I met a stranger from a distant land. He told me of grand spaceports, shining plinths, vertiginous superscrapers, and a furious economic bustle that lifted my mercenary heart. His was a spacefaring race, you see. Deep in the hearts of the Galactic Barquentines his folk used to ply the starscape nestled the key to space travel: a core of refined phlebotinum.
Alas, the stranger's heart was heavy. In his land, the stellar vessels were lovingly crafted in his home country of Mungertopia, but every dry dram of raw phlebotinum was to be found in one place and one place only: the neighboring nation of Spivonostan. The Mungertopians were brilliant, productive engineers and scientists, notable for their grace, courage, and professionalism. Contrarily, the Spivonostanis were dour, dull, and poor. Phlebotinum mining had crowded out their traditional way of life and thanks to the conversion of (nearly) all of their physical capital, they were entirely dependent on trade with the Mungertopians to maintain their national income. This, the stranger said, weighed on his conscience. Commerce with his people had the effect, even if unintentional, of sowing dependency in the Spivonostani culture. It was exploitation, so he claimed.
"Hold on a minute," I rejoined. "Isn't there a decent case that they're the ones exploiting you?"
"Huh?" He sounded puzzled and a little amused, as if he was caught between two possibilities: I was either trying to make a dumb joke or our meeting had turned my thoughts to jelly. Either way, there was patient pity in his reply. "We're rich, they're poor. We have an advanced economy, they produce just one thing. They're, in your own words of euvoluntary exchange, desperate to trade."
"But you can't make your spacecraft fly without what they have. Consider yourselves enlightened. Where I come from, our political leaders have installed puppet governments just so we could put cheap bananas on our cereal in the morning." I reminded myself of the embarrassing news coverage I watched as a boy of Operation Just Cause and the terrible rout of Noriega. "Look, your economy is just as dependent on theirs as theirs is on yours." I was warming to the topic. "The trade may not be fully euvoluntary, but it's at least voluntary, right? You said it yourself, the alternatives would be to return to their traditional ways, making both your lands worse off." I wanted to insert a pregnant pause, but he mistook my silence for an invitation to rebut.
"But all that wealth ends up in the hands of the oligarchs that own the mines." I could almost feel the indignation spill from his clenched hands. "They own the mining equipment, they keep wages low, they buy up any patch of land that has even a remote chance of having a vein of phlebotinum underneath it. Trading with these people empowers these oligarchs. It's immoral."
"So you're worried about the inequality in Spivonostan?" I was careful to be a little vague here, intentionally not specifying exactly what sort of inequality he found worrisome.
"That's one part of it, yes. The average Spivonostani earns but a tiny share of the massive gains from trade generated by the phlebotinum economy." I could tell that he was on the cusp of making a common error: comparing his own situation with that of the target of his pity. Luckily, he caught his mistake and proceeded, "I'll grant that they're better off mining phlebotinum on the evidence that they've chosen to do so without being coerced beyond the promise of what we Mungertopians can offer in trade, but Justice demands that gains from trade be proportional. Isn't that what your Aristotle said?"
"It is. Where I come from, prudent, thrifty foreigners save and borrow in the hopes of migrating to my prosperous country to create a better life for themselves and their family. Can't the Spivonostanis do the same?" My pride and prejudice have a hard time passing up an opportunity to flog open borders, after all. "Wouldn't free migration at least mitigate some of the exploitation problems you cite?" I hoped that some elementary economics was part of his education. "Good outside options should help increase the reserve wages of the workers in Spivonostan."
"Would that this were true, young man." I was a little taken aback at being called young by this dude who looked barely out of his twenties. Maybe they've solved the aging problem in Mungertopia. I shrugged it off. "Our land is poisonous to the Spivonostanis. They can't survive here." He sounded forlorn, as if this were old, painful news. "This is a technological problem, not economic, not political, not even philosophical."
At this, he bid me a brief farewell and got back inside his wee spaceship. I watched the "my other ship is a Corellian Corvette" bumper sticker dwindle in the distance as he flew off. And I pondered.
You see, we here in the affluent West are awfully accustomed to being the Mungertopians. We're in the "first world", we're comfortable, we're rich, and we can afford the luxury of indulging condescension towards the rest of the world. But if the Singularity folks are right, we'll sooner or later find ourselves in the shoes of the Spivonostanis and it will be our brain emulation (or maybe AI) descendants who'll be trading asymmetrically with us. And it's worth considering if we want ourselves or our flesh-and-blood descendants to end up the butt of condescending paternalism of the sort we find in the new imperialism.
Why is it worth considering? Because one of the answers to Andrea's Question is that ideas, particularly given weight and time to germinate, can influence attitudes. A revival of bourgeois dignity can help not only boost human flourishing here and now, but it can underpin the approach our mechanical descendants have towards our meatier progeny. The only downside might be to stick a thumb in the eye of our contemporaries who so greatly enjoy fancying themselves to be better judges of our behavior than we are.
Of course, given the right temperament, that might be a virtue rather than a vice.