An article in this morning’s New York Times, “The Robots Are Coming” raises the issue of what has been called a “universal income.” The potential political candidate in the article, Andrew Yang, is proposing that the government should provide each adult American with $1,000 a month. Why? Because the majority of Americans are headed towards unemployment.
Most hard working conservative Americans – presently employed – will recoil at the idea of laying an unearned paycheck in the hands of their unemployed fellow citizens. I predict this sentiment is likely to change when their own jobs are threatened by the advance of AI and robotics.
Join me in a thought experiment I had a couple of years ago and not only will this seemingly unjust distribution of wealth seem sensible, but inevitable as well. A certainty if civilization is to survive the advent of human replacing technology.
Known for his “labor theory of value” the British philosopher, John Locke, stated that “All wealth is the product of labor.” Though money is often confused as wealth, in reality, it is the goods and services we purchase with money. The production of wealth is dependent upon labor of some kind.
In Locke’s day the bulk of that labor was derived from the muscle power of man and beast. Yes, there was the occasional water wheel driven grist mill, but the first commercial steam engine began cranking out power ten years after Locke’s death.
The industrial revolution began freeing mankind from the drudgery of physical labor in factories and on farms, and now has advanced to the point where even the teamsters, first freed from driving horses and oxen by the internal combustion engine, are now facing complete retirement by autonomously self-driven trucks. One by one, more and more, jobs are being eliminated. So far most of them have been in factories and warehouses, but there is no limit to technology’s reach.
Now imagine a hypothetical world in which human labor was not required to make anything. The resultant massive unemployment would of course be obvious. What is less obvious, but equally problematic, are the missing consumers. Without a job and income the masses cease to be buyers of goods and services.
With no wages being earned in the fields, mines, founderies, mills, factories, offices, banks, and the last bastion of unproductive labor, government offices, who would buy the stuff being made by the robots?
Maybe everything should just be free? After all, the ultimate cost of anything and everything is human labor. Want evidence? Why is air free but water comes at a price? Because air is processed and delivered without labor, and water isn’t.
Free stuff? That would necessitate a level of altruism we’re unlikely to find in the shadow of centuries of capitalism Even in a world of total automation human ownership would still exist. The owners of the robots would be the owners of whatever those robots produced. The robots are what Karl Marx referred to as “the means of production,” private ownership of which is the basis of capitalism.
Here is the problem, it doesn’t matter how much of this world’s goods and services one owns if there is no one able to pay for them. Capitalism doesn’t work without consumption, and the balance between producers and buyers is headed for imbalance. The kind of imbalance you felt when the fat kid fell of his end of the teeter totter.
What can be done? Well… it seems that there may be only two solutions (generally speaking), share ownership of the means of production (socialism), or share the resultant production (same thing couched in different terms).
The argument has been made – by those who predict the future based upon the past – that though new technology has forever been disruptive of jobs based in the old technology, e.g. buggy whip makers, new jobs were created, e.g. spark plug makers, it is obviously different this time. The robot makers will be replaced by robots.
My prediction? In the end a universal income will be seen to be as fair, and democratic as the distribution of another one of life’s necessities. AIR!