This is partly a response to a comment by Ezra in my blog "Money is information, but does it want to be free?
" in which I asked that question, and this blog will provide my answer. Part of Ezra's argument regarding money is in "An Irrelevant Problem in a Resource-based Economy
If I understand correctly, Ezra claimed that money was invented to provide a monetary incentive for people to work, paying them to extract resources for the purpose of manufacturing. I talked about why I believe we started to use money, arguing that it was a matter of being more convenient than trading products or services directly. I believe the use of money evolved gradually over many thousands of years, more from the bottom up as people needed it, rather than from the top down as the "owners" wanted it.
So I don't believe there was some plan by the creators of money who did it simply because they needed to pay humans to extract resources. And I don't believe money was used to create the illusion of scarcity because up until fairly recently, we have been under the illusion that we had unlimited resources, all but free to exploit to the maximum. I don't have historical evidence either way about what really happened, however, so I am curious if you know of something that would prove your case.
You might argue that in the past, the scarcity was artificially contrived for the purpose of gaining more profit. We know that that kind of thing does happen, but in contrast, in the near future, scarcity will be a fact, and careful accounting of all our time and energy will be a necessity so we have a chance of squeezing through the dire straights of cataclysm.
But even without money, the illusion of scarcity can be created merely by controlling and withholding the valuable resources, whether it is fuel and minerals or food and water. Money is not the cause of the problems, but control of power is.The real problem of money
The problem with the monetary system, in my opinion, is not that we use money to represent value, or that different skills have different values, but that we now have a gross inequity between the richest and the poorest among us, with a million to one ratio between them. Actually, that's just a symptom. The real problem is that the system is rigged in so many ways to favor the rich and powerful, such that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer
. This can't go on much longer. Those rich people are not a million times "better" than the poor by any measure other than having more money and power, and in many ways, they are far worse.
We have to find ways to reverse this trend, to make it *much
* more difficult for the rich to gain even more wealth and power at the expense of everyone else. I don't believe we should just eliminate the ability to acquire wealth, because it is one of the incentives to work harder or smarter, to advance your situation to the level you are comfortable with, as long as it is done fairly and in proportion to the effort expended. It should come at a cost, however, such as a tax, that makes it increasingly difficult to gain even more. We should treat excessively wealthy people like we treat monopolies, since they essentially have a monopoly on money when 20% of the people control 85% of the money. (see Who Rules America
By the way, we need to restrain the power of corporations even more than that of individuals for the same reason, and because corporations are not people but they can amass power even more quickly.Automation Reduces Cost
Regarding the cost of products getting increasingly cheaper due to automation, we agree on that much, but I think you would be going too far to leap all the way to zero. "Information wants to be free" doesn't mean it will ever get what it wants. It is probably more like falling into a black h***, in which you would be forever falling, and the closer you get, the more time expands. So the future of money will probably look pretty much how it does now in terms of having products and services with different values relative to each other. It is just that we should all be able to afford a much higher standard of living, just as most of us are now doing much better than our ancestors were just 50 or 100 years ago.
The trend of products getting cheaper because of automation really means that they cost less in terms of the amount of energy and time required to produce them. But this does not mean that the cost ever actually reaches zero, or even that everything will cost so little that we can just as well forget about the cost. Rather, there will always be a range of choices of different things we can do at any one time, and some choices will be less expensive than others. Understanding production cost as a fact of physics, in terms of energy and time, makes it clear that we do not a choice about eliminating cost entirely.Possible Futures
Now one possible future, assuming we solve all the critical problems and stabilize on a sustainable process, is where we do in fact automate almost everything. We can build the robots that build robots, and they can even evolve on their own to improve over time. I believe this is possible, and because it is possible, and there are benefits, it is likely to happen eventually. But I believe that if we do that, and if we are not continuing to evolve ourselves, that will be the end of us. It could be like Wall-E world where we would have nothing to do ourselves but order the robots around and enjoy life, doing as little as possible.
In contrast to that Dystopian picture of everyone doing less and less because they don't have to do much of anything, Ezra presents the opposite Utopian perspective, arguing that once we have satisfied everyone's basic needs, then mankind will have the opportunity to pursue intellectual, scientific or artistic endeavors. I would agree that, compared to our current pressures to survive, an environment that successfully satisfies everyone's basic needs will encourage many more people to spend their time pursuing knowledge and personal growth. But I think it would be overly optimistic to expect that everyone will do so.
While both extremes are possible futures, I believe it is very unlikely we will go to either extreme. The extremely pessimistic belief that no one will do anything if they don't have to, and the extremely optimistic belief that everyone will do the right thing if they can are both extremes that ignore human nature. The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle. The main reason is there will always be at least a few people, but not everyone, who will strive to do better, whether that is better than others, or just better than what they have previously done themselves. What they achieve may or may not be more valued by others, but that basic urge to do better means we are off the the races again.
In addition to people with the strongest urge to do better, there is everyone else, and among them are
some number of people who are least motivated to do much of anything. These people need to be supported by civilization as well, but we have to be careful not to merely reward living off of the work of others because there is a risk of turning into a welfare state, but instead, we need help everyone find opportunities to increase their value and contribute as much as they can. If we do it right, I don't believe the number of people near the low end would be the vast majority of people but a vanishingly small minority. Most people will be somewhere closer to the middle.
I am not saying that people will only do things for money; I agree that we will increasingly do things for rewards other than money. But just as the cost of products will never reach zero, the relative value of different services and achievements created by people will never be completely irrelevant either.
In summary, money being a measure of value is not the problem, but how the power of money is abused is the problem. Even without money, the abuse of power acc**ulated by other means would still occur, so it is excessive power that we have to constrain. As we advance our civilization to put priorities on real inherent value, money will likely be less important, though it is not likely to ever disappear. If we set up a system that, while providing incentives for everyone to advance, also does not leave any people behind, then we can all advance together. Again, I agree that we will use money less and less as the incentive for people to advance, but it will still be there, fading into the background.