In Which I Am a Raging Feminist

I’m sorry, McDonald’s, but this is bullshit.

My husband took our daughter to a McDonald’s the other day and got her a Happy Meal.[1]

“Boy or girl?” the cashier asked.

Now, for our daughter, age five, there can only be one answer to this question: She’s a girly girly girl GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL!!!

And don’t you ever forget it.

Our daughter has trouble wearing shorts — because they aren’t skirts. Anything that’s not a skirt or a dress simply must be for boys. Therefore it simply must be wrong for her. As in kicking and screaming and crying wrong.

The same goes for all kinds of things. Some of them have a modicum of conventional wisdom about them, while others do not. In recent weeks she’s said no, on gendered grounds, to chess, to playing drums, to being a racecar driver… and also to shirts with buttons. And to having a dog.

“Dogs are for boys,” she informed me, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “Cats are for girls.”

We have done nothing to promote this tendency. On the contrary, we both consider ourselves feminists, and we have told her, again and again, that most things aren’t for boys or girls. They just exist, and then boys and girls can choose them, whichever way they like. We don’t condemn her for any of her choices simply on the basis of gender. We paint her nails. We let her grow her hair long. Outside of her school uniform, her play clothes are as girly as one could possibly imagine. (“School uniforms are like the girliest thing in the world!” I told her. “No they’re not!” she answered.)

“Sometimes it’s fun to be girly,” I’ve told her. And she readily agrees. But then: “It’s not fun to be a boy.”

So back to McDonald’s, where the answer to the question — “Boy or girl?” — gets you either this:


Or this:


For boys? Coding, robots, and vocabulary words. For girls? Just say these nonsense names, and worry a little more about your looks. Leave the brainy stuff for the boys. They can handle it.

My husband wasn’t having it. “Boy,” he told the cashier, knowing full well a tantrum was on the way. And it came. We’re going to make an attempt tonight to actually play with the robot toy that we got, because hope springs eternal. And then we’re going to play chess.

Say what you will about the innateness of gender, but there isn’t a good goddamn thing that’s innate about Monster High. It’s all artifice, from start to finish. So too are robots, of course, but at least robots do something. The problem is that our culture attaches various things to to gender, and then passes them along to kids who haven’t realized that these things can become choices, and that not all choices are equal, and that when one chooses often enough, a choice becomes second nature. And, finally, the line between second nature and just-plain-old-nature is for us humans always a tad bit blurred.

Is gender innate? I suspect it’s a question mal posée. Simply trying to answer it will always put you a false position: You either end up naturalizing Monster High — or arguing that the penis and the vagina are social constructs. Or some other precisely analogous nonsense. Much better questions exist, starting with a very simple one: “What does gender do?

I’m a feminist because I don’t like what gender does.


[1] Yeah, I know, junk food. I’m willing to bet that on average my daughter eats healthier than you do, so she gets a pass once in a while. And you would too, if you ate like she does.

From “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” by Leo Tolstoy

“In spite of the unceasing efforts of those who happen to be in authority to conceal this and attribute some other significance to it, authority has always meant for man the cord, the chain with which he is bound and fettered, or the knout with which he is to be flogged, or the ax with which he is to have hands, ears, nose, or head cut off, or at the very least, the threat of these terrors. So it was under Nero and Ghenghis Khan, and so it is to-day, even under the most liberal government in the Republics of the United States or of France. If men submit to authority, it is only because they are liable to these punishments in case of non-submission. All state obligations, payment of taxes, fulfillment of state duties, and submission to punishments, exile, fines, etc., to which people appear to submit voluntarily, are always based on bodily violence or the threat of it.” – Leo Tolstoy

Strapped Uneasily to the Pinmaking Machine

The great intellectual historian J. G. A. Pocock summarizes one ambivalence in Adam Smith’s thought as follows:

[I]n Adam Smith the principle of the division of labor and exchange of goods and services has been at work since the beginning of history; it has led, not merely to the satisfaction of more human needs, but to the development of new human capacities, wants, and aspirations, so that the personality has been progressively diversified and enriched…. But we are aware of an intimation that some kind of optimum moment has been reached and passed. Those whose lives are spent in putting the heads on pins – the precursors of Marx’s proletariat and the assembly-line workers of the twentieth century – are not merely being denied the leisure to enjoy the multiplying goods now circulating in society; their actual capacity to do so is being systematically atrophied.

The prospect opens up of two discontinuous social classes: One enjoys a rich and diverse set of aspirations and capacities. The other puts heads on pins. It hardly matters how much money or free time you give the latter, it would seem: as long as a substantial chunk of their lives is to be spent putting the heads on pins, they will be pinheads.

A setup like this can’t last, it is feared. Yet the re-foundation of society – the arrival of what Pocock would have termed a “Machiavellian moment” – is typically brutal. On some level we all know this, whether or not we subscribe to the idea that industrial labor stultifies. We don’t really want a revolution. And so we remain, strapped uneasily to the pinmaking machine, wondering what that machine has in store for us.

Cultural manifestations of this fear are everywhere: Think of The Time Machine, or The Great Gatsby, or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or Taxi Driver, or Infinite Jest: In each, the social tension is not necessarily from any deliberate or calibrated oppression. It’s only incidentally economic. The tension arises from the various, usually class-mediated ways that people have of being bored in an industrial or post-industrial society, and the ways, often dangerously incompatible, that they find of alleviating that boredom, and of thereby forging an identity.

Pocock traces the origins of anxiety about trade and specialized labor back (way, way back) to 17th-century fears about the uncertain nature of commerce and credit, and before that, to the ancient notion that luxury tended to bring corruption: Think of Rome under the bad emperors, or Rousseau castigating d’Alembert for proposing to add a theater at Geneva, or of how the Persians were depicted in 300. Luxury makes people… weird. And scary. And decadent. Not that poverty and pinmaking are all that great either.

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment knew very well that their society was getting richer. They knew that it came from commerce. But they’d been taught all along that virtue derived from a simple domestic independence, and not from the vast wealth (or occasional ruin) that commerce could bring. The good citizen would have enough to be comfortable, or maybe a bit less than that, but he would never owe his livelihood to anyone else, and he would never have enough to bribe anyone. Writes Adam Ferguson:

It appears, therefore, that although the mere use of materials which constitute luxury, may be distinguished from actual vice; yet nations under a high state of the commercial arts, are exposed to corruption, by their admitting wealth, unsupported by personal elevation and virtue, as the great foundation of distinction, and by having their attention turned on the side of interest, as the road to consideration and honor.

Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson were both well aware of the problem. Both thought they had a partial solution to it, albeit one that worked best for the upper classes: commerce potentially brought the refinement of manners, the growth of learning, and – just possibly – a cosmopolitan ethic that would conduce to everyone treating one another a whole lot better. Under conditions like those, wealth might perhaps be enjoyed safely.

Smith seems to have been considerably less confident about the lower classes, because specialization of labor would bring monotony and triviality to a wide range of trades that formerly held purpose and dignity. Mechanization has carried us a lot farther than Smith could ever have imagined, and there seems no end in sight. These days, everything is turning into pinmaking.

To draw on a cultural manifestation from my own childhood: Anyone could be proud, in due measure, of being a pharmacist. No one could be proud of being the guy who screwed on the tops of the toothpaste tubes, as Charlie Bucket’s father did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. On that distinction may turn a citizen’s self-worth and perhaps even his allegiance to the system. Meanwhile, up at the top, we find fantasy and luxury.

But we can’t all be Willy Wonka. Not everyone is a creative genius. Not everyone even wants to be. Creative genius is one model of life authorship that will likely remain long after many others have been specialized and roboticized out of existence. But it’s not a very versatile model. Its extension to the masses seems unlikely. Other models of life authorship will have to be found.

Can we become a civilization that defines itself more by what it consumes than by what it makes? What will that do to our sense of dignity, or to our allegiances? Even within libertarianism — my own philo-capitalist tribe — many would balk at this kind of identity. Is it not parasitical? Are we not robbed of an important aspect of life authorship when we do not bring our full and considered efforts to bear on production?

(Are the wheels really going to come off? If Smith was right in his fears, shouldn’t this have happened already? An awful lot of time has elapsed between him and us. But one problem with Malthus, Marx, and the mythical Ludd is that their claims are never falsified by the fact that the reckoning hasn’t happened yet. The same may even be true of the evil effects of the specialization of labor. That the reckoning hasn’t come yet doesn’t mean that it never will. Other methods will have to be found to exorcise this demon.)

One very improbable model here might be parenting. Economic historians tell us that formerly most people had children out of – yes – biological necessity, but also out of economic necessity: Children were valued because they would provide economic support for the parents starting from a very young age, when they would work in the fields or in the family’s business. Children were, in economic terms, a production good. They served in, and derived their value from, the production process.

Nowadays children no longer begin work at a very young age. They are expected instead to spend many years in school, where they are economically unproductive, aside from building their own human capital. Raising a child is nonetheless more expensive than ever. Finally, in biological terms, children have become a choice. As a result, more people have children only if they expect to enjoy it. Once a production good, children have become a consumption good.

The language is crude, yes; the effects have been anything but: Children today are loved and valued beyond what our ancestors could manage. Our kids get literacy, leisure, and vaccinations. For many classes of crime, we have lessened our punishments since the eighteenth century, but for crimes against children, we have multiplied them. Children have entire dedicated fields of art and literature, distinctive modes of dress, and particular holidays not shared in any sense by adults. Done thoughtfully, it might not be so bad to find an increasing share of one’s self-worth, or purpose, or even virtue, in consumption.

Of course, the Eloi were the consummate children. Old fears die hard.

Throwback Thursday, 9/11 Edition

Here’s my essay from the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Virtually nothing has changed, except that we now know a lot more about what the NSA has been up to. What we’ve learned has only strengthened what I wrote below.


I thought my country was going crazy before 9/11. Turns out I was still young, and “crazy” was one of those things I had to learn as I got older.

I can work up a case for pre-9/11 crazy. I was appalled by Ruby Ridge and Waco. I doubted the wisdom of Balkan nation building. I thought the National Security Homeland Industrial Complex Administration was already taking a little too much lebensraum. For my taste, anyway. Ah, to be alive, and young, when politics was only a matter of taste!

So what was what, back in the way-back-when? Vince Foster. The most important individual in politics, until that woman. Earnest college Republicans pressed their it-wasn’t-a-suicide conspiracy theories on me, in e-mails that still unselfconsciously bore a chain of “Fwd: FWD: Re: Fwd:”s in the subject. Like grandma, but creepier. It was one of the many reasons I wouldn’t ever be a College Republican.

And then The Day. Oh, The Day. I hate to sound like I’m belittling a genuine and horrible act of evil, with all of the associated loss. It was evil. For thousands of families, it was an awful and permanent loss.

But for a nation, 9/11 was perilously close to Aunt Ada Doom seeing something narsty in the woodshed. America, can you spare a Nagasaki? A Dresden? A London blitz?

9/11 wasn’t a tenth the size of the blitz, my dear countrymen. It wasn’t 1/300th of Auschwitz.

Grim calculus invites a cynical reply: Do we really have to wait until things get that bad before we get pissed off? Of course not. 9/11 deserved a forceful response. Even a pissed-off response. It didn’t deserve a crazy response—nothing does—but crazy is exactly what we got.

On the morning of 9/11, I opened Netscape to check out the New York Times. It was down, but stuff was down all the time in 2001. No biggie. I headed for class at Johns Hopkins. I first heard the news in the car.

Class was cancelled, so I headed to the Anne Arundel County Property Tax Office for an errand. It too was closed—the Anne Arundel County Property Tax Office being the terrorists’ next obvious target.

Things went downhill fast after that. This September 20, 2001 Reason interview with Robert Higgs is uncannily prescient:

[W]hen a crisis of major significance occurs–something as large-scale and pervasive as the Great Depression or the World Wars–there’s an overwhelming public demand for government to act. In the 20th century, every national emergency has seen federal government take unprecedented action to somehow allay the perceived threat to our security. These actions have taken a great many forms, but the common denominator is that they all entail the increased exercise of power by government over society and the economy. When the crisis ends, many of the emergency actions cease. But not all of them. Each emergency ratchets up the size and scope of the federal government. In some cases, agencies that had a very strict relation to the emergency transform to take on new missions…

We can expect thousands of reservists to be called to active duty and taken away from their ordinary jobs. We can expect the assignment of military forces to some unprecedented duties. It appears that some military units are going to be used for domestic police activities. It is clearly going to be the case that the FBI will become far more active in surveillance activities. The government will mount a variety of overseas actions requiring the armed forces, and perhaps a number of civilian employees, to attempt to kill, to disable, or to damage what are taken to be terrorist camps, facilities, or cadres. It is also fairly clear that the government is going to have to bail out the airline industry and maybe the insurance industry. When the government takes large-scale, unprecedented actions of this sort, unanticipated consequences always occur. Then the government has to expand even further to deal with those consequences.

I also share Jim Henley’s view that the anthrax letters changed America’s mindset permanently and for the worse:

When historians recollect the first decade of the 21st Century in tranquility, they will find it impossible to overstate the political impact of America’s most conveniently unsolved crime. The September 11, 2001 massacres were bad, but it was the anthrax attacks the following month that ramped up the “madness” … 9/11 was a shock. The anthrax attacks made terrorism feel like a siege. I think it’s possible that, absent the anthrax attacks, the Bush Administration might have failed to gin up the entirely equivocal support for the Iraq War that it managed.

Within the month, we had the USA-PATRIOT Act, a law that passed with only one dissenting vote in the Senate, though few if any legislators had read it at the time, and whose “USA” didn’t even stand for “United States of America.” Which was fitting, somehow. The sneak-and-peek provision of the USA-PATRIOT Act—necessary, we were told, only for this existential terrorist threat—is nowadays overwhelmingly used to search for drugs. Emergency powers become ordinary. But have we ever, even once, been granted an emergency freedom?

It was around the same time that Maureen Dowd went from a catty gossip columnist who didn’t really belong on the Times op-ed page—to a gibbering, Cipro-popping paranoiac with a yearning for big, manly, Republican politicians who would cuddle her in their burly arms after punching out a few terrorists and throwing back a slug of whiskey. Now she really didn’t belong on theTimes op-ed page. But there she would stay, column after sordid column. If Osama bin Laden had subscribed to the Times, he would have been a happy man indeed. (I hear Tom Friedman is better in translation. He’d have to be.)

What was next? A thick green vapor would envelop New York, suffocating millions. Now, chemical weapons can’t actually do this; powers of three are unkind to volumetric, air-dispersed agents. So are wind, sun, rain, and time. Chemical weapons are a hellish poison, in Churchill’s phrase, but they aren’t nukes. A massive, well-organized, extremely lucky chemical attack kills several thousand at the outside, not millions. A more responsible government might have pointed this out, rather than advising the millions to buy duct tape. Which would have been, and was, useless in any case.

Still, people were scared, and “scared” needed a place to hang its hat. For a few weeks, duct tape was unavailable. Thousands got their first experience with sketchy online pharmacies. C-SPAN radio became even more of a freak show, which I hadn’t thought possible. Time magazine suggested gas masks, antibiotics, and hazmat suits, even atropine, but stopped short of Drager’s Civil Defense Set—able to sniff out airborne nerve gas, and yours for a cool $2,995. “It’s not just chatter, it’s a pattern,” said Senator Pat Roberts. A pattern of what? Chemicals, germs, nukes, radiologicals, UAVs, assassinations. When? After the hajj. Soon. Sometime. Right now. Who knows? Does it matter?

Travel changed, of course. A couple of weeks before 9/11, I had returned from a research trip in France. That flight would prove the last for me in a saner era. On my return to France post-9/11, a passenger overheard two tan-skinned men discussing something quietly in a foreign language. He notified an attendant. American fighter jets followed us over the Atlantic.

I tried to document this on the web. Since 9/11, there have been so many fighter jets scrambled for false alarms that I couldn’t even find my own.

We were detained at de Gaulle for many hours afterward. Our luggage was searched, crudely. Mine disappeared for days. I deplaned after business hours and couldn’t get my fellowship certified. Without so much as a toothbrush on hand, I went to the dorm where I’d hoped to live. Fast talk and pity got me a bed for the night. I was no stranger to France, but it was the first time anyone had pitied me for being an American.

September 11 was the day “Orwellian” stopped being an argument against anything. It became a checklist. My country started collecting various-sized bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four like so many grim commemorative postage stamps. Constant surveillance. Constant warfare. Constant suspicion. Last week’s enemy is this week’s friend, is next week’s enemy, and woe is you if you can’t keep up—Gadhafi, Putin, Arafat, Chirac. Censorship? Making steady progress. We didn’t get Victory Gin, but we did get Freedom Fries; close enough for government work. Oh yes, and torture. Because we are the greatest hegemonic power, and because we can do no wrong, and in the end, just because we fucking can, okay?

Who though is this “we”? It is the deepest, most festering wound of 9/11.

Someone does something shameful, somewhere, maybe just once, usually in secret. Someone’s data mining. Someone’s spying on citizens. Someone imprisons, with neither an indictment nor any other cover of law. Someone puts people on a secret plane, to a place where electrodes and power drills are the standard interrogation protocol. Someone cuts out the middleman and just tortures in place. Someone orders American citizens assassinated. Someone starts an illegal war.

In a braver time, these acts would have kindled a revolution.

Someone, however, is an agent of the state. Therefore someone wasn’t the real actor. No, we did it—that’s the core of the lie, right here, that that someone is us. Sooner or later, we find out about the thing we did. We say, in the awful light of morning, that we did it because we are fighting a dirty enemy, and maybe we have to embrace the dark side just a little bit if we’re going to win.

But really we did it because we were afraid. But really, we didn’t do it. But really, the ones who did it will keep right on doing it.

That’s what’s changed, post-9/11. In the end, we didn’t have the will to fight. We fought the terrorists, sure, and plenty of others who didn’t even attack us. But we didn’t have the will to fight as they took our civil liberties away. We didn’t even have the will to punish them afterward. The word “we” is the pawl on the ratchet of state power. It’s the little catch that ensures there’s no backsliding. The we clanks ever onward. The sun shines, the rain falls; the economy is good, or it’s bad. It doesn’t matter. The abuses haven’t gone away. We’ve mostly just gotten used to them.

A Reasonable Post-Scarcity

Economists don’t actually think it’s possible for a society to be post-scarcity. Certainly not if by “post-scarcity” we mean that it can shrug off the limitless waste of anything. And they’re right. So what can I mean when I say that I’m looking forward to a post-scarcity society?

In 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a theory of human motivation that arrayed various types of goals in a pyramid, beginning on the bottom with physiological and survival-related goals, and ascending all the way up to goals that are about self-actualization – things like the pursuit of philosophical insight, or artistic expression, or invention.


Understood as a general theory of motivation, it’s easy to poke holes in Maslow’s hierarchy. Desperately poor people still give a lot of effort to beauty, love, and ethics, and it’s condescending to suggest that they don’t or can’t. People also constantly make tradeoffs that the pyramid might seem to condemn or forbid: Consider the historically dangerous but also very popular practice of religious pilgrimage, which seems to put at risk a lot of foundational goods.

And yet there’s still something right about the pyramid, and I think it has to do with scarcity. A post-scarcity society as I understand it will not find scarcity anywhere on the lower rungs of the hierarchy. For self-actualization? Yeah… well… I’m prepared for there to be a shortage of that. Bring it on, because that’s a shortage we can live with.

Let’s walk through some of the implications of this process as it has already played out.

It has been estimated that in the eighteenth century, the typical French peasant often devoted more than 90% of his labor simply to obtaining food. That labor was grueling, too, far beyond what we know today. And it was inefficient; crop yields were lower, pests and bad weather did more damage, and more was lost in storage and transit. Famine was a common occurrence, and peasants frequently died of starvation.

If you were to take a 17th-century peasant and show him my house — which is middle class, and nice, but certainly not spectacular — he might conclude that I fell somewhere in between Louis XIV and God. And then you could tell him that nearly everyone in the United States has it roughly as good as I do, and his head would explode.

Coffee or tea whenever he wants it! And chocolate! Machines to cook his food and sweep his floors! Mild, comfortable temperatures year-round! Fresh fruits and vegetables in the dead of winter! Total protection from smallpox and plague! A hot-water bath and a shave, every goddamn day! Chamber music on demand! Theater at any time of day or night! A carriage… that goes… without… horses!

It’s tempting to say that by 17th-century standards, we in the developed world are already post-scarcity. We’ve just moved the goalposts.

Here again is what I hope for the future, just restated: I hope that we can move those goalposts for everyone. And then I hope that we can move them again. And again. And again.

Industrialization’s big accomplishment is to take the lower elements of Maslow’s hierarchy and make them vastly cheaper in terms of human labor. We don’t spend 90% of our budgets on food anymore, because we don’t need to. We’ve begun spending our labor – our money – on other things, including medicine, education, nicer clothes, and modern conveniences. We spend it on home entertainment systems, because appreciating art is just what you do when you’re tolerably healthy, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed. We spend it way, way high up on Maslow’s pyramid.

Life is getting better on all sorts of fronts, as my Cato colleague Marian Tupy has been documenting at We have every reason to keep at it: to banish more and more suffering and drudgery, to spend more and more of our efforts in search of meaning, love, and self-actualization. Industrialization is the first step. We will continue to do more and more with robotics, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering, and these will lead to output gains as well.

When I point out how much improved we are today, some are apt to make an inference that I would reject: One should absolutely not infer that I am asking everyone to be happy with the status quo. Nothing could be more wrong. I am asking everyone to improve upon, outcompete, and peacefully demolish the status quo. Over and over. I will be severely disappointed if I live another fifty years and find things more or less as they were in 2014. The future should look back and pity us, exactly as we pity the 17th-century peasant. They should wonder how we ever did without a whole bunch of things that we can’t even imagine today.

On the lower end of Maslow’s pyramid, more goods should get cheaper and cheaper. Just as so many already have.

We have public water fountains today. Even in cities afflicted by drought, one can usually find a fountain, and the water in it will be potable. As a free good, every person on earth enjoys complete immunity to smallpox, a fatal disease that’s blessedly extinct in the wild. The nighttime lighting of my house is almost a free good: I literally never consider the cost when I flick on the light switch, and I never experience a serious tradeoff between lighting and any other economic good that I might want.

In the developed world, nighttime household lighting is effectively post-scarcity. It’s not that there would never be any worrisome cost to getting more of it on any margin at all. It’s simply that at all margins I am likely to experience, I can always ask for another unit of it, and I will always find the cost untroubling.

What if food were post-scarcity? What if, rather than 90% – or 6%, as Americans do today – what if we only spent 0.0005% of our budget on food? What if medicine were that cheap? And housing, and education? What would we spend the rest of our income on?

I don’t know, but I’d sure like to find out.

The Bet

I advocate a more market-oriented society.

That means I advocate giving up a good deal of state control over economic activity, in favor of property owners exercising direct control over their property and laborers exercising direct control over the sale of their labor.

I think that any future society is best planned piecemeal, through the independent agency of many different people. I find that piecemeal planning does a much better job than a large, centralized planning agency typically can. Local knowledge and local responsiveness are the keys, and big government simply doesn’t have them.

Many others advocate similar policies. But my imagined endgame – the reason I’m asking for this stuff – is often completely unlike their imagined endgame.

They — speaking broadly here, and certainly not of everyone — want markets because they view markets as a traditional institution, one that conduces to, and fits well with, other traditional institutions. I want markets in part because I believe that markets destroy traditional institutions, and because traditional institutions very often richly deserve to be destroyed.

Yet they and I both advocate markets. It’s as if we are making a bet: We will expand the scope of market action, and we will wait and see what happens next.

What I predict is emphatically not a traditional society, but something nearer its opposite. It looks a lot like the Culture in Iain M. Banks’ science fiction: It’s an intensely egalitarian, borderless, leaderless, nearly anarchic post-scarcity society. Recreation has replaced the career, and it is pursued with a focus and an intensity that we barely understand. Sexuality is fluid, voluntary, safe, and fun. Drugs? Genetically engineered glands provide safe, non-addictive alterations in mood and/or perception, whenever you want them. Death? It’s usually a choice, because aging and disease no longer exist.[1]

Work is there too, but only if you want it. Machines see to all of humanity’s basic, physical needs, and labor is typically undertaken only out of curiosity, whimsy, artistic inspiration, or a search for adventure. Every problem in roughly the lower two-thirds of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been solved.

What remains? Beauty. Personal fulfillment. Spiritual exploration. Scientific discovery.

In my dream society, we have taken definitive command over our own biology. It no longer so much as annoys us. Still less is it our destiny. Our biology has become our toolkit and our playground. Suffering is vanishingly rare. Art and literature, philosophy and creativity, are ubiquitous. (Yes, I know, conservatives will be the first to object that you can’t have great art without great suffering. I simply don’t agree.) I imagine a society whose limits consist of little more than those established by the laws of physics. A society, finally, that chips away even at the laws of physics themselves.

In short, I think that commerce is going to upset nearly everything traditional about our society. Even back here on earth, I think that we are already becoming the Culture, or at least something a whole lot like it. I am thrilled to be able to watch the takeoff, because it’s one thing even the immortals won’t get to do.

The signs are all around, and they have been for well over a century. Commercial society above all means industrialization, in which machines outcompete both man and beast at all the heavy lifting. As a species, we should be overjoyed.

One upshot among many is that women’s work is ceteris paribus just about as valuable as men’s: either can command a machine equally well. There are only a few professions anymore in which physical strength matters so much that women still can’t keep up. In nearly all of the rest, they can — which means that the value of women’s labor has risen. And that means that women have become vastly wealthier and more independent.

We’ve also removed the barriers, once ubiquitous, to women’s education. We can now say, with both confidence and shame, that for centuries, traditional society utterly wasted women’s abilities. Commercial society came to realize this mistake, and within a few generations it set about monetizing everything that women had to offer.

Does that sound crass? It shouldn’t. Men’s gifts had already been monetized, and as a result, they ruled the world.

Today the patriarchal family is on its way out. Good riddance to it, and to so much more: Commercial society has gone hand in hand with religious tolerance, mass literacy, scientific progress, mass public health measures, urbanization, and — yes, that loaded word — cosmopolitanism.

I adore cosmopolitanism. I adore it in part because cosmopolitanism angers exactly the right people.[2] But also because the cosmopolitan ethos is a natural companion to a commercial society: A cosmopolitan willingness to trade with Greek and barbarian alike permits the trader to create value where otherwise he would abstain. Without cosmopolitanism, we are each a barbarian to someone else, and it’s all to no good end.

And so I’m making the bet. If it means that I appear to accept false friends, then let them be on notice: I am no conservative. I work with you because I think that your principles are false and your hopes are misplaced. I look forward to your defeat. Just in the nicest way imaginable. If I win, it’ll be awesome. I promise!

Of course, I might still lose. One might even say that the traditionalists have every advantage. After all, “traditional society” is a modality that has actually occurred in many different times and places. A science-fiction near-utopia never has. And here I am, giving the trads their weapon of choice – markets.

Markets, though, upset the old ways of doing things, and I’m betting that they will keep on doing so for a long, long time. Long enough to beat down all of the old oppressions. Long enough to make scarcity a memory, and work, a whim. And long enough to take us to the stars, as if all the rest were not enough.


[1] Some will object that Banks was a socialist. And yet his Culture is not. A post-scarcity society hardly needs to concern itself with systems of distribution; its environment has been made so productive that distribution itself is nearly superfluous. Two mistakes are likely to arise here.

First, some may infer that because Banks was a socialist, his endgame must be a thing that we should not want. This though seems obviously false to me. What is the purpose, after all, of economic activity? It is to alleviate scarcity. What then is a post-scarcity society? It is a place where economic activity has made itself less and less necessary – where we have solved the problem of keeping body and soul together, not just for a day, or a week or a season, but for all time if we want it.

Second, some may worry that committing to this goal will commit me in turn to employing socialist methods in the real world. But I cannot see how these could be feasible. The only thing that seems to have gotten us incrementally closer to the Culture has been commerce. Let us have more and more comparative advantage, specialization, innovation, and gains from trade – until we wake up in the post-scarcity world. I don’t think there are any other ways to do it, and I believe that as long as we keep employing these ways, we will get there eventually.

[2] While we’re at it, traditional European society was always more or less anti-Semitic. I suspect this was in part because it identified Jews with commerce, and because it knew that commerce is the ultimate enemy of tradition. This leads us down many paths, though, and it should perhaps be saved for another time.