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.

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs.svg

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.