Friday Freaky Future Politics

Neil Sinhababu says we can’t know the future of the welfare state:

If there’s one thing I’m convinced of about the future, it’s that it’s going to be really weird in ways we can’t imagine right now. There’s going to be all sorts of crazy new technologies. Some of them are going to transform human social relations in ways we can’t predict in advance. Others might make life utterly awesome for those who have them, making it an important big government liberal cause to provide them to everybody. The government is violating people’s right to pleasure if it doesn’t fund the writing of the program that allows people to set themselves up with whatever awesome sex dreams they want once they download it into their brains through the USB slot in the back of their necks! We need to discover the minimal physical unit that can have the experience of intense pleasure, and devote huge resources to manufacturing them by the quintillions!

I don’t think that’s right. There’d be no reason to specifically provide awesome sex dreams as an in-kind benefit. There’s always an argument from the declining marginal utility of money for redistribution of money but that’s different from saying there’s specifically an argument for public subsidy for some specific thing. We want to subsidize activities that are associated with positive externalities (education, other stuff related to kids), do direct provision of risk-pooling (retirement security, some health insurance), and at least consider direct provision of natural monopolies (mostly physical infrastructure) but crazy pleasure machines have nothing to do with it.

The foreseeable game-changer here is some kind of genetic engineering. For many of the same reasons that we subsidize education, we might want to subsidize in utero interventions to improve the people of tomorrow. It wouldn’t just be a question of equity, it would be a question of specifically wanting to encourage parents to invest in this direction. After all, you can’t “win the future” just by having kids crack the books and work hard when in Finland the children emerge from the womb already two years ahead of us in math and science. I suspect the emergence of this kind of technology would substantially remap politics.