Perceived values in a world of marginal cost of zero

There has been a lively discussion in the USV community regarding the idea of Universal Basic Income.  Albert Wenger, Partner of USV actually went on to talk about this in the following TEDx talk.

As a self-learned socialist engineer growing up in the extremely (and surprisingly) right-leaning — at least when it comes to business — environment of Taiwan, I've long developed a sense that at some point it's gonna be about distribution, a term that the Republicans dread so much, rather than incentivization.

The fundamental law of economics has always been that people only benefit from productivity growth, which means less resources (including labors) to produce the same amount of output. For engineers the end game is very clear: one day robots and machines will do all the production of both products and services. Human beings need not lift a finger.

Or think about the movie « Matrix », but in a rather nice way where we are not ruled by machines.

In this end game, productivity has already been maximized. In fact, the productivity is infinite if the denominator is labor, since it takes zero human labor to produce any products or services. 

The questions left are then:

  • How should we distribute the output? 
  • What should human beings do when labor is no long require for production?

The answer to the first question is partially addressed by the Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposed by the USV fellows. Despite the fact that the term « income » make it sound like yet another monetarily driven idea, UBI actually corresponds to more of satisfying a basic need for economic output such as housing, food and health care.

In the world of marginal cost of zero and ultimate productivity, there's really no strong argument why one should continue to labor hard to earn the right to survivorship. This argument might sound bizarre to the majority of people on this planet living in capitalism, which was heavily influenced by the Protestant ethic according to Max Weber. However it suffices to recall the Utopia idea born in Ancient Greece, when philosophers did nothing but to debate and to chat in the plazas and the fora.

What allowed the ancient Greeks to live such a 100% spiritual life was the inhumane slave system. If the said slave system is replaced by robots and machines, it's not that difficult to envision human beings living in the same care-free state of ancient Greek patricians. The only difference here is that this time it applies to ALL HUMAN BEINGS on earth, instead of the privileged few through bloodline or pure capital inheritance.

That brings us to the 2nd question: what should human beings do when labor is no long require for production? Wouldn't human beings suffer from the loss of a sense for life — which in the modern age is often associated with works?

In Albert's talk he cited various researches showing that human beings need no monetary incentives to produce art works or entertain themselves. I would again draw a comparison to Ancient Greece. Despite the lack of monetary satisfaction, our Greek poets, philosophers, dramatists, sculpturists, architects and wine makers seemed to be doing just fine in Ancient Greece. And their spiritual output — far above the basic needs — continue to nourish us after more than 2,000 years.

Bottom line: in a world of marginal cost of zero, majority of the economics would be based on perceived values. Imagine a world where all basic living costs are covered by UBI — maybe paid in cryptocurrency without government backing — and people can spend their time and energy doing whatever they want, be it art creations, cage fights or merely endless love making. Whatever non-trivial satisfaction, whether material or sensorial, could be achieved without explicit labor cost. In this world, everything is perceived and there's a potential for human happiness (or awareness if you're a Nietzsche follower like me) to be maximized.

Then we'll have our Utopia.

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