In part 1, I wrote about the enormous scale of a galactic empire. If we’re going to turn that empire into a decent setting for a story, we’ll need to understand its economics.
The first thing we need to know is what type of FTL (Faster Than Light) technology it has. Without FTL, the planets of the empire would diverge culturally, and have little reason to follow directives from the capital. Even a ship’s crew might ignore imperial orders on a generation ship, so a slower-than-light empire would prefer a crew in stasis, or a crewless AI ship.
Assuming our empire has FTL, we need to understand its parameters. An empire that takes two years to cross will have a different structure from one that can be crossed in two hours. If there’s a direct relationship between distance and travel time, then there may be regional governors / power centers. If travel time is a function of the cube root of distance, there may be little difference between the capital and worlds on the fringes.
Next, we have to decide how expensive our FTL ships are. Can only the government and/or megacorporations afford ships, or can Joe Spaceman take out a loan and pick up a ship at Bubba’s discount FTL warehouse?
What about ongoing costs? Is some kind of fuel consumed? If this fuel is expensive, a transport will have to make a profit on every voyage, or risk being stranded (or in debt to a loan shark). Can the ships run for hundreds of years on automated maintenance, or do they need an army of menial workers to scrape corrosion off the flux capacitors? Does a FTL navigator need a lifetime’s experience, or can a six-year-old choose a destination from a menu? (Weee, let’s go to Space Monster Planet!)
The economics and politics of our empire will be driven by the combination of FTL speed and FTL expense. With slow and/or expensive ships, we will look to the spice-trading empires of Earth for ideas. With fast, cheap ships, modern trans-pacific trade is our model.
What will our trade ships transport? Fast, cheap ships can transport nearly anything. Asimov’s imperial capital of Trantor produced nothing, not even food, so everything was imported. The entire population of the planet was government bureaucrats. Now that’s a dystopia!
Slow, expensive ships can take a cue from the spice-trading empires by visiting alien ecosystems with unique biological products. The capital’s industry might need rare elements or isotopes. Traders can fool consumers into thinking that coffee or champagne or caviar produced on other worlds tastes better.
If our capital enforces a monopoly on interstellar trade (all voyages must be to or from the capital) there will be a concentration of wealth never seen on Earth. With fewer restrictions, wealth might concentrate at regional centers that trade with their local area and with the capital. Or, trade could be wide-open everywhere.
What about intellectual property? Today on Earth, writers, musicians, actors, and designers (of software, medical devices, fashionable clothing, soft drinks) amass fortunes selling to a portion of one planet. What if they were collecting money from millions of planets? Bill Gates’ current wealth wouldn’t even make him middle-class in our empire. If intellectual property owners concentrated at the capital or on a few planets, the only thing in short supply would be land. Wealthy people could build city-sized orbital homes, or they could live on planetary estates, buying up acreage and forcing working-class people to live in overcrowded space stations. They could genetically engineer a zoo full of bizarre animals. They could move away from the capital and buy an entire planet. Even with those extravagances, I’m thinking too small.
What would you do with the wealth of millions of planets at your disposal? Let me know in a comment below.
Update: Part 3 has been posted