The Changing Nature of Scarcity

Economics is the study of scarcity in human systems. War and the use of physical force is a popular option for resolving or changing the optimization space of scarcity. But it should be noted that the use of force is only one method of coercion. There are many other ways to influence someone’s behavior that does not involve the threat of physical harm but that is just as effective.

Most political philosophies about “Liberty”, “Individual freedom”, and these kinds of things tend to fixate on the idea of physical force. Even in high school, my econ teacher would sagaciously declare, “Your right to swing your arms ends at the tip of my nose.” Unfortunately, I was too young at the time to realize that this naïve and intellectually impoverished way of thinking about human relations informs very little. Instead, it simply embeds the seeds of great ambiguity and intellectual discord at the very heart of many of the governing philosophies that we take for granted, that undergird our legal systems and most people’s intuitions about morals.

We are moving into a new phase of human civilization — we may already be in a phase — in which fundamental scarcity can actually be mostly removed at fixed or minimal cost. This includes food, water, housing, and even access to education. Additionally, most of the productivity upside is to be had in spheres of activity that are quite disjoint from the physical realm.

The interface between the brain/knowledge/human insight into the physical world will increasingly involve the use of robotics. Because our ability to manipulate the physical world is ultimately limited by the laws of physics, most of our productivity gains will increasingly shift into areas that are unfettered or relatively unfettered by such limitations. That is, we may have the same kinds of robots or the same underlying hardware for a great long time, but the software driving that hardware will evolve much much more rapidly.

Therefore productivity gains will increasingly be centralized and encapsulated as ideas. There will be — and to some extent there already is — great energy devoted to keeping such ideas proprietary and using them as means of competition. That is, given the structure of the economic and political thinking that human organizations — namely corporations — exist in today, the only mechanism for acquiring or amassing enduring value is via enforcement of legacy concepts such as copyright and patents.

But it is not written in the stars that we must always live in a mostly-scarce world. If we force ourselves to wear the mental straitjacket of traditional economic thinking, then almost by definition and by assumption, we will be solving for the wrong things — and we will tend to bias towards things that resemble what we already know. At best, we will come to suboptimal solutions.

Where this ties into political philosophy is that we are required to think very deeply about the nature of human interactions: What is moral, what is just, and what is fair. Because more and more, our abilities to influence other humans, our abilities to hurt them and help them, will be in non-physical dimensions. And therefore if our guides for behavior — both positive moral guides as well as laws to prevent bad behavior — are only or mostly rooted in the physical realm, then we will have no coherent philosophies or principles by which to reason about our societal relationships with one another. In that world, our laws will increasingly seem to be a hodgepodge of ad hoc nonsensical inconsistent hacks. This is structured anarchy.

And the danger in that anarchy is twofold. First, it is not an optimal arrangement, whether optimizing for net human happiness (the basest utilitarian definition of that term), or whether, in a more urgent sense, preventing the annihilation of the human species. This is because our technologies for manipulating the physical world have gotten so good and there is such synchrony across the entire globe, that we can easily create our own destruction in an entirely haphazard way. Nukes were actually the easiest version of this problem because everyone can see that a gigantic nuclear fireball was bad and that a globe covered with gigantic nuclear fireballs would be even worse. However the things that really endanger our species or things that we have a hard time seeing.

Humans are very, very bad at integrating things over a long period of time. This is related to our inability to perceive the differential risk in low-probability events. In our past lives, we were all boiled frogs. So our big dangers are actually things like long-term reduction in biodiversity, or things like pollution — and not just the obvious kinds of pollutants which make people sick and kill animals quickly. Our dangers even include things that we’re doing now, that what we don’t even know to measure, that cause long-term weakness in our biome.

The Atlantic has a very nice piece along these lines of the hidden failures of scarcity-oriented thinking, in The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy. We have no stories that tell us what a sustainable, modern, abundance economy could look like. So we’re stuck in a medieval mindset that anyone not actively trading hours of labor for food and shelter must be disgraced. (Unless, of course, they are living in a sufficiently-glitzy house, in which case we lionize their condition as “success”.)

I present no solutions here other than to highlight that if we are to re-imagine an architecture for human organizations that minimizes harm and optimizes for creativity, we cannot build it on the ambiguous quicksand of legacy conceptions of “scarcity”, “property”, “habeas corpus-style liberty”, and other things that are only well-defined in the physical realm.