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.

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.