citizens. The resulting disconnect between leader and followers can become increasingly extreme, resulting in discontent of the masses. By contrast, democratic processes incorporate input from a wide range of individuals, yielding a more responsive and thus stable form of government. Harrison suggests that this lesson would not be lost on extraterrestrials. "The greater the number of democracies in a galaxy," he says, "the greater the zone of galactic peace."

Furthermore, he argues that if a federation of extraterrestrial civilizations exists, as some astronomers have suggested, its policy toward newly emerging civilizations such as ours might be guided by the values of democracy. "Members of the ‘Galactic Club,’" says Harrison, "should do everything they can to promote the evolution of stable democracies, because, by so doing, they increase their zone of peace."

Ideals of universal peace, however, may come no more naturally to extraterrestrials than they do to humans. Harrison acknowledges that aggression can be found across a range of terrestrial species, and it may well evolve on other worlds too. But he points out that Darwin’s notions of "survival of the fittest" don’t directly translate from biology to culture: "belligerent posturing and aggressive behaviors that make an animal fit do not necessarily make a society fit." Those extraterrestrial societies that find themselves perpetually at war may not last long enough to make contact with other civilizations.

But suppose they do manage to survive. Could they maintain an intergenerational dialogue with another civilization that might require centuries or millennia for each exchange? "If paranoid, berserk, or thoroughly selfish societies last long enough to make contact with other civilizations," Harrison says, "their foreign policies would put them out of business."

However slight the chance, what if extraterrestrials really are as malevolent as Hollywood often portrays them? Would we be opening ourselves up to interstellar war if we respond to a signal? In all likelihood, Harrison says, "Our response to their signal will not be a beacon encouraging them to exterminate us." Hostility at interstellar distances, he maintains, is hard to imagine: "The immense distances that separate stars and galaxies make hostile action unlikely. Immense distance also interferes with the trade of material goods and services, but it leaves open the possibility of trading information."

Interstellar Altruism

Is it realistic to expect the bartering of information between stars? Could the potential benefits of interstellar commerce justify the long-term commitment that interstellar communication requires? In Harrison’s view, there might be yet another motive for extraterrestrials to look out for the best interests of humankind: their own self-interest. By providing primitive civilizations such as ours with some guidance at a distance, ET might help stabilize our society. In return, our interstellar interlocutors might benefit by having more cooperative neighbors. "In a sense," Harrison notes in his book After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life, "they could provide us with just enough aid to ‘keep the lid on our garbage can.’"

Harrison has no doubt that the powerful survive, even on other worlds. But he suggests that we need to expand beyond our usual conceptions of power, which often focus on destructive power. Instead, he suggests that the concept of "integrative power" may be more applicable to understanding extraterrestrial civilizations. When viewed in terms of integrative power, Harrison says, "The powerful person, organization, or society is one that can communicate, persuade, create loyalties, and build social bonds." And this is exactly what he expects to find among extraterrestrial civilizations that have lasted long enough for us to detect them: "the odds are stacked in favor of finding an old civilization whose cooperative views have contributed to its longevity."

Perhaps the most important question we need to ask ourselves if we detect a signal from extraterrestrial intelligence is whether we should reply. "The risk of responding is vanishingly small," Harrison says. "The least productive response may be no response at all."

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