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 humanprogress.org. 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.

10 thoughts on “A Reasonable Post-Scarcity

  1. The big “problem” (if you want to call it that) is that we can put together a program to make sure that one has the bottom two rungs filled… but the top three rungs, to some degree, require effort and, likely, sacrifice (or, at least, some serious delayed satisfaction) on one’s own part.

    And I could see how moving from a level where one has everything provided to a level where one is required to sacrifice and expend effort as causing a bit of whiplash.


  2. I think the Peabody and Sherman* episode where William Tell shoots the arrow, and it flies halfway toward his son’s head, and then half of that distance, and then half that distance, but it never quite gets to the apple atop the poor boy’s crown, may real fate of a post-scarcity society.

    *The Adventures of Rockie and Bullwinkle, including Peabody and Sherman and Fractured Fairy Tales may be the best cartoon ever made. Recommended watching.


    • That’s “may be the real fate of” post-scarcity society.

      @jaybird is also correct — there will still be a bottom-of-the-pyramid base content to get intoxicated, play video games, and stream porn. If there’s no concerns about providing for them, why is that a problem? Is the perception that it’s a problem (by some) the ‘sense of whiplash?’ There will still be the people who work toward the pinnacle of the pyramid, and the pinnacle, kudos matter.

      Self-actualization and spiritual purity are not requirements for species sublimation, according to Banks.


  3. I think your goal-posts-moving model is essentially correct. I don’t know what the rest of our income will be spent on, but it will definitely be something. Other people’s labor is likely to always remain scarce, so I would look for the things that remain relatively labor-intense to be where much of our focus and dollars go to.


  4. So the eternal optipessimist will weigh in with the observation that right now, if you put enough young people (mostly men) in an environment where they don’t have enough opportunity, they have a tendency to band together and break other people’s shit.

    And cut their heads off, they do that, too. Or set them on fire, or any one of a number of equally horrible things that aren’t specifically tied to what ISIS is doing right now so don’t mistake this as an anti-something screed.

    Well, except anti-young-men-with-no-prospects-committing-violence screed.

    What I’m most looking forward to in the post-scarcity world to which you refer is that there really isn’t that level of groupthink any more.

    We’ll still have one or two folks who are feeling underloved by the world who take it out on a couple dozen people at a time, I’m sure, but they won’t be able to get enough buddies together to make an army over it.

    I hope.

    The distressing possibility is that we get 70 years of increased production (yay science!) with decreased externalities (maybe yay science!) and we get people who band together anyway.

    Then we will really have achieved a true nihilist movement.

    I think it’s pretty unlikely, but it’s still in the realm of possibility. Is a movement like ISIS (or the Contras, or the Juntas) possible in a post-scarcity world? If so, how possible?


  5. People whose biological drives are not met, often lose their regard for morals. Perhaps the most extreme case, dying of thirst, is not generally conducive to appreciating the beauty around yourself.

    Perhaps we ought to be glad this is such a rare occurrence.

    What if, in 20 years, we have lost 50% of jobs… worldwide? I fear that the world that is coming is going to be a drastically worse one for the majority of us. It’s not poverty that causes unrest, after all, it’s the middle class backsliding…

    I wish I could be as optimistic as you


  6. I’m in full agreement with your goals. But I’m in partial disagreement with your methods, and I also question the feasibility of ever getting close to what you’re talking about. The two things are linked.

    In the 18th century, as you say, things were godawful for pretty much all of humanity, even in the most advanced countries. We’ve made huge strides since then. But I don’t think better markets, institutions, or what-have-you are responsible for the change. Some form of a market economy is a necessary condition for technological progress and a decent life for most people (see North Korea). But without energy, markets alone can’t deliver a post-scarcity society.

    Markets have, to a large extent, solved the problem of energy scarcity for now (at least in the first world). But they’ve solved it through externalizing the costs and putting them off into the future, a strategy that has hard limits (limits that I’m betting we’ll bump into this century and the next). If we built enough coal plants and burned enough oil to provide everyone with a modern American middle class standard of living, we would radically destabilize the climate–shooting well past 2 degrees Celsius and into the realms that plenty of scientists think will cause mass deaths. The resource footprint of living like modern Americans is simply too large to supply it to all 7 billion of us.

    I’m not some doomer prophet; I can’t predict the future and there are better or worse ways for us to confront this dilemma. But it seems to me that we have a few options. First, use all the fossil energy available, and fry the climate with massive negative consequences. Second, go elsewhere–put up a space elevator and colonize Mars or wherever (but this isn’t possible without a lot more economic growth, certainly not on any kind of mass scale). Third, transition away from fossil energy. This can be accomplished through two measures: greater efficiency (doing the same stuff with less energy) and pain (doing less stuff). Doing less stuff is obviously incompatible with your vision of a post-scarcity society, pretty much by definition. Doing things more efficiently is our best bet, but ultimately the distinction between that and doing less is a blurry one. Sometimes the most efficient way to fly from DC to Australia is to not have to fly to Australia–but that’s only arguably post-scarcity. Overall, I’d say that getting off-world is extremely unlikely, and getting everyone to a decent standard of living while still using a sustainable amount of energy is likely to be incredibly challenging if it can be done at all.


    • You r analysis seems to be excluding nuclear energy from your analysis which is puzzling since it is primarily unavailable either due to the imposition of non-market forces or (arguably) offers energy at a slightly higher cost than fossil fuel energy.


      • I’m certainly not a professional in anything related to this field, so I don’t want to claim more certainty than I have. On the other hand, we’ve known about nuclear power for 50 years or more, and still haven’t mustered the political will to deal with the waste problem or the ability to make it cheaper than coal (let alone too cheap to meter, which is where we’d want it to be to get to a post-scarcity society, especially if we were trying to use it for transportation as well). It would be fantastic if it worked out, but I’ll believe it when I see it.


        • It was cheaper to just build fossil fuel plants so nuclear was left fallow- particularily due to political and irrational nuclear weapons fears.
          But if fossil fuel ceases to be the worlds go-to power source then we won’t regress to yurts or hope the sun will shine and the wind will blow; we’ll get over our irrationality about nuclear and start deploying and developing it.
          As to nuclear “waste” we’ll do with it what anyone would typically want to do with it; we’ll use it in other reactors. We only have to store it the way we do now because it’s cheaper to store it than it is to use it to produce more energy because reactions that use nuclear waste produce plutonium and there’re rules in place to prevent it. The French have been reprocessing their waste for sixty years and their actual irreducible-waste fits under a floor about the size of a high school gymnasium.


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