Scenario: Robots Mean Socialism

In a published article on political philosophies, I quoted from a statement of socialist principles published in 1891:

With the extension of world commerce and of production for the world market, the condition of the workmen of every single land always grows more dependent on the condition of the workmen in other lands . . . [We struggle] not only against exploitation and oppression of the wage-workers, but against every [form] of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against class, party, sex, or race. [Laidler, 1968, pp. 235-236.]

Such remarks demonstrate that the developed world has adopted many aspects of the socialist agenda.  We do have far better protections of working people, lower classes, women, and minorities than was the case in 1891.  Continuing in that long-term trend, it appears likely that ordinary people will become increasingly reliant upon government, or something like it.

The idea of growing government may go against the grain for many readers.  One Tea Party sentiment that drew much derision was expressed in the slogan, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”  Obviously, Medicare is a government program.  Yet in another sense — presumably the sense intended by the author of that slogan — it is not.  If people come to see government as a realm of politicking, bickering, deception, manipulation, ripoffs, and other abuses, then relatively depoliticized parts of government (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, arguably the Federal Reserve) are somewhat removed from it.  “Government” in this sense seems to mean “what government has become” as distinct from the relatively more popular and principled government supported and staffed by the WWII generation.

In other words, even those who think they are opposed to big government commonly seem, in fact, to be supportive of big government, as distinct from big politics.  But even if they were not, there is a force afoot that would drive them toward quasi-socialistic solutions nonetheless.  That force is robotics.  Brilliant people, with considerable funding, are doing everything they can to create a world in which employees are not needed.  In many cases, as functions are reconceptualized, expensive robots that resemble people give way to cheap robots like the Roomba.  The machine that picks up garbage or cleans portable toilets, 20 years from now, may bear little resemblance to the people and trucks doing such work today.  One thing is sure:  they will be far less expensive.

Elsewhere, I have suggested that it has become common to misconstrue poverty and to glorify jobs at any price.  A world in which large numbers of people cannot be economically self-sustaining is not necessarily inferior to a world in which everyone would have a job.  For one thing, greater awareness of the enduring and growing excesses of human population may encourage more widespread acknowledgement that, actually, not everyone needs to have children.  Meanwhile, as that recognition takes root and spreads, we may find ourselves with many people who will have little alternative but to attend to those parts of existence (e.g., friendship, family, community, history, arts, learning) that employed people typically neglect.

Whatever we do with our free time, it does appear likely that we are going to have more of it. It has been suggested that “One out of every three jobs will be converted to software, robots, or smart machines by 2025.” Within the next few decades, the idea that everyone must toil (and be paid) to perform assorted tasks is going to seem as antiquated as the idea of using a manual typewriter.  Such things will remain possible; they will just seem unnecessary, a part of a past that we don’t have much reason to return to.

[This piece was originally posted in my ideas blog.]

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