Monday, February 20, 2012

The Idle Society

Sometimes what seems a paradise would in fact be hell. Would it not be wonderful for your basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, medical care, entertainment) to be taken care of? Yes, many think. Various proposals are made: a basic income, from either a citizen's dividend (a payment to all citizens for the loss of property that is claimed to be theirs by right, such as land in general) or negative income tax, where people below certain income levels receive money to supplement this from the government rather than paying income tax.

 Funding this has been proposed through any number of ways, largely taxes, most obviously on income, but also sales, capital gains, inheritance, land, natural resources, luxury, pollution, sin or excise, and so on. Also fees derived from state monopolies such as the broadcast spectrum, roads, or utilities, a state lottery, tariffs, trust fund, repayment at death or retirement, and simply wholly collective or state ownership have all been proposed. Of course there is also the simple expedient of government printing money to pay them with.

All of it rests on the implicit assumption, that, if guaranteed this income, people will be happier and better cared for with this bit of wealth. Yet at the same time we know many of the richest people, who really do have all this assured them, are not especially happy. The "idle rich" and their problems, those derived from inheritance particularly, are well known to us. Often this is pointed out by people who at the same time advocate something like a basic income guarantee. Let us all be rich.

The culmination of this was shown in the Federation of Star Trek, where, although the details were understandably, and conveniently, never shown, everyone has their material needs taken care of. Given the replicator, it might in fact be possible. However, this leaves us the question: since the replicator can produce most products, what jobs do people have left? Already we are seeing the rise of a service economy replacing industry. Could it be service jobs are the only employment left then in the Federation economy for most people, absent perhaps a very few that cannot be done with replicators (say coming up with new ideas of products to make)?

As it was put once: You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money. The real outcome is likely to be mass unemployment, with attendant social unrest. In Brave New World, the dystopia Aldous Huxley wrote in which people are born into genetically engineered castes, lulled by constant use of the drug soma, an ideology of mindless consumerism, casual sex and pornographic films whose sensations the viewer can then fully experience, called "feelies", World Controller (an ominous title) Mustapha Mond tells John the Savage the government has purposefully retarded the rate of technological progress so automation does not cause that very problem.

Innovators who refuse to toe the line are exiled to isolated areas. Mond even says the world government experimented by lowering work hours in Ireland, to give people more leisure time. Rather than making them happier, it led to increased soma use with overall disorder. However, it seems that in order to provide everyone with their material needs, the replicator would be needed, which at the same time would render most industrial work obsolete.

The Federation of Star Trek differs almost wholly from the global state of Brave New World, but there may be one thing in common for them. Holodecks, in the Star Trek universe, are the virtual reality chambers which can simulate practically any experience. If citizens were provided with this for entertainment, it might prevent social unrest. Star Trek only hints at it, being on prime time TV, but an obvious use of this VR would of course be sexual. One must wonder if the holodecks will be monitored to make sure pathological behavior, sexual and otherwise, is not vented, or this may be allowed when strictly virtual.

It seems that a large majority of people would be permanently idle, living on the guaranteed necessities provided. A small number, at least, would have to decide what replicators will produce, unless all this is done with artificial intelligence. Government officials, civilian or military, scientists and replicator managers likely would make up this number, along with perhaps those coming up with patterns for goods that are replicated. One imagines a tiny elite might emerge, which, if human nature is unchanged, provides its membership with superior replicated products, looking down on the idle masses in contempt, giving them an equivalent of bread and circuses.

The question whether a replicator economy as in the Federation would be state-owned arises. If the central planning of replicator production occurs, no matter how advanced the computer, how does this overcome the economic calculation problem? It seems unlikely, given the information constraints of providing for everyone, but even assuming this could, the social problems remain (perhaps lowering world population would help, but that brings up other issues). Naturally, all of this assumes humans in their present form would exist at that point.

For my own view, I think beings such as Data and the Borg, among others, would be very common, perhaps even having replaced humans entirely (hopefully not by forcibly assimilating them, as the latter are shown to). Now, as with the global state in Brave New World, the pace of technology could be suppressed (for instance genetic augmentation is banned in the Federation) but I'm skeptical that such bans would hold up forever. All of this is not to say we should cease attempting to alleviate poverty, or fight technological progress. Only that we must evaluate it critically, even, or perhaps especially, things which promise what so many desire. The outcome may not be that. It may even be the opposite.

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