What kinds of economics will intelligent aliens have?

Ahmet, a loyal MR reader, asks:

What aspects of a functional economy would you expect to find in a developed extraterrestrial civilization? Barter, money, interest, financial derivatives, options?

Adam Smith and Murray Rothbard and Olaf Stapledon spring to mind as sources.  Reciprocal barter most likely, and that means implicit interest rates at the very least.  But do dolphins have money?  Not obviously.  I can imagine a dolphin-like civilization which lacks money.  Dolphins seem to have relatively few goods of value, yet they are highly intelligent and have well-developed emotional lives, or at least they could be so even if you are for some reason skeptical about current-day dolphins.

Current dolphin goods seem to be food, sex, kids, and conversation, with a fairly tight PPF.  They don’t buy lampshades.  Most of “dolphin economic growth” seems to come from finding more and better food, getting more and better sex, finding safer environments for the children, and learning to enjoy other dolphins more.  It’s hard to store dolphin goods and thus it is hard for the Mengerian origin of money story to get underway.

The opposable thumb and life on land, combined with some very particular and indeed contingent signaling tendencies, gives greater scope to heterogeneous durable goods and thus eventually money.  You can think of “dolphin water” as a high tax on lots of potential inputs, though it serves as a large implicit subsidy to the fishing sector.

Without money financial derivatives are unlikely, though be careful because alien intelligence is likely to surprise us.

Bird-like creatures, which fly through the air, might have a greater chance than dolphins of developing money as a medium of exchange, in part because they avoid the water tax on durable assets.  It seems possible to handle worms and songs and sex with direct barter, so what would smarter crows (or would they be smarter?) want to trade?  What kinds of heterogeneities might they crave and toward what end?

Bee-like creatures are a different story altogether, because of their homogeneity (for the drones at least) and high level of genetically-induced cooperation.  The “economics of communication” is especially important for them.

This entire question points me back to wondering why the diversity of human preferences evolved to the extent it did.  Why don’t we just want a few things?


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