Post Scarcity Economy

The idea of a post-scarcity world is an interesting one.
It even has a wiki page about it.

It defines a post scarcity economy as follows:

Post-scarcity (also styled postscarcity) is a hypothetical form of economy or society in which goods, services and information are free,[1] or practically free. This would require an abundance of fundamental resources (matter, energy and intelligence), in conjunction with sophisticated automated systems capable of converting raw materials into finished goods.
Now as I have said in other blog posts, we have not arrived at the post scarcity economy. There is still quite a lot of human labor that exists. However, many of themes present in the post scarcity economy are manifesting themselves in various ways.

On the one hand, a post scarcity economy represents utopia. A world in which we all have enough and everyone can live a good life. On the other hand, the transition to such a state could be devastating and actually lead to social collapse.

Again, in the wiki numerous forms of both utopias and distopias are present.


 Fictional post-scarcity societies include varied settings, such as The Queendom of Sol in the series of the same name by Wil McCarthy, "the Festival" and agalmic economics from Singularity Sky and Accelerando by Charles Stross, and the United Federation of Planets from the Star Trek series.


There have also been fully dystopian science fiction societies where all people's physical needs are provided for by machines, but this causes humans to become overly docile, uncreative and incurious.
 ...People's Republic of Haven, in which each citizen is due a Basic Living Stipend. With most of their population "on the dole", productivity and their economy collapse.
 Frederik Pohl's "The Midas Plague," resources and luxuries are so common, that the poor must bear the burden of consuming and disposing of the bounty, as well as working at meaningless jobs to produce more meaningless plenty;
. Since all material objects have become essentially free, the only commodity of value is human labor, and a feudal society and a slave economy is the result.

How Can Abundance Lead to Distopia?

It must be crossing one's mind now... how can abundance lead to distopia?
The idea seems always unintuitive. Yet let us look at how we have actually handled these issues in our current and past society to see an example.


In my view communism became a political reality as a result of the industrial revolution.
It finally became possible for people to imagine a society of abundance...

If only they could organize it.

Indeed, I would suggest that it has been possible to have something like a post scarcity world ever since the industrial revolution. It is thus of no surprise that many academics and other saw the appeal of communism. If we all just did our part, everyone could have a good life.

It is not hard to imagine a guided political force assigning jobs to people. These 5 people become farmers and produce 5 tonnes of wheat a year. Another 5 become bakers making bread. Another 2 become skilled poets and writers. We just go down the list of needs in society and we assign people and we will have utopia.

Such was the dream of communism. Yet it turned into a nightmare.
For the simple reason.

The distributional question IS the question.

This evades most academics who look at planned systems like communism. Being system thinkers, they imagine society as just another machine. Parts are fungible. Place a screw there. Hammer a nail there. Assign a person to work here. Assign a person to work there.

But people are not machines. They have their own sense of their life and their own sense of what they want to do. Imagine being in a communist planning society. In charge of assigning people to roles.

At first, it seems easy. You know John who is a good teacher, he should teach.
You know Kelly who is a great doctor, she should do medicine.
Robert is a great engineer, he should design cars.
It all sounds so simple..

Until you get to jobs that people don't really want to do, but they have to.
Who gets to be sent to the mines to mine iron so Robert can design cars?
Would you do this to anyone you like?

It is a system ripe for corruption. Those in the central planning committees assign the nice jobs to their friends and other special interest groups and people.  The bad jobs are given to the rest.

And better still being a doctor is hard work. Why would Kelly work the night shift in the emergency room is she lives the same quality of life as the secretary in a 9-5 office?

As you dwell into the details of such planned societies like communism, you must look at society not only as a machine, but as individual people. In this, you will people's sense of fairness, of work, of desire... all come to fruition blowing a hole into the gap of any central planner.

To top it off, central planners tend to have 'greater' goals and do not limit themselves to just providing for society. The USSR focused heavily of military and space endeavors. Would you want to work hard in the mines in Siberia so your country could build weapons to go to space in which you have no interest.

This is why communism has always resulted in tyranny.
The central planners MUST always resort to force to force people to do the work they have decided needs to be done.

If you look at our society today and see the social strife caused by labor unions, skilled worker shortages, migrant laborers... then you can see the problems of trying to control society to such an extent. It necessarily requires force to control properly.

In short... while central planners can imagine a utopia, they forget the distribution question is the question and it tends to result in a distopia as corruption and special interests take over and increase in their use of force to make people behave in the way they want.

The distributional question can be summed up as:
  1. Who gets how much
  2. What do they do

The Collapse of the Housing Market

The collapse of the housing market in 2008 and the response of governments around the world is equally telling. If I were to tell you of a future where everyone could have cheap affordable housing and no one was left without a home, no doubt you would think it great. If I were to tell you that everyone owned their own home and no one needed a mortgage anymore, no doubt you would think it great.

And yet, what we would consider a great thing; a utopian ideal; is the most horrific event our leaders can imagine.  So much of our economy is driven by housing (construction, mortgages, finance, legal, home renovations...) that any decline in need for these would collapse our economic system.

Indeed, at the heart of this is that underlying value that our leaders will not accept a change in who gets to benefit the most in society. It is taken as a given in most societies that bankers must be wealthy; that real estate must always be a good business. They will use whatever means they have available to bring about scarcity, such that it drives the economy. Whether that is extremely low interest rates, government backing of the housing industry, extreme urban planning, high rates of immigration, encouraging foreign investment...

Our current political atmosphere will not accept a post-scarcity world and you can see how they will continue to try to create scarcity even if none exists.

The housing market is the best indication of this as most developed nations have at or below replacement population levels. This would naturally mean a post-scarcity housing economy. The cost of housing or shelter should be near free. Yet, they are unwilling to let everyone have an easy way to have shelter. They MUST drive the housing market to scarcity.

The Increasing WorkLoad and a Feudal class

It would seem that in a society where so much work is automated, outsourced, computerized, that people would in fact have less work to do and we would all have more time on our hands.
Perhaps work could be shared and we could all be more egalitarian and get rid of poverty.

Yet, here we are working harder.
An ever increasingly complex tax and legal code creates lots of hard work for finance and legal people.
Societies compete under free trade working harder and harder to out do each other in the hopes of earning that business producing untold numbers of gadgets and trinkets.
Hoards of government programs aimed at creating jobs
Public sector workers continue expanding their domains and workloads.
Police officers and lawyers continue to work hard at a pointless war on drugs.
Layers and layers of bureaucracy toil in the realms of the public sector writing reports and managing layers of management producing little of tangible value.
Public sector workers work overtime as police officers and nurses and others work to be 'efficient'.
All the while masses of unemployed and underemployed workers scrape by with complete and utter job insecurity
Both parents work hard to support a family given the cost of housing and life, and this creates even a greater need for more work by child-care workers.

All this has been done to make sure some people are 'better' than other people.
A police officer or teacher MUST have a better job than everyone else in society... so says the rule book of society. So they don't job share and they invent work that doesn't produce tangible benefits to society or may not be what many people value.
A lawyer must always have a good job so we invent and complicate society with legal rules.

Society has responded to a lack of jobs with created work and increasing workload.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but it is what we have done.

In short, we have created a government-administered service economy.
Government backed sector provided 'good jobs' for those in those fields. Banking, public sector, legal...
The rest of society not privileged to be connected to the government works hard in service jobs (restaurants...) or the widget sector to sell their goods to the that sector.

Ancient Rome Connection

 This is not unlike the service economy of ancient Rome where the privileged sector was composed of government bureaucracy and the military. These were given direct funding and privilege from the government. The rest of society worked hard as tradesmen and artisans to serve these people. The artisans and tradesmen then had an even lower class of slaves.

The correlation today is as follows:

1. Roman Bureaucracy and Military = Public sector and big finance
These are given direct positions of money and privilege. In our modern society, this could be expanded to other areas, but I see these two as the biggest.

2. Roman Tradesmen and Artisans = Innovators (Apple, other tech companies), home repair people.
These are good jobs, but they have to compete and they increasingly tend to serve those in the first group.

3. Roman Slaves and underclass = migrant workers, uneducated people, those left behind by automation and free trade...
These are people whose purpose is to serve the needs of people in the entertainment and have their lives dictated to by the bureaucracy. They might even be recipients of government handouts.

As the 'economy' slow down, the way to 'drive' the economy is to increase the spending power of 1, which will drive their ability to purchase items from 2 and 3, who must then work harder and harder to earn money from 1.

Interestingly, much like Ancient Rome itself, the prosperity of 2 began to dwindle sharply. 
Just as the 'good' private sector jobs in the Western world today are decreasing as they are forced to compete with free-trade. So to did Rome experience a vast shift to the utilize the labor of other areas. The result was ancient Rome becoming a service or mercantile economy.

With government and bankers/traders at the top, and a huge underclass of people.
This is course of great resemblance to today.

Needless to say, it doesn't last long.

//add more
//add making of gadget, commercial clothing culture...
//addiction to growth and innovation


As you can see, as far as our actions are concerned, we are certainly not making decisions that would enable a post-scarcity economy. If anything, almost anytime an issue comes up, the government attempts to force a scarcity economic condition upon the people.

One can easily see how despite having the technology for a utopian post-scarcity economy, that we could in reality end up in a very distopian future.


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