I’m going to be writing a series of blog articles about far-future changes. This is the first one. In writing these articles, I’m not going to be addressing current events or immediate problems (which means I may interrupt the series from time to time with something that needs more urgent attention), but rather considering long-term implications of advancing technology and the changes that it brings. I’m calling this series “The Advanced Civilized Paradigm.”
Here’s the basic idea behind the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. If we look at the way our precivilized ancestors lived from the first emergence of the human species, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years in the past, until the development of agricultural communities around 10,000 years ago, we find a persistent pattern. People lived in small communities of mostly-related people. They had no formal government or organized religion. This pattern persisted all over the world wherever people lived by foraging and hunting, for tens of thousands of years. This kind of persistent pattern or template of society I’m calling a “paradigm,” and this original, very old one in particular I call the “Precivilized Paradigm.”
Over a few thousand years, the early agricultural communities developed into city-states, and as they did, another pattern emerged that was also found all over the world, and that lasted for a long time, although not nearly as long as the Precivilized Paradigm did. This pattern included hereditary monarchy, a hereditary warrior-aristocrat elite class, a class of slaves or serfs at the bottom of the heap who worked for the benefit of the elite under threat of force, formal state religion, subordination of women to men. This pattern can be seen all over the world wherever people lived in cities in agrarian communities, with only rare and partial exceptions. It lasted from the emergence of the first city-states in the fifth or sixth millennium BCE and endured until relatively modern times. I call this pattern the “Classical Civilized Paradigm.”
Starting in Europe in roughly the 16th century CE, this pattern began to morph into something different and we’re still in a transition stage. It’s not at all clear where we’re going, but we certainly haven’t achieved any stable form that is likely to endure for as long as the Classical Civilized Paradigm did, let alone the Precivilized Paradigm. Maybe there won’t be any. Maybe we’ll just continue in a progressive upheaval forever. Or maybe not; maybe there’s a practical limit on the advance of technology and the social changes that accompany it, beyond which we’ll continue to progress but more slowly, with refinements on what’s already been developed, but nothing revolutionary, the way the printing press was revolutionary, or the steam engine, or electricity, or radio, or the assembly line, or the robotic factory, or the Internet.
For purposes of this writing series, I’m going to assume the latter is the truth: that there’s a practical end to all this, however far we are from it at the moment. With that in mind, I’m going to explore some logical “end states” of visible developments.
What will the economy be like when there is no such thing as a job?
What will religion be like when there are no barriers of language or communication?
What will government be like when instantaneous voting becomes a reality?
What does human mean in a world of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence?
I will deal with the first of those today in this entry.
What An Economy Does
An economy is a social arrangement that produces and distributes wealth. By “wealth,” I mean goods and services. (Money is not wealth. Money is a medium of exchange whereby wealth is traded.) Note that this description has two functions: production and distribution. An economy produces goods and services and gets them to the people that need or want them. An economy that succeeds in doing this is successful. An economy that fails in either function breaks down and fails in both. You can’t distribute wealth that hasn’t been produced. If it has been produced and you fail to distribute it, the economy stops producing it, too.
There are of course many ways of producing and distributing wealth, of varying sophistication. But no matter how complex the economy, or how many layers of esoteric financial manipulation are constructed on top of it, in the end it comes down to those two things. Can the economy produce enough wealth for everyone? Can it spread that wealth around so everybody has enough? To the extent it answers both questions “yes,” it works.
Now let’s consider a specific economic transaction and how it serves both functions at once: wages for work. First, we have to understand that our society assigns “ownership” of the material resources necessary to produce wealth on the basis of history, going back to someone who, in the far past, was able to grab those resources and hold them by force. In America, that generally means a white person who seized them from Native Americans. In other parts of the world, it’s slightly different, but it always comes down to forcible seizure at some point along the way. (Of course, if you look at the Native American from whom the white person seized the resources in question, and trace ownership back from that point, you find that somewhere along the way a Native American seized the resources from another Native American by force, too. The point here is not that white people are more wicked than Native Americans, but that ownership ultimately derives from piracy.)
Since the initial seizure, the property may have been traded many times by more peaceful and voluntary means. The history of these transactions ascertains who owns the material resources that are necessary to produce wealth. By societal convention, all wealth produced is considered “owned” by the “owner” of the material resources necessary to produce it – that is, of the land, natural resources, factories and infrastructure by which wealth is produced – and not by the people who do the work to produce it. The people who do the work to produce it, since they don’t own the wealth being produced, and can’t be coerced into doing the work by main force, must be paid to do it. That’s how our society has set things up, and how wealth is both produced and shared. Wages motivate workers to work, thus facilitating the creation of wealth, and at the same time provide workers (which, please note, means most of the population – this is important) with money (tokens of exchange, remember) that they can exchange for wealth (goods and services). In that way, wages also facilitate the distribution of wealth. They are the mechanism by which the wealth our economy produces is put into the hands of most of the people who receive it.
With me so far? It’s easy to take all of this for granted and consider it an artifact of nature, but every bit of it is a societal convention. There’s no reason why we MUST assign ownership of material resources to individuals, or say that the wealth produced is owned by the people who own the resources used to make it, that’s just the way we’ve done things for a long, long time, and so we seldom question it. What we have is a system in which rich and privileged people buy the labor of almost everyone else and then sell them the goods and services that their labor produced, thus resulting in a distribution of wealth. In terms of economic function, that’s what’s going on. Money (tokens of exchange, remember, not wealth) goes in a circle. It goes from the rich and privileged to everyone else, then it goes back to the rich and privileged (allowing wealth to be shared out to most everyone in the process), and the whole cycle starts over. The flow of money is two-way and circular, but the flow of wealth is one-way and linear.
Let me note in passing (I’ll come back to it) that wages for work aren’t a terribly good or reliable way to distribute wealth. They’re better than nothing, but they tend to distribute wealth rather poorly, resulting in frequent breakdowns of the economy such as we are currently experiencing. Wages tend to drop below productivity, and have to be propped up with regulations and laws and unions and other measures that fight against this tendency, and that doesn’t always work, as in fact it’s not working now. Keep that in mind as I discuss a long-term trend and take it to its logical conclusion.
With any work that’s done for pay, it’s theoretically possible to replace human beings by machinery. As a practical matter, for the present it’s not possible to do this with all work, but it’s increasingly possible with more and more of it. A tiny fraction of people work in agriculture today as did 150 years ago. Manufacturing as well has been increasingly automated (except in some poor countries where labor is actually cheaper than machines). Some services have been automated, too. For example, if you call the customer service department of many a company, you will find yourself talking to a voice-recognizing computer program that fields your questions or complaints. Such programs cannot, at present, completely replace human beings in customer service, but they can do the simpler sorting tasks and answer the easy questions that used to be done by low-level CS operators, and pass the hard stuff to humans just as low-level clerks would once pass hard questions to their supervisors. In principle, there is no reason why a machine could not be made to do any and all service work whatsoever. Machines could, in principle, run businesses, conduct sales, do scientific research, give artistic performances, or even perform the services of the sex trade. Some of these things would require considerable advances in technology over what is available at this time, but none of them is demonstrably impossible.
Let’s take this to its logical conclusion. Imagine a world in which machines can do anything human beings can do as well as humans or better. Every company that needs labor for any purpose no longer hires people, it buys or leases machines. Not only does it not hire any workers for the factory floor or the secretarial pool, it doesn’t even hire executive officers. Forget today’s CEOs of mega-corporations getting multimillion dollar bonuses. They’re unemployed, too. In fact, everyone is unemployed, and the only people who can make any money are the stockholders of the corporations.
Only problem is, they can’t make any money, either. The goods and services the companies are producing can only be sold to people who are making money, and under that scenario that means only to the stockholders. And there aren’t enough big stockholders to buy enough to keep business profitable – so everyone goes broke, the economy fails, and everyone in the world starves to death, leaving a world populated by nothing but robots.
Well, of course it wouldn’t actually go that far, because as soon as things got bad enough to really tick people off, we’d have a revolution of some kind. As this system we have in which rich and privileged people buy the labor of everyone else and then sell them the goods and services their labor produced goes from sort-of-working to not-working-at-all, it will be replaced with something that works better. But what?
Remember the exception above to “nobody’s making any money”? Stockholders still have wealth to trade and can still buy stuff, at least until the whole economy collapses. So a system in which all the work is done by machines would work just fine as long as everyone is a significant stockholder. Or, to put it another way, in which everyone has an owner’s share of the wealth produced.
In the far future, I believe that’s what we will have. We’re still a long way from it, but it’s the way our descendants will live.