Happiness Under Robot Communism
Our sister site RealClearTechnology leads today with a piece from Pando's Tim Worstall entitled "Good News Everyone: If the Robots Steal All Our Jobs Then True Communism Is Possible." Worstall compares the rise of robot technology to Walmart moving into town:
Before WalMart there were, imagine, 100 retail jobs in the town. After WalMart there's 50. And people still get all the retail services they desire. That last must be true for if there were still a shortage of retail services then everyone else would not have gone out of business. So, we've got the services we desire from only 50 people now and we also get the production of those other 50 doing whatever it is that they go off and do. And it doesn't matter whether they go off and find the cure for cancer, wait tables at Denny's or stay home and change the baby's diapers. As a society we are richer by having not only the original retail services but also that cancer cure, bad pancakes and dry and smiling babies (and anyone who has had children will know that that last is an addition to human wealth).
Later in the piece, Worstall reiterates: "It doesn't actually matter what those other people are doing. They are indeed producing something, somewhere, even if it's only human contentment by having a beer out on the stoop."
Certainly, it's hard to see how anyone could be materially poor in a world where cheap robots can do everything most people can do. In a society that rich, even modest redistribution could make everyone well-off. (Heck, we spend far more than enough on poverty today to completely eliminate it.) Alternatively, Dean Baker has made the point that we could simply keep printing money and handing it out rather that relegating the unskilled to eating beans for dinner: "Where's the inflation, robots demanding higher wages?"
I'm a little more worried about what people will do with their time when they're freed from the structure of a full-time job. My concern here isn't necessarily crime, which doesn't always rise when unemployment does. It's more of a general lethargy and misery.
A famous study on this topic took place in the 1930s in the Austrian village of Marienthal, where a factory closing had wiped out most of the jobs. Unemployment benefits made up most of the financial difference, but that didn't stop everything from falling apart (except, again, in regards to crime). Here's Arthur Brooks describing the study's findings:
Marienthal had previously been an active community with social clubs and political organizations. The paradox is that, after the factory closed and people had abundant leisure, these activities withered. Villagers could not seem to find the time and energy to do much of anything. In the two years after the factory closed, the average number of volumes loaned out by the town library dropped by half. Said one woman, "It used to be magnificent in Marienthal before -- just going to the factory made a change. During the summer we used to go for walks, and all those dances! Now I don't feel like going out anymore."
Time seemed to warp. Men stopped wearing watches, and wives complained that their husbands were chronically late for meals -- even though they were not coming from anything. Outsiders observed that it took villagers longer and longer just to walk down the street. People slept for hours more each night than they ever had. They could not recall how they spent their days, and they whittled away far more time sitting at home or standing around in the street than doing any other activity.
Decades later, the sociologist William Julius Wilson spent much of his career analyzing the effect of work on low-income black communities. "The lack of low-skilled manual work in the inner city is linked to poverty, crime, family dissolution and the social life of neighbourhoods," he argued.
A post-scarcity world might not be dystopian in the way that some have imagined -- we might not have a small group of very rich people while everyone else lives with very little. But it might be dystopian nonetheless.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen