It’s an old line: As technological advances make mass prosperity at lower cost more plausible, we’re faced with a paradox of mass job loss in the face of it all. This is the great fear behind robots taking our jobs, which NPR’s Marketplace has recently dedicated an entire series to, and the criticism lodged long ago by none other than ol’ Marx. He argued that the march of competition would force technology to improve and for industries to become more efficient, displacing jobs in the process.
Now, in coming decades, society is poised to see the elimination of whole sectors. Robots, as we’ve seen, can take worker’s jobs on the production lines, iPads can take food orders in restaurants, and companies like Amazon are displacing traditional shopkeepers. To name a few. Meanwhile, industries that do remain, like resource extraction and distribution, are limited and profit only a small number of people.
So, what happens next? There aren’t going to be enough openings in the remaining service and information industry jobs to employ the millions of de-jobbed if the trend continues.
So, in a post called ‘Slouching Towards Utopia”, economics writer Matthew Yglesias imagines what happens next:
The ideal outcome is that (perhaps after a social crisis à la the Bell Riots) everyone gets expropriated and we abolish private property in ideas and natural resources. Then by taxing pollution, land, congestion, and other externalities we have adequate revenue to provide a decent social minimum for all at which point people do what they like. Some people’s hobbies will align reasonably well with some kind of labor market opportunity whereas others won’t, but society won’t be organized around a “work hard or else you’ll starve and be homeless” model because there will not objectively be a shortfall of food and houses or much of anything else.
This is a more realistically-tinged variant of technoutopianism than we’re accustomed to hearing—those Star Trek-esque utopias where machines do all the work and human society is egalitarian. Instead, Yglesias imagines a more socialistic society that nonetheless still harbors a relatively free market. There’s evidently some variation of a guaranteed minimum income that ensures everybody has enough resources and buying power to live freely, but the financially ambitious can still seek to accrue capital and more material goods than others.
Clearly, this isn’t an ideal situation—let’s call it a “soft” utopia, or semi-utopia—as those commanding more resources and capital would inevitably wield more power than those at the bottom, but it’s an interesting path to consider given our current economic trajectory …