A Great Deal of What People Say About Radical Life Extension is Utterly Divorced From Reality

As I might have remarked upon back in the Fight Aging! archives, there is something about the idea of greatly extending human life through medical technology that sends otherwise sane people off the deep end. Mention the topic and you'll hear screeds on class warfare, relinquishment of progress in medicine, death before inequality, and visions of immortal tyrants lording it over mortal serfs. Nonsense, the lot of it, all utterly divorced from the history that shows us time and again exactly how change, even radical change, progresses in a technological society - but people say this stuff anyway.

there are a great many unrealistic viewpoints in the world that would hinder or halt longevity research, either directly or indirectly. Viewpoints like "the more regulation the better", "prove that you will do no harm at all before we'll let you move forward," or "let us redistribute all property and remove incentives for success and progress, for inequality for any is worse than death for all" spring to mind. In this latter context, "social justice" is a particularly pernicious phrase, being a shorthand for forceful redistribution of wealth by government fiat - institutionalized theft, aimed exactly at the point at which it will do the greatest damage to progress by removing incentives for success.

The world works this way: we can labor and trade to move everyone ahead, benefits for all and inequalities for all, or we can redistribute what presently exists - which at best leads to stagnation and no progress, and at worst becomes a repetition of Soviet era Russia and Eastern Europe. In both cases, inequality will be there - you can't kill it. The choice is whether it's inequality in comparative wealth or inequality in poverty, disease and rubble. Progress is absolutely dependent on freedom and the incentives of wealth earned through hard work and invention.

People react to the prospect of rejuvenation biotechnology in ways that are completely different from their reactions to, say, the highly effective next generation of cancer therapies. You don't hear people declaring that late stage treatments for cancer will split the world into warring factions of haves and have nots, or that all development must be halted until it can be offered to everyone. If you walk through all the varied nonsense spouted on the topic of society and radical life extension, and replace rejuvenation with stem cell heart therapies, or cures for cancer, or organs such as blood vessels grown to order - then you might start to see just how nutty it sounds. Medical technologies just as revolutionary have emerged in the past, and will continue to do so without being hoarded, restricted to the rich, tearing the world asunder, turning brother against brother, and causing cats to lie with dogs.

But aging and longevity has a lot of baggage, it seems. So I see that Sonia Arrison, blogging on radial life extension at the Volokh Conspiracy, took some time early on to address the standard nonsense on class warfare and social justice style "equality":

Could class conflict or even warfare break out over life-extension technologies? It is true that technology is rarely adopted by everyone at the same time, and when life-extending science hits the market, it will almost certainly be used by the wealthy first. ... New technologies are almost always adopted by the rich first, but over time they eventually reach everyone, and the historical record shows that the distribution of new technology is speeding up, not slowing down. For instance, it took forty-six years for one-quarter of the population to get electricity and thirty-five years for the telephone to get that far. It took only sixteen years, however, for one-quarter of American households to get a personal computer, thirteen years for a cell phone, and seven years for Internet access. A more vital example may be AIDS drugs which started off costing about $30,000 per patient per year 15 years ago. Now, better drugs are available and cost $100 per patient. ... The fact that the first users of life-extending technologies will tend to be wealthy increases the chances that the technologies will thrive and eventually reach everybody. Without private investors who believe in the value of a new product and want to support its development, many great ideas would be stillborn. History bears this out, from Queen Elizabeth owning some of the first silk stockings, to wealthy New Yorkers paying $20 in 1915 for a three-minute phone call to San Francisco.

I've long thought it rather sad that so much of our society is bludgeoned into the chattering classes' view of everything laid out in terms of class, conflict, redistribution, forced organization in a top-down fashion, and all the other unfortunate ideals that come with strong centralization of power. Their viewpoints are completely divorced from any sensibility as to how progress actually occurs, or how wealth is in fact created. They are thus one of the first barbarians hammering at the gate: people ignorant of the causes of the success of their society, yet still wealthy enough to be somewhat shielded from the immediate consequences of such ignorance. It never lasts forever, of course: in the end this will come to the same sorry end as Rome or the British Empire, and the US will become a shell of what it once was, a population living amidst the ruins of past grandeur, so constrained by their government as to have forgotten how to achieve greatness and prosperity once again.

The only silver lining is that scientific knowledge is no longer lost alongside the roots of wealth and prosperity; the world has become too small for that, and knowledge will move to the places where it can be best preserved. So those glories, at least, will continue even when the research community that produced them can no longer be sustained.

Comments

"In this latter context, "social justice" is a particularly pernicious phrase, being a shorthand for forceful redistribution of wealth by government fiat - institutionalized theft"

I appreciate this is a legitimate point of view, but I sometimes feel like you're unnecessarily confronting people with a false choice between holding left-wing political views (which I do) and believing in radical life extension. The two are not at all incompatible - in fact there's a perfectly straightforward social justice argument for pressing on with research into radical life extension, namely that in the long run it's the only way of comprehensively addressing the current terrible inequalities in life expectancy.

The problem with confronting people with this false choice is, of course, that a large number of people will simply say "OK, in that case I'll stick with my left-wing views". If you only want the support of conservatives and libertarians, it's going to be a much tougher road ahead.

Posted by: James Kelly at October 7th, 2011 1:09 AM

"For instance, it took forty-six years for one-quarter of the population to get electricity and thirty-five years for the telephone to get that far. It took only sixteen years, however, for one-quarter of American households to get a personal computer, thirteen years for a cell phone, and seven years for Internet access."

Uh huh. And what about the other three quarters? And the non-American households? When you're selective with your data like that, it's no surprise when you get exactly the statistics you want.

I'm as rabidly pro life extension as anyone you're likely to meet, but the belief that the arrival of SENS like therapies wouldn't perpetuate economic disparity is wishful thinking. Human beings in places not far from here routinely starve to death while the rest of us are obese and stricken with Type II Diabetes. People with urgent medical needs in our own communities languish without treatment because they don't have insurance, while teenage girls get nose-jobs. It's happening now and it will continue to happen. It's no reason not to pursue life extension therapies as aggressively as possible, but utopian fantasies about a future where everyone has access to age reversing medicine are just that - fantasy.

It's the wrong message, and repeating it depicts the life extension community as being complacent about the realities of what they are proposing. The right message is this: Many people who would otherwise live will die because they don't have access to these therapies. Right now that's true of everyone. Soon it will only be true for some. Either way, this is unacceptable to us. We must do everything in our power to ensure not only that life extension therapies are brought into existence, but that the infrastructure necessary for their widespread distribution exists also. The battle against the diseases of aging does not end when we have achieved our scientific goals: It ends when every person on earth has access to the technologies that resulted from those goals.

Posted by: Ben at October 7th, 2011 6:34 AM

I strongly second James' point above. I hold center-left political views (equal opportunity and providing a basic level of subsistence to everyone being very important values for me) but I am also a very strong supporter of rejuvenation technology. The two are certainly not incompatible. The libertarian stuff has a grain of truth (particularly as it relates to the FDA's excessively burdensome regulatory structure) but is a pretty big turnoff for people like myself when government is held up to be the cause of the United States' current problems, which is transparently not the case. While it's not going to put me off supporting SENS and similar approaches, it may well prevent the casual reader from reading further.

As to whether rejuvenation technologies will become widely available, this may be more of an issue in the United States, but I expect that in the other industrialized countries (all of which have national health care of some sort), this type of treatment will become available to everyone shortly after it becomes a technical possibility. On the one hand, can you imagine the electoral fate of a government that decides not to provide life extension for all its citizens when it is already committed to providing quality health care to all of them? Yeah, they would be able to imagine it, as well, and would act to prevent it. On the other hand, I expect that many governments will see this as a way of dealing with the demographic crisis that is afflicting all of the developed world (and will soon be a developing world problem as well). I really don't see this being a wealthy-only treatment for very long, unless it turns out to cost truly absurd amounts of money, in which case I don't expect it will be developed at all (too small of a market, R&D would be too expensive).

Posted by: WestCoaster at October 7th, 2011 9:15 AM

I certainly agree that the arguments made against life extension are absurd, and you point that out eloquently in the first part of your post Reason.

That said, some redistribution of income is ESSENTIAL to scientific advancement. In the US, much scientific advancement occurred due to govt programs like the GI bill, which allowed a whole generation to get a university education. Without such programs, much of a country's population couldn't afford even a simple education, and the knowledge pool would shrink. That's why in some EU countries the govt actually pays kids to go to university, because they know it'll have a positive effect for the country. It's no coincidence that ALL scientifically advanced countries redistribute some income and invest in education programs for their population.

Looking at things through the strict prism of Libertarian ideology warps the world and handicaps one's ability to see many of the possibilities and solutions that reality offers.

Posted by: KC at October 7th, 2011 4:25 PM

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