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.

Notes

[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.

5 thoughts on “The Bet

  1. Where most post-scarcity visions fail is that they all require electricity on a scale that’s “too cheap to meter,” as someone once said. For the vision to be near-anarchic, the source of that electricity needs to be small and local as well. Banks recognized this. While the Culture’s source is clearly over in “then a miracle occurred” territory, it’s acknowledged to exist. We, on the other hand, have not a clue about such a power source.

    I would argue that we are, currently, headed in the opposite direction. Electricity is becoming more expensive, not less. It appears that robust reliable sources will require more centralized planning in the future, not less. My own bet is that looking back from 2050, the failure of public policy to ensure stable electricity supplies will be seen as the defining issue of the first half of the 21st century.

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  2. You’re right – Banks’s solution to limited energy is ultimately just a skyhook. Even his descriptions of it seem to allude wryly to that fact, I would say.

    As for us, I hope that the price of solar power will continue to plummet. If it does, then we will have the decentralized and cheap power source that we both agree need.

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  3. Pingback: A Reasonable Post-Scarcity | Clown Town

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

    Also: power for the sake of power. Control. Domination. Bending others to your will (perhaps sold as ‘for their own good’, but not necessarily). The cult of personality. Fame. Lust.

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