"Examining the Concept of 'Post-Scarcity' Societies"
© 2009, 2013
Jordan S. Bassior
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.
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.