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Scarcity: can't live with it, can't live without it

Henry Farrell posts about science fiction writers' attempts to grapple with economics in a future where there is no scarcity.

This came home to me at Torcon, where a well-attended and intelligent panel discussed the economics of abundance - if future scientific progress allows us to produce [and, presumably, distribute] material goods effectively for free (as some sf writers postulate), then what happens to society? Iain Banks’ ‘Culture’ series is perhaps the best known sf take on this question; Banks sneakily describes a Communist utopia in terms which might well mislead the uninitiated into thinking that he’s a gung-ho libertarian. And Banks got frequent and deserved namechecks at the panel. Charlie Stross gave the standard take that economics is the science of choice under scarcity, and then launched into a discussion of what economics might have to say under conditions where scarcity didn’t apply (answer: not much). The panel, after some meanderings, more or less agreed that material abundance would lead people to displace their energies to achieving social status through positional goods and the like.

This is in a sense a follow-up to his earlier post about transhumanism. Both deal with the problem of how the human mind (economists are, presumably, human -- though the question of how ordinary people will experience a world without scarcity is even more interesting, from my point of view), a tool adapted to decision-making under constraints, deals with unconstrained scenarios. We don't have the same squicky reaction to a lack of economic scarcity as we do to transhumanism, perhaps because economic scarcity is less personal and more routinely frustrating. Indeed, there's a strong tradition on the left of celebrating the coming scarcity-free future. Or rather, there are two such traditions -- the Marxist, which says that industrial capitalism will end scarcity by producing so much so cheaply (a view shared by plenty on the right as well); and what I would call the eco-Daoist, which calls for a cultural change so that we are satisfied with what we have, thus experiencing abundance in a world that has reduced the actual availability of goods in order to live within its ecological means.

It's interesting how many readers -- including myself -- immediately denied Henry's premise, asserting different ways in which scarcity would persist even in the presence of unlimited free material goods. One of the big factors is that, beyond bare subsistence needs, abundance is always defined relationally. A recent study (I can't find the link to it anymore) found that being rich doesn't make you happy, but being richer (than your neighbors, or than you were in the past) can. Everyone thinks that if they just had a little more -- twice their current income, according to the study -- they would beat scarcity, and have functional abundance. We create scarcity even where it doesn't have to exist. Thus it seems that only functionally infinite availability would count as total abundance. In that case, I wonder if the abundant goods wouldn't lose meaning. They would no longer be experienced as abundant or scarce, but as pointless, just as, say, people who live in a non-polluted area don't see air as any kind of issue at all.


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