Sunday, September 1, 2013

Examining the Concept of 'Post-Scarcity' Societies"

"Examining the Concept of 'Post-Scarcity' Societies"
© 2009, 2013


Jordan S. Bassior

Some science fiction authors, trying to get beyond the Dismal Science of Economics, posit futures in which tremendous wealth and technology have rendered "post-scarcity." What this means is that any citizen of such a society can, at a mere wish, have whatever he wants made and delivered to him as instantly as the laws of physics allow, and that the satisfaction of such wishes is so easy as to render them essentially "free goods."

Economically, a free good is anything which is in such ample supply, such as breathable air on the surface of a habitable planet, or water in most areas of regular rainfall and ordinary civil-engineering, that there is no real point in attempting to price and sell it: the effort to do so would be more expensive than the profit which could be made from selling the good. As technology advances, the per capita wealth of the individual increases. Could this reach a point where all goods became essentially free?

The essential question to answer first is, what does one mean by "all goods?" The precise nature of this question dictates the answer, and as I will show, dictates it rather directly because of physical and human nature.

Yes ...

Does one mean "all goods such as we currently consume?" If that is the question, the answer is an unqualified "Yes." The goods which anyone, even billionaires, consume in the modern world are of finite quantity per capita, and of a fixed nature. Assuming continued economic growth (through both access to previously-inaccessible resources, and the more efficient use of the resources we have), we might eventually reach a point where the cost of even vehicles with the capabilities of modern spacecraft, yachts, jet liners and limousines; housing with the quality of modern mansions; and so on became trivial compared to the productivity controlled by the average citizen. In this case they would essentially become "free goods," or at least (if the society still insisted on having a market in them ) as cheap as are, say, candy bars to the average corporate executive.

This is not only possible but quantifiable. One can measure the energy controlled per capita, assume this energy increases at some modest rate of investment return (say 2-3%) per annum, and calculate the point at which the typical individual commands an amount of energy equivalent to say, the whole modern United States of America. Depending on one's assumptions, it's "only" a few centuries to millennia from now -- a long time by our standards, but a short time in the history of a whole species.

This has, in fact, already happened with regard to some societies in our present history. The typical member of the underclass in modern America, living off welfare and occasional side deals, enjoys a level of wealth such that the comforts accessible to a typical middle-class Sumerian or Egyptian of c. 3000 BCE -- roughly 5000 years ago -- are "free goods" from his point of view. He could, for instance, obtain equally healthy housing by squatting in a derelict building, equally wholesome food by raiding garbage cans, and equal safety in his life by living in a typical slum, and so on. The modern slum dweller is actually likely to have a better life than the High Ancient bourgeoisie, because he has access to health care (hospital emergency rooms, free clinics) and entertainments (TV, radio, CD player, buyable cheap at thrift stores) beyond the Sumerian's wildest dreams.

From ancient Sumeria's POV, modern America is already a "post-scarcity" economy.

And this reveals the reason why the real answer to the question is an unqualified "No."

... and No

For, of course, the modern slum dweller cannot get anything that he wishes. He enjoys a way of life far beyond that of the Sumerian, but while we have invented ways to essentially make the goods and services the Sumerian wanted "too cheap to meter," we have also invented far better goods and services, which the slum dweller cannot afford, or can afford only with great difficulty.

The slum dweller can buy basic foods with food stamps, or scavenge them from garbage bins. He cannot enjoy the best meals, which are far better than anything that was seen on the tables of the Sumerian kings. The slum dweller lives in housing more sturdy and luxurious than the best Sumerian mud-brick buildings -- but there is even better housing in America which he cannot even hope to rent. Even though he can get a cheap TV at a thrift store, he knows that there are better TV's which are beyond his economic reach. And so on.

And this logically applies to any possible future, because the human capacity to invent new and better things, and to desire these new and better things, is INFINITE. I can get an intercontinental jet plane just by asking for one? Fine, but I'll have to pay my hard-earned credits if I want a Moonship. A few centuries later, maybe the Moonship is free, but if I want to fly to Jupiter that'll really cost me. And so on, in every possible field. Even if what we think now to be dear becomes cheap, there will be new and better things which will be dear.

Even if we assume vast improvements in the means of production, this remains true, because we will always devise new things that require rare resources to operate. If we develop fusion power, some things will still take such vast quantities of energy that they will be expensive. If we mine the whole Solar System, some things will still take so much matter that they will be expensive. We may develop nanotech fabricators that can make anything given the pattern, energy and matter, and there will be forms of matter or amounts of energy which will be difficult to obtain.

What forms? Physics already gives us hints that exotic forms of matter and energy are possible, and that subatomic particles may be malleable under the right circumstances. Eventually we will learn to find or make such matter and energy, and discover valuable properties in them, and obtaining them will be harder than using the forms of matter and energy readily available in this corner of spacetime, and thus they will be scarce.

Why would anyone want to use vast quantities of matter or energy? To make exotic matter or energy, to build very long-distance spacecraft, for mega and giga-engineering projects such as building huge habitats or whole worlds. To rip open spacetime and make wormholes to other times and places. For other reasons of which our science cannot yet conceive, any more than Sumerian artisans could have conceived of the computer on which I am typing this missive.

And beyond that, more, of which even my prodigious imagination cannot conceive.

The "poor" of CE 7000 might look as fantastically wealthy to modern Americans as a modern American slum dweller would to a Sumerian citizen, but this will not matter, because the poor man of CE 7000 will judge his status according to his desires, not ours, and he will see many goods and services in his time that he cannot afford. He will not care that we would find him wealthy, any more than the modern American slum dweller cares that what his food stamps buy him is richer, more abundant, tastier and healthier food than what the Sumerian noble was served at his table.

The rich shall we always have with us, and the poor, and economics: for scarcity is eternal.

Like it or not.



  1. Very useful indeed. Question: What jobs do you think people will do?

    1. Producing what is scarce.

      I've noodled around with a far-future in which the main jobs are original ideas, skeining space for molecules and atoms -- iron, carbon, whatever -- and handiwork (because hand-made is by definition not mass produced and so can charge a premium).

  2. I like it.

    There are subtleties. You contrast the Sumerian's desires with those of modern Americans — but society is evolving in such a way that the Sumerian's raw ambitions and desires are becoming less evident now. And if the modern American "slumdweller" has all he or she desires, then the equation changes somewhat.

    If a price falls in the market and no one cares to hear it, does it still make a sound economy?

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  3. I don't know, but I suspect they'll be analogies of jobs we do now, just as almost everything we do now has analogies in jobs that we did 5000 years ago. I think that humans, or human-descended transcendent beings of some kind or another, will work to extract raw materials from nature, fashion them into usable goods, and then trade these goods or services they can perform for other goods and services.

    What's likely is that work will be increasingly easy and enjoyable. One of the unsung brilliant science-fiction projections of all times comes from The Jetsons, in which George Jetson complains because his job involves pushing buttons for TWO WHOLE HOURS. This was played for laughs, but consider the typical labor of 1862 as opposed to 1962: physical laborers by 1962 normally used machines and power tools to aid them the most muscle-intensive tasks, while much of the difficulties of clerical work had already been eased by telephones and typewriters (and would in another few decades be further eased by computers and word processors). What's more, the worker of 1862 generally labored for 10-12 hours; by 1962 this was down to the 6-8 hours which is more normal today. In addition, the development of time-motion studies and ergonomics meant that the worker of 1962 worked much more efficiently than had his great-great grandfather. This, coupled with the tremendous increases in energy generation and application since 1862, meant that he produced far more profit, and hence could be paid a much higher salary in real-dollar terms.

    There is no reason to suppose that these trends will stop or even much slow by 2062. Let alone by 7000.

    1. Oh, and the really brilliant prediction? Not that George Jetson had such an easy job. Rather, that he nevertheless bitched about it.

      The one thing constant is human nature, and I wholeheartedly believe that even the Transcendent children of Man whose very minds control cosmic forces to craft from exotic matter artifacts whose very nature we cannot today even imagine, instantaneously and with stunning ease -- will bitch about it.

  4. There are also things that are scarce and will remain so for reasons having nothing to do with the costs of production -- mostly, but not entirely, status.

    Consider, for instance, residences in particularly good neighborhoods: there's only room for so many people there, and even if you posit some sort of technical fix to increase the density, you'd just end up altering the character of the neighborhood and (probably) making it less desirable.

  5. Anything dependent upon relative resources (such as social status) will never become post-scarcity, because there will always be some who have more and some who have less of any named resource. For instance, the homeless man of today lives as well as did the honest Sumerian peasant and the poor man as well as did the Sumerian merchant or noble, but each of these modern individuals is of low social status, and he knows it. The Sumerian merchant or noble had servants and slaves running to serve his whims: the modern poor man does not, and a home computer is a poor substitute from a social point of view.

    Likewise, the poor man of CE 7000 may live in what we would call a mansion and enjoy luxuries of the most wondrous subtlety and grace, but the rich man of that age will live even better, and you can be sure the poor man will be aware of and possibly resent this fact.

  6. To be sure, the modern merchant or noble does not have servants and slaves running to serve his whims.

    One wonders if automation will bring back servants. Anyone can have a robot butler, but a human one is a guaranteed rarity.