Asking and Answering the Wrong Questions
Bill Quick

Do We Care If The Poor Don’t Work?

Well, we should. Some of us don’t. But we should.

But it’s also possible to argue that as a rich, post-scarcity society, we shouldn’t really care that much about whether the poor choose to work. The important thing is just making sure they have a decent standard of living, full stop, and if they choose Keynesian leisure over a low-paying job, that’s their business.

No, actually. No. It is not possible to argue this in front of anyone with a functioning brain, for more than three seconds.

Sure it is. What’s obvious here, though, is that neither Douthat nor the author criticizing him actually understand the subject under discussion.

Excuse me a moment while I run over and read Douthat’s screed.

Okay, I’m back. Douthat is clueless about the nature of a true post-scarcity economy, just as he is clueless about the implications of Moore’s Law when he says:

When economists look ahead to the possibilities awaiting our grandchildren, they often see this divide widening even further, as the digital economy delivers rich rewards to certain kinds of highly educated talent, while revolutions in robotics eliminate many of today’s low-skilled, low-wage jobs.

But it’s okay, because Laura’s argument at Ace’s joint collapses under a similar burden of failed understanding and imagination.

So let’s get that “post-scarcity economy” thing cleared up first, eh?

Huh. I was going to smack up a couple of tasty quotes that would provide a good definition of post-scarcity, but I couldn’t find any. So I guess I’ll roll my own.

A post-scarcity economy is one in which anything you want is free.

Impossible! you belch. Maybe. But maybe not. There are no physical limitations preventing the notion. If you had a magic wand you could use to turn any chunk of stray atoms into something you wanted, that would do it.

Aha! you shout. Magic wands don’t exist!

Clarke’s three laws – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

We’re not going to have magic wands, but there is at least a reasonable chance we will manage strong AI, full nanotechnology, and robust replication systems.

The combination of the three just might be all we need.

Consider the naysayers and their arguments:

If everything is free, then nothing has value, and without value, there can be no economy.

That’s semantics, actually.  So we call it a post-scarcity society rather than an economy.  Happy?  Economics is an intellectual artifact.  Don’t mistake the map for the territory.

Somebody will still have to work in order to produce all that free stuff for the greedy layabouts.

Well, that’s what the strong AI is for.  Artificially intelligent machines could run those replicators and program that nanotech and, in fact, that’s how SF writers who think about stuff like this all the time usually get around that problem.  It’s sort of a deus ex machina, but that old Latin chestnut is about as good a description of an intelligent machine as anybody’s ever come up with.

All of the hugger-mugger about how the human race will curl up and die without the goad of getting out of bed in the morning and dragging its ass down to the ditch or the office is, of course, hysterical hooey.  Consider our ancestors:

Original affluent society – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The basis of Sahlins’ argument is that hunter-gatherer societies are able to achieve affluence by desiring little and meeting those needs/desires with what is available to them. This he calls the “Zen road to affluence, which states that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate” (Sahlins, Original). This he compares to the western way towards affluence, which he terms as the “Galbraithean way” where “man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited…” and “the gap between means and ends can eventually be narrowed by industrial productivity”.[2] Thus Sahlins argues that hunter-gatherer and western societies take separate roads to affluence, the former by desiring little, the latter by producing much. Through this comparison Sahlins also stresses that hunter-gatherer societies cannot be examined through an ethnocentric framework when measuring their affluence. For example, one cannot apply the general principles of economics (principles which reflect western values and emphasize surplus) to hunter-gatherers nor should one believe that the Neolithic Revolution brought unquestioned progress.

Got that?  Boil it down, and it says that our hunter-gatherer forebears mostly laid around on their asses, except for getting up once or twice a month and running down a mammorth or something.   Since that mammoth gave them everthing they wanted (they were ignorant of such things as crack cocaine, Brittany Spears MP3s, and smartphones) they essentially lived in a society free from want.  A post-scarcity society, in fact.  (They didn’t have much of anything we would recognize as an economy).

Humans are nothing if not infinitely adaptable.  It’s a genetic thing – you would understand.  Ms. Laura asks if Douthat would want his kid to grow up and live on the dole.

Wrong question.

Would you want your kid to grow up lacking for nothing, and free to live and learn and love pretty much as he wishes?

I pick door number two, Monty!

Will we get there?  I expect we will, and sooner than many realize.  But we’re not there yet, so talking about a current post-scarcity society, or even an imminent one, is likely simply a matter of not knowing what you’re talking about.  On either side of the issue.

You know who really, really hates the idea of a post-scarcity society?  The people who want to exploit scarcity to control you and everything about you.

Bill Quick

About Bill Quick

I am a small-l libertarian. My primary concern is to increase individual liberty as much as possible in the face of statist efforts to restrict it from both the right and the left. If I had to sum up my beliefs as concisely as possible, I would say, "Stay out of my wallet and my bedroom," "your liberty stops at my nose," and "don't tread on me." I will believe that things are taking a turn for the better in America when married gays are able to, and do, maintain large arsenals of automatic weapons, and tax collectors are, and do, not.


Asking and Answering the Wrong Questions — 12 Comments

  1. A post-scarcity economy is one in which anything you want is free.

    I want a pony. With wings. That flies. And poops chocolate.

    I want a small country full of slaves, willing to do whatever I direct.

    I want to be left alone, and not have to put up with having to see people fly by on their chocolate-pooping winged ponies (or 4-wheelers, even).

    I want a button I can push, and all the Marxists and Islamists in the world keel over dead.

    Seriously, for a moment, though. Are you proposing that the Singularity will automatically overcome all scarcity issues? Living space, rare metals, impact from psychopaths and politicians (but I repeat myself.)?

    The definition of Economics I grew up with was regarding the effects of scarce resources, allocation and use thereof. I think there are still resources that will be scarce. And cause conflicts.

    Not that I argue with the direction, or the positive results. I just see more issues and not a panacea.

    • Are you proposing that the Singularity will automatically overcome all scarcity issues?

      Look into the possibilities inherent in the three technologies I mentioned: Strong nanotechnology, robust replication, and Artificial Intelligence. And resources aren’t really scarce. They’re just hard for us to access in some cases. But most of those difficulties would vanish in a tech singularity. That’s just the nature of the Singularity.

      Here’s why something like a Singularity is a singularity: You find yourself unable to think about it in terms of your accustomed reference points – points like “scarcity,” and “economics.” That may well be akin to trying to comprehend supercomputing from a reference point limited by a belief that Tree Gods control everything.

      Yeah, I know it sounds like a magic wand. But so would an iPhone to a sophisticate of the 18th century.

  2. “Would you want your kid to grow up lacking for nothing, and free to live and learn and love pretty much as he wishes?”

    I don’t think the answer is a simple “Yes”. I have a feeling misery will accompany those that grow up in this circumstance. It’s hard to contemplate a society that truly has no scarcity, no need for work, no need for… anything.

  3. My initial reaction is pretty much the same as lpdbw’s. The standard definition of economics is the science that studies the allocation of scarce resources between competing ends. From that standpoint a “post-scarcity economy” is a literal contradiction. Personally I prefer the definition of economics as the science that studies the production of wealth under the division of labor, but I think the same kind of contradiction applies — if everything you want is free, then there’s no need for production or the division of labor, hence no economics. But, as Bill says, this is arguing semantics. A society in which everything everybody wants is free wouldn’t have an economy, but who cares? It wouldn’t need one.

    I’m just not convinced that, taken literally, such a thing is possible. People’s desires are not compossible. People often want things that conflict with things other people want, other things they want, and with the facts of reality. I also don’t think you can get around the “somebody has to work” argument by citing strong AI — artificial intelligences capable of that kind of production and planning would be somebodies in their own right, and they’d be doing the work. Which either means we’d have to offer them something in exchange, which we would have to produce, or we’d be offering them nothing, in which case we’re talking about a slave society, or they don’t want anything, in which case we’re pets.

    What I think is possible is an economy that is so amazingly productive by our standards that the amount of labor required to keep it running is a negligible fraction of our lives. Everybody, in effect, would be independently wealthy. You can see early signs of this transition in the gradual shrinking of the standard work week over the last couple of hundred years, and the development of the concept of retirement. Keep increasing productivity and the time spent working shrinks from 40 hours a week to 20, to 10, to a day every other week, to a day a month, to an hour a year. Push the logic far enough and you wind up with “Yeah, my great-grandfather actually worked a whole day in his life, the crazy workaholic, and that’s why my family is so rich.” Or, alternately, people might start retiring at younger and younger ages. Or provide voluntary charitable support to larger and larger numbers of people because they can easily afford to do so.

    • When you push it that far, though, Kyle, you get into “distinction without difference” territory.

      AI personhood is a whole nother issue, and worth several big posts on its own. For the purposes of this discussion, I was assuming benevolent AI (maybe baseline programmed into the digital equivalent of a DNA strand?) but I don’t see how that necessarily would make us “pets.”

      Is an infant human a pet? Or a human child? Simply because the adults feed, clothe, shelter, and otherwise provide for their needs?

      • Infants and children eventually grow up to support themselves through their own production. Pets don’t. In the “AIs produce, humans consume” scenario the humans remain dependent on a continuing basis, which makes them more like pets than children.

        Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad being a pet, as long as the owner was benevolent. This is essentially the setup of Iain Banks’ “Culture” novels. (See also Jack Williamson’s classic The Humanoids for an old-school counterpoint on how this can go horribly wrong.)

        • This is essentially the setup of Iain Banks’ “Culture” novels

          Yep. I think I’ve mentioned them two or fifty times.

          Although the Culture denizens don’t consider themselves as pets. And they probably wouldn’t give much of a damn about your opinion on the matter, either.

          The Puritan work ethic isn’t actually eternal, no matter what the Puritan god says.

  4. From that standpoint a “post-scarcity economy” is a literal contradiction.

    Huh. You must have missed it where I wrote:

    If everything is free, then nothing has value, and without value, there can be no economy.

    That’s semantics, actually. So we call it a post-scarcity society rather than an economy. Happy? Economics is an intellectual artifact. Don’t mistake the map for the territory.

    UPDATE: Er…never mind. I shoulda kept on reading. Sorry.

  5. ” artificial intelligences capable of that kind of production and planning would be somebodies in their own right, ”

    I see what he is saying here. Once someone built the first one they would have everything they ever wanted. No one else could buy it from them, nothing has any value to them except the magic wand itself.

    So we can hope for the benevolence of our fellow humans or we can worry that their robot armies will enslave us or ethnically cleanse us.

    For example, what if the Chinese get there first.