A Post-Work Society

China had every technology necessary for an industrial revolution hundreds of years before the revolution actually happened in Europe. Why did it not start in China?

Industrialization is about efficiency – it’s about doing as much work as possible, using as few people as possible. But, people were China’s most abundant resource. They had no reason to conserve labor, to do work more efficiently, and so they did not industrialize.

To our modern sensibilities, this argument should make perfect sense. We are in the midst of a technological revolution of our own. Manufacturing jobs for humans are going away as factories realize a new tier of automation. Deliveries have just begun being made by drone. Several companies are developing self-driving cars, with surprising levels of success. Agents – who sell things like real estate and insurance – are being replaced by software.

As I write this post, politicians are scrambling to keep manufacturing jobs in this country. But, that scramble is futile. Those jobs aren’t leaving the country so much as they are leaving the world, never to return. Unlike China of the past, who didn’t have any reason to industrialize, modern companies have a strong motivation: profit. Automated manufacturing is far more efficient, to the extent that it is cheaper to manufacture goods in the United States using machines than it is to have people in third world companies do the work for third world wages.

Manufacturing may be moving back to the United States, but that doesn’t mean we are going to get back our precious manufacturing jobs. I call them precious because modern society places enormous importance on jobs. We judge the health of our economy on unemployment statistics. A person who cannot find a job is seen as tragic. A person who chooses not to aggressively seek a job is ostracized. There is a mantra throughout our culture, whether stated aloud or not: A job for every person, and every person at his job.

Of course we are not the first to face this problem. Nor were the people of every nation which has ever industrialized. There was a time when we – humans – knew how to farm, but not very well. We were an agrarian society, so called because almost every worker worked in agriculture. The better we got at farming, the fewer farmers we needed, and the more people didn’t have anything in particular to do.

What did the farmers forced into early retirement do? They invented new jobs. They found new ways to be productive, to increase our standard of living. Fewer farmers meant more craftsmen, stone masons, architects, entertainers, and makers of soap. We moved beyond the agrarian lifestyle.

And then we moved beyond the preindustrial lifestyle. Industrialization of agriculture meant even fewer farmers and more mathematicians, fewer craftsmen and more scientists, fewer teamsters and more operators of trains. More people doing the things that make our current way of life possible. Tesla invented radio, Fleming discovered penicillin, Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, Armstrong walked on the moon, and Elon Musk created the Tesla, all for the exact same reason: They were not too busy farming potatoes.

So don’t panic! Chanters of the mantra would have you believe the employment problems we are facing down are signs of a catastrophe. In time, we will come to think of them as nothing more than the growing pains of a new, presumably better future coming into being.

We do have some logistical questions to answer in the mean time, though. What should those displaced workers do while they wait for the future to get here? How can they be expected to put food over their heads and roofs in their mouths?

One possible solution goes all the way back to one of the founders of the United States – Thomas Paine. He wrote about the issue when it arose the first time, when the hot new science was Somewhat Better Farming.

In Agrarian Justice, he argues for land owners to pay a tax that would pay to support non land owners. He justified the tax as compensation for the use of the land. Before we cultivated the land, a person could support himself off of the resources he found there – resources which belonged to no one. But now that the land was cultivated, the only resources one might find there were someone else’s crops and livestock. The land owners were therefore responsible for ensuring the people could still survive, which Paine suggested they do monetarily.

The idea was never enacted, as best as I can tell, but the idea has persisted, and has now transformed into more modern concept: basic income. Although Paine’s justification doesn’t seem to apply, the concept is the same. If automation is set to put people out of work, why don’t we just pay those people anyway?

The first argument against this idea has a Red Scare flavor. Free money sounds like socialism. Free market capitalistic theory would say this basic income creates a disincentive to work. Why work when the government pays you not to?

First, because basic income is not meant to provide a lavish lifestyle. It’s a sustenance level of income. It’s enough to afford food and shelter, enough for a person to be reasonably assured not to starve or freeze to death.

Second, because basic income is not conditional. Work does not disqualify a worker, and so any income earned over basic income is simply supplemental. There is still plenty of motivation for people to work.

We may not have basic income yet, but we do have plenty examples of people with enough money they don’t have to work. What kind of lives do they lead when they don’t have a financial need to punch a clock?

Warren Buffet does not need to work in order to make the payments on his modest one-bedroom apartment or to be able to afford groceries next Friday. But he goes to work anyway. Robert Downey, Jr. made $80 million in 2015 and did not retire. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – say what you will about either of them – they are both wealthy enough they never need to work again, and yet in 2016 they competed to see which of them could get one of the most stressful jobs in the world.

When people say, they need incentive to work, which they are those people talking about?

Jobs in manufacturing, logistics, sales – even agriculture, where this all began – those are working class jobs. So when people reference this need for incentive, what they’re saying is working class people need to be properly motivated. Because, perhaps, they lack something better people possess.

Educated people, they don’t need to be motivated. No one questions why a partner at a law firm keeps working after making his or her first few millions. Or why entrepreneurs don’t sell off their companies as soon as they’ve made enough to comfortably retire.

Wealthy people, they also don’t need to be motivated. It would be easy to assume Julia Louis-Dreyfus got rich along with the rest of the cast of Seinfeld. In fact, she was a billionaire before the show began. She was born a billionaire. When people learn this piece of trivia, the typical response is to shrug. Rarely does anyone ask, Well then why does she bother acting?

Creative people somehow also don’t need to be motivated. Stephen King doesn’t have Julia Louis-Dreyfus money, but he is sitting pretty comfortable on his $400 million. And he continues to write, because he’s a writer and that’s what writers do. It’s just the kind of person he is.

But before Stephen King was the writer of The Shawshank Redemption – a story about a man incarcerated and forced to work, though he committed no crime – he worked in a textile mill. Dismal work for dismal pay. What kind of person was he then? Was he always the kind of person who would grow up to be Stephen King the Writer? Or did he only become that when he learned, while sitting in his kitchen trying to think of a way to afford penicillin for his daughter, that he had sold Carrie?

The hero of The Shawshank Redemption, like the writer, eventually found a way out of what seemed to be a hopeless situation, but both of them were rare exceptions. How many great thinkers – artists and scientists and poets and leaders – how many do we just not know about because they didn’t happen to beat the odds?

If working class people need to be spurred to work, it isn’t because they are a different type of people. Could it be that they need more motivation because they do a different class of work – the kind of work no one would do if they had a choice? We occasionally see an eccentric billionaire decide to go into acting or politics, but we don’t ever see them decide to lay asphalt or assemble machinery.

We have a sort myth of a working class hero – a man made hard by hard work. We might imagine a man laying brick for 30 years to send his daughter to college to be a lawyer or an astrophysicist. There is something romantic in the idea of a person enduring hardship in order to reach a better life for himself or his offspring.

Even in that myth, there is something aspirational. It acknowledges that there is a better possible life out there. We never bother to imagine a man laying brick for 30 years so that someday, maybe his grandson’s grandson’s grandson can go to brick laying school.

That better life, the working class hero has worked for – maybe that is what we are on the cusp of achieving. Maybe it isn’t just him, or his children, or theirs, who can now have that life. Maybe all of us can.