The other night, we were watching the Shanghai episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. During an early segment, Bourdain was eating dumplings with billionaire Zhou Lin. Out of the blue, Zhou Lin posed this dilly of a pickle:
"But the difficulty nowadays, it's just the technology is so advanced, we don't really need that many people to do things that many people used to do. And what's the population? Seven billion people? The world probably doesn't need that many people working anymore. So the question is: What should human beings do, you know? How can you let them not do anything and then still live a good life? I dunno. It's going to be a big issue facing the whole world."
That seems like a really good question, doesn't it? Oversimplifying things, wages are determined by the need for labor versus its scarcity**. Automation increases the productivity of each worker, which reduces the need for labor and decreases the scarcity of workers. Toss in an increasing population and you're bound to eventually reach the point where there's not enough work, meaning "jobs which pay a living wage", to go around. Adam Smith wasn't the prophet of our times; Ned Ludd was.
Maybe that Marx fellow was on to something. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"* is the sort of thing that would address exactly this problem if not for one little problem: Human nature. That's what Zhou Lin is talking about when he asks "How can you let them not do anything and then still live a good life?" People who work get tetchy when they see other people getting the same rewards by not working***.
This is the guy I'm thinking about.
We're approaching the end of capitalism as a viable system, or rather, it's already failure is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed****. What can be done, going forward? Most of the ideas I can think of can be classified three ways:
1) Band-aids: Temporary solutions to try to sustain the existing system a little longer while we try to sort things out. A mandatory shorter (four day?) work week would increase the scarcity of labor. Heavy taxes on automation would do the same, albeit in an inflationary way. Higher minimum wagers would fall in to this category as well.
2) Unrealistic: Most socialist/communist solutions fall into this category. Eliminating the power of accumulated, unproductive wealth might work, but it's as likely to be effectively implemented as banning guns in the United States. Setting a maximum wage, ending inheritance, and no longer treating unearned income like it's better than earned income are some common sense measures that would never, ever, ever make any headway.
3) Monstrous: Fewer people would make the problem less severe. A big die-back would accomplish this quickly. Forced sterilization and/or setting a limit on the number of children people can have would be less extreme and take longer but would eventually arrive at the same place. To be perfectly clear, I think these are monstrous and incredibly bad ideas.
That's a long way of saying that I obviously do not have the answer. I don't know what a society where one's livelihood is not defined by work or productivity or wealth would look like. Someone's going to have to figure it out, though. The relationship between work and making a living is broken. So long as the trend towards more automation and greater population continues. it's only going to get worse.
* Yes, I know this phrase is properly attributed to Louis Blanc, but Marx popularized it. In fairness, Blanc was riffing on Étienne-Gabriel Morelly: "In accordance with the sacred laws, nothing will be sold or exchanged between citizens. Someone who needs, for example greens, vegetables or fruits, will go to the public square, which is where these items will have been brought by the man who cultivate them, and take what he needs for one day only." Yes, I looked it up in Wikipedia. I'd love to say that I knew all of this off the top of my head, but that would be fibbing.
** Yes, increased productivity drives down prices, increasing the standard of living and creating additional need for work in other service industries. The relationship between automation and population in terms of wages isn't 1:-1, but the two are negatively related and anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you a bill of goods. Goods likely produced by below-sustenance labor and sold to you on overpriced credit.
*** You also get hack philosophers writing subtle-as-a-falling-anvil polemics about the few heroic productive people and the mass of parasites who leech off of them. Funnily enough, everyone who reads these novels thinks that they, the reader, are among the heroic productive people. Fortunately, most people outgrow this sort of thing the day they get out of college.
**** Apologies to @GreatDismal