Both Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels and Frank Herbert's Dune books imagine empires in space. But everything we know about technological change and development suggests that an empire could never spur rapid enough technological development to make it in space, argues an article in Time Magazine.
Writing in Time, Southern Utah University economics professor David Berri argues there are two different kinds of societies — extractive ones, where a handful of rulers take wealth from the rest of the population, and inclusive ones, which are more equal. Extractive societies actively discourage technological change "since change threatens the power of the elites." And since technological change is the main driver of economic growth, Berri argues there was basically no economic growth "for almost all of human history." None. (What about population growth, though?)
So Berri argues that an "Empire" or an aristocracy as depicted in Herbert or Asimov is incongruous with space conquest:
How could the future be dominated by an "empire"? Empires are generally based on extractive institutions; with significant resources generated by members of the society being claimed by the Emperor/Empress and his/her allies (this is explicit in Herbert's Dune). But, such societies would not generally promote the technological change necessary to settle and connect millions of planets. Perhaps the basic economics behind the stories told in many works of science fiction isn't quite right...
Economist Robert Fogel captured in one graph how technology has only suddenly begun to change at a rapid rate. As Fogel notes, for centuries people made no advances with respect to simple devices like a plow. But since 1900, we have gone from the invention of a basic plane developed by the Wright brothers to landing on the moon. Or – in more recent news – the iPhone many people enjoy today would have cost $3.6 million with the technology available just 20 years ago. Such rapid technological change comes about when you change people's incentives.
It's an intriguing argument, although probably leans a little too hard on some broad generalizations. (And didn't the Roman Empire make some pretty noteworthy technological advances?) The whole thing is definitely worth checking out.
Update: Added a question mark to the headline, since lots of people are pointing out very sound reasons why this thesis is somewhat questionable. [Time]