A Question of Labor Scarcity

Cory Doctorow started the New Year with a very interesting piece on the “roboticization of the workforce”. The whole article is worth a read, but it brings up a disturbing question:

But here’s the thing that neither of these articles — or even Bruce’s acid observations — touches on: once technology creates abundance, what possibilities exist for distributing the fruits of that abundance such that the benefits are more evenly felt?

There are plenty of people who will suggest that collectivist economics and centralized redistribution are the answer. Given the last century of history, that’s not an option I like. Take a look at Doctorow’s nightmare scenario:

We’ve been talking about an increase in productivity producing an increase in leisure for a long time, but instead, the “winner take all” world of Brynjolfsson and McAfee often seems to produce a “winner” class that works itself into an early grave by running 100-hour work weeks at astounding payscales, and a much larger “loser” class that works itself into an early grave by working 100-hour weeks in shitty, marginal, grey-economy jobs, trying to stitch together something like an income.

This is bad. However, the nightmare scenario that evolves under socialism is invariably worse. Instead of a winner class created by skilled, high-value work, a winner class develops from people who successfully gain control of the redistribution machine. Giving power to those who covet it is rarely a good idea, but usually unavoidable. The United States was built with a system of government shaped by this insight. By and large, its citizens have profited from keeping checks and balances on power seekers, even as the power seekers have eroded them.

A class of power seekers in control of an economic redistribution machine that replaces labor markets would not be subject to checks and balances. By controlling what people have, they would have absolute, unchecked power. Worse, power seekers tend to be the least sensitive to the wants and needs of the people they control. Even worse, most power seekers see others as resources to be exploited for their benefit.

Terrifying, isn’t it? Surely, we can avoid this by making sure the right people are in charge. Nope, sorry. Eventually, those who want power will take over the redistribution machine. It’s a certainty. Those who seek power will overcome the will of the rest to keep them out. It’s the consistent thread in human history.

The real problem is that we’re approaching a point where the labor market as it’s structured will collide with the efficiency gains caused by technology. If most labor is not scarce enough to allow workers to earn enough to support themselves and their families, how does society respond? How do supporters of economic liberty respond? What new mechanisms can be devised that allow ordinary people to continue to participate freely in the markets for goods and services without the wealth earned from the labor market?

This is stuff supporters of economic liberty need to start thinking about now. Our opponents have a ready answer that people will be drawn to despite its historic failures. Without an alternative from us, tyranny of the default will result in actual tyranny.