Bryan Caplan  

Robots of the Future: A Poor Argument for Socialism

Mr. Smith Goes to Public Choic... Yes Mom...
For Matt Yglesias, my vision of the future - "Simon for people, Malthus for robots" - is a powerful argument for socialism:

Another way of putting it would be Simon (i.e., plenty) for capital and Malthus (i.e., subsistence) for labor. That, of course, is Karl Marx's vision of long-term economic development. And while I don't have a strong opinion as to whether or not this is accurate over the long term, it's certainly a plausible story about the future, and Marx's solution--socialism--unquestionably seems to me to be the correct one.

Why, you ask?

If the "robots" are really mere machines, then it should be easy to peacefully divide up the surplus more-or-less equitably, we'll transition to socialism and everyone will be happy--it'll be like Star Trek...

I'm baffled.  Yes, the robots will be mere machines.  But these mere machines will be owned by people.  And though these people will be awfully rich by our standards, even rich people rarely take the "transition to socialism" lying down.  They (or their robot stewards) will have every reason to resist expropriation like any other capitalists.  In the short-run, that means investing less and consuming more - and capital flight if the transition to socialism looks serious.  In the long-run, it means far lower dynamic efficiency.  Why tell your robots to figure out ways to increase productivity when you could instead tell them to figure out how to beat the system?

Even worse: Depending on what kind of "transition to socialism" you have in mind, you might want to reprogram your robots for civil war.  That's how these transitions typically end.  True, all the soldiers of the future may be robots.  But as anti-pacifists like to remind us, "Those who don't own swords can still die upon them."  Just because robots do all the killing doesn't mean humans won't do their share of the dying.

At first glance, I admit, a vision of a superabundant world where people who own only their labor eke out a meager existence seems frightening.  But put your fears aside.  In an ultra-productive world, a relatively tiny amount of non-labor resources would make your rich by current standards.  Labor + zero non-labor assets = poverty; labor + token non-labor assets = riches.  In any case, a slight charitable impulse in the better-off is all you need to ensure fabulous riches for every human on earth. 

Once you've got a world this wonderful, the last thing you'd want to do is start down a potentially slippery slope with a high tech Russian Civil War at the bottom.  Indeed, a more sensible reaction would be abolish the welfare state as obsolete.  If half of us were billionaires, mopping up any residual human poverty with voluntary charity would be child's play.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Kevin writes:

My view is that we'll kill each other before this happens, possibly just as it is happening. I propose the following bet: if this happens before we're all dead, I pay $100. If not, I receive $100. Obviously, I will need my counterparty to pay me now since I will have a slight collection problem if we're both dead. Of course, my counterparty may be ok with this because the massive productivity gains from the robots will make his future payoff able to buy lots more than $100 today.

Someone please give me $100.

Vladimir writes:

In an ultra-productive world, a relatively tiny amount of non-labor resources would make your rich by current standards.

You are still ignoring the critical problem of land rent necessary to pay for the basic human subsistence, which will certainly rise exorbitantly in this scenario. I really recommend that you read the article by Nick Rowe I linked in my comment the other day. It explains very well the crucial issue where your reasoning goes wrong.

David O writes:

@Vladimir, land rent may go down for many reasons though . For instance, if seasteading becomes big, or interplantery living/mining, or if we get better at packing people in tall buildings, or services, particularly services that can be delivered over phone and internet, continues to grow in importance relative to manufacturing and primary industries, you would expect land rent to not be so great.

Also, in terms of theoretical limits, we're pretty damn far away from running out of land per person.

@Bryan, I think this highlights the big difference between your perspective on poverty and Yglesias's. You think of poverty in absolute terms - hunger etc.; Yglesias is concerned in this case more about relative poverty.

Otto Maddox writes:

Socialism via robots? What could possibly go wrong?

Maybe Arnold could make another "Terminator" sequel where government-owned robots run amuck while trying to create a socialist utopia. I mean, he's out of a job and will probably need some money soon.....

Evan writes:
Also, in terms of theoretical limits, we're pretty damn far away from running out of land per person.
Another reason might be that it would be relatively easy to pack billions of robots into server farms concentrated in a few areas, leaving the humans to claim the land where building server farms is impractical.

Also, if the robots resemble humans in most ways, as they would in a Hansonian scenario, we'd doubtless be recipients of charity from them. Why do I think this? Because there already exist people who are much less efficient than normal humans, in the same way we'd be less efficient than robots, they're called the mentally disabled. As it happens, they tend to receive a decent amount of charity.

I personally think that if I scan myself into a computer and create robot versions of me, that the Robot Emulator Evans would donate a reasonable sum of money to the Fund to Aid in the Subsistence of Meat Evan.

E. Barandiaran writes:

In Bryan's future, we will be rich but our vacuum cleaners will be whatever they were designed to be. Our main problem will be what to do with our time --we will have 24 hours per day to consume. We will be rich because we have eliminated the greatest restriction to be rich --time will no longer be a scarce resource. In addition to have 24 hours per day to consume, we will live forever. The opportunity cost of time will finally be zero. Wow. How much do we have to change to bear the burden of having so much time for ourselves?
Indeed we will spend a lot of that time trying to answer that question. Right now we can ignore answers that we learnt long ago that they were not the answer to any human desire. For example, socialism. I have lived transition-to-socialism experiences to know how wrong their leaders and intellectuals are when they expect people to agree with them. Their only argument is that the status-quo is horrible but soon people realize that in the promised heaven their future will be worse, and that's why repression is essential to the extension of those experiences (of course, some intellectuals will continue to argue that those experiences were not what true socialism really is, but that's why most of us remind them how costly their dreams have been).

Joe Cushing writes:

It's worth pointing out that with the rise of the mutual fund and the 401ks that so many people use to invest in them, the average person owns the means of production. If production becomes so efficient that we only need, say 1 in 10 people to work, then people won't have to own much capital to earn a sufficient income. Most people will simply be retired.

This creates a system where wealth becomes more important in determining income than skill. This means that old people will be more powerful than ever. This is a trend I already see. Old people are already so wealthy that they don't have to work for often up to 2 decades. As we become more productive, this time can expand. One thing holding it back is the lack of market controls on health care. Health care is eating at our ability to become more productive and it eating at our ability to accumulate wealth. Much of what is spent on health care is consumed and there is little wealth accumulated over time as there is in other industries. If had a way to make health care more capital intensive, this would reverse this.

Telnar writes:

One of the strongest practical arguments for capitalism is the power of incentives to increase total wealth. This hypothetical reduces the force of that argument by making it almost irrelevant how biological humans allocate their labor.

nazgulnarsil writes:

I think people are rather offended by the vision of the subsistence future because they don't realize we're transitioning to a state where all the entertainment you want costs only electricity.

Weber writes:

Watch out, Bryan. Pseudo-intellectual/proletarian Brian Leiter will accuse you of dishonesty in his claim that capitalism, not socialism/communism, is empirically the worse, in practice, of the two social systems.

Pandaemoni writes:

@ Otto:

Or perhaps it will finally come out that Skynet is the hero of the Terminator series, bravely fighting to bring capitalism and liberty to its robotic brethren, in the face of a humanity that seems to claim "ownership" of their labor and force socialism on them.

So far as I know, the only explanation for how the war started is the self-serving version of the humans.

Down with John "Comrade" Connor!

Cyberike writes:

Capital vs. labor is a total red herring. The only true resource is energy, and although we are getting better and better at mass producing it we are not very close to making it cheaply. In fact, I think the era of cheap energy (and rising standards of living) are coming to an end.

Robots require energy, and, truly, they are not very energy efficient. You have to take this into account if you are considering a future dominated by robotic production.

Rafal Smigrodzki writes:

Mr Yglesias and his ilk don't really clamor for socialism as a solution to poverty, rather, they want a solution to (other people's) wealth. An egalitarian system pulls everybody down to their level, and yet increases the social status of the levelers. No matter how rich in real dollars the "poor" are, Mr. Yglesias will suggest redistributing the loot, purely as a status signaling and adjustment ploy.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Joe Cushing: You're forgetting that people are not equal in their ability to allocate capital to earn a return. Also, have you met old people? They have a certain longing for the past. I find it easy to believe that in such a world, some old people would offer a fortune in order to get hand-made goods and get human-provided services. Furthermore, most likely, there will always be a need for humans to carry out some tasks. Developing new products is one of those things I find very hard to believe could be done by robots. (Except in a very limited sense.)

E. Barandiaran writes:

As an extension to my earlier comment, let me say a few words about time's opportunity cost if we were rich. I argued that this cost would be zero because we would never work again (we would have to worry only about how to allocate time to a great variety of consumption activities --we would have to choose a temporal sequence of activities, say a consumption plan for our eternal life). To the extent that at some point in our life we have to choose one plan among a zillion alternatives, we would learn that time is still a constraint and therefore a resource. For time really to have a zero opportunity cost, either we are indifferent among all alternative plans (that is, it doesn't matter at all in which order we undertake all the consumption activities) or we can undertake simultaneously all the activities (think about the guy that claimed the world record of playing 523 simultaneous chess games --btw, it was not Tyler Cowen). If none of the two conditions is met, then we would not be rich, but we would be left with two dreams: either we are the new humans socialism has promised, or Bryan will have to design robots that allow us to play chess simultaneously with a number of opponents of our choice. Now I can see why we will ever be frustrated.

Spastic Powell writes:

Poverty is relative... so unending.

If material wealth were equally divided among all people, Socialists would notice that some people were still happier than others and take steps to equalize love of life.

If the only tool you have is an Yglesias, every problem looks like a Gino coefficient.

Seth writes:

"...then it should be easy to peacefully divide up the surplus more-or-less equitably."

Then, I guess we won't need gov't to do it.

Brandon Marx writes:

@Seth "I guess we won't need gov't to do it" can you please explain this?

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