A Post-Scarcity Society Would Probably Be Dystopian

A Post-Scarcity Society Would Probably Be Dystopian

In 1930 John Maynard Keynes published Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. With this pamphlet, the hope of a post-scarcity society, where people no longer have to work for a living, moved from a utopian pipe dream to something with some amount of mainstream clout. More recently, advances in automation have thrown open the question again: what if technology advances so much that most people not only don’t need to work, but can’t work?

“Tea, earl grey, hot”

Usually writers hopeful of a post-scarcity society will offer a paean to the value of leisure, or a call for greater redistribution, or something to that effect. I myself strongly doubt that technology will ever convert the great majority of people into zero marginal product workers.1 But I also doubt, if such a society were to come about, that it would be quite the paradise imagined by post-work writers.

Competition and Institutions

Competition is a fundamental feature of biological life in general. In the broader biological world there’s usually no a priori reason to expect competition to be beneficial rather than wasteful or harmful. Predation, parasitism, theft, and violence – things that benefit one organism at the expense of another – are all extremely common avenues of competition in the animal world, even between members of a single species.

Humans, however, are relatively unique in this respect. Humans are inclined to sublimate resource competition into status competition. Rather than vying for resources directly, humans tend to vie for respect from their peers. And because humans value status at least as much as resources on most margins, they’re able to internalize norms and rules that channel competition into beneficial directions, or at least that proscribe particularly harmful modes of competition. This was the evolutionary niche exploited by human groups: paradoxically, caring less about resources individually enabled humans to marshall far more resources collectively than they would otherwise have been able to.

Private property is the crown jewel of such institutions. By proscribing broad swaths of competitive actions that benefit one party at the expense of another – theft, for example – competition is channeled into socially beneficial avenues such as production for exchange.2 This particular institution is the foundation of the capitalism whose phenomenal success first suggested the possibility of a post-scarcity society.

But what happens when status competition itself becomes harmful?

Wealth and Status Competition

Humans obviously care about resources directly to some extent. A starving man cares more about the bread than the respect he loses by stealing it. But as resources become more plentiful, status becomes relatively more important on the margin.

We see this in China, for example, as it becomes wealthier: as basic goods become more plentiful, class conflict centers more on zero-sum status goods, such as location and education.3 In the West, Hayek surmised that status envy was the reason so many intellectuals were so willing to jettison the institutions that made their profession possible. More broadly, the capitalist West is again facing Antifa Riot the specter of the media fawning over upper-class bourgeois anarchists with Molotov cocktails – people who certainly don’t lack resources, but whose status anxiety, unconstrained by an underlying necessity to procure resources cooperatively, drives them toward destructive ideologies.

Capitalism and private property, as institutions for grappling with scarcity, are good at making sure that resources don’t flow to destructive groups or individuals. But they’re not particularly good at making sure approbation doesn’t flow to destructive groups or individuals. This problem becomes more acute as a society becomes wealthier. And since the approbation of prosocial behavior is what makes these institutions sustainable, it becomes more and more difficult to sustain them as harmful status competition becomes more prevalent.

It’s wishful thinking to imagine that competition will vanish in a post-scarcity society. Indeed, for such a society, the problem of approbation will be the primary problem its institutions must solve: as status competition becomes more salient, what institutions are necessary to channel it into socially beneficial avenues?

Whatever such institutions look like, they’re probably not compatible with free speech. If wealthier societies are more likely to have harmful status competition, if they’re more likely to see the emergence of ideologies that make destruction high-status, the single most important institution in a post-scarcity society may be something like a thought police to forcibly prevent such ideologies from emerging.

Material abundance does not, of course, make the task of enforcing ideological homogeneity any easier than it is at the moment. In fact it may make it more difficult. Such a society will still be vulnerable to ideological drift and preference cascades, especially if a ruling elite manages to coopt the prevailing ideology to augment its own status. The rebels in this case may be entirely correct in noting the corruption and cravenness of the ruling elite, and nevertheless manage to destroy the society.4

For this reason, if we ever do manage to achieve a post-scarcity world, I doubt it will last very long before self-destructing.

The Very-Long Run

For the sake of argument, let’s assume this society manages to successfully navigate the problems of ideological conformity. Competition will obviously not disappear with the advent of material abundance. But might it disappear over the very long run? If the conditions necessitating competition are absent, might the competitive drive also disappear?

This is a real possibility. But, unfortunately, again a rather dark one. As was shown in the first section, status competition is the basis of human sociality. To remove the conditions for human competition, therefore, is also to remove the conditions for human sociality.

A few thousand years of material abundance, therefore, is not likely to turn human society into a cooperative paradise. More likely the human condition will be substantially more solitary than at present, with a concomitant decay of the mental correlates of sociality, such as language and intelligence.

(But if the technology of abundance is sufficiently advanced to sustain humanity all the way through the devolution of its sociality, one might also hope that something like CRISPR will be developed enough by that time to be able to avert it.)

To conclude, I strongly doubt that human society will ever achieve anything that could be meaningfully called post-scarcity. But maybe this is a hopeful position after all.


  1. Which is not to say that the great majority of people will never become ZMP workers, only that it won’t be technology driving that change.
  2. Contra Karl Polanyi, then, it’s not the case that precapitalist societies were characterized by a status motive whereas capitalist societies are characterized by a profit motive. Rather, the status motive remains crucial for making the private property system work at all: if we did not condemn thieves and free-riders, and praise those who punish them, there would be no hope of maintaining a private property system at all.
  3. I have in mind a forthcoming piece by John Nye here. I’ll add the link when it’s published.
  4. The Arab Spring is an instructive parallel here.


NormsPolitical EconomyJohn Nye


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    May 06, 2018 at 16:25 | Reply

    Why do you doubt most people will become ZMP? And, supposing the majority don’t, what happens if a minority does systematically become ZMP while the majority does not? For example, it’s quite conceivable that people with IQs sub 90 become systematically unemployed. What of these people?

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      May 06, 2018 at 16:41

      I don’t necessarily think that’s implausible; see footnote 1: “Which is not to say that the great majority of people will never become ZMP workers, only that it won’t be technology driving that change.”

      What happens in that case? Probably nothing much different from the advent of any other dark age in history.

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