Land, Leisure, and Inequality

Chris Bertram argues sensibly that in the long run improvements in productivity should lead to increased leisure rather than increased unemployment:

Allow me to suggest a third possibility. Instead of mass unemployment or horrendous inequality, technological improvement could reduce the time people spend working to meet their needs and give them more free time. Free time that they could use for other purposes (such as their all-round human development) . The Jerry Cohen video that I posted the other week centres on this very point. For more discussion see ch.11 of Karl Marx’s Theory of History , which, I now see, furnished much of the script for that talk. Of course, if you take “free markets”, extensive private property and the domination of the political system by money (so that you can’t do much about the first two) as givens, then the third possibility will appear impossible or utopian.

For those less familiar with Marx, let me suggest the Star Trek series as an illustrative example. The development of replicator technology seems to have created such a surfeit of goods that traditional capitalist modes of production are obsolete. Rather than accept a world of boundless economic inequality, the federation appears to have eliminated patents (hence there’s no super-rich Bill Gates of the replicator) and provided for socialized ownership of dilithium reserves (so there’s no super-rich David Koch of the warp core reactor) and then we all lived happily ever after. As Jean-Luc Picard explains “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Material resources flow from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs. It’s happy, that is, as long as we’re blessed to be citizens of the democratic United Federation of Planets. In the Klingon, Cardassian, and Romulan empires the collapse of capitalism and the end of economic inequality seems to have resulted in the creation of strict hierarchical societies in which political inequality is a major factor in life.

But to return us to reality, I think an important point in this utopian vision is that the development of practical tools of interstellar exploration seem to have radically reduced the significance of land in this vision of the future. Try to imagine a utopian version of earth in which everyone on the planet can obtain the material living standards of the average contemporary Dutch person without doing any paid labor. Well some people are going to be enjoying the life of leisure from a nice villa in the Tuscan countryside or from the stunning beaches of the Caribbean while others will be less-fortunately situated in Arkhangelsk or the suburbs of Houston.

The interesting thing, to me, is that since the marginal utility of money declines these basic problems are the ones that arise whether or not we formally make the switch to socialism. Inequality is a phenomenon of scarcity. As material goods become more plentiful, inequality in material living standards becomes less of a reality. But things like land and political power become scarcer, and inequality in their possession becomes more salient. But money begets political power. And even in “free market” America, control of the land is largely a matter of controlling the political process.