Star Trek Economics
I've been planning to do a follow-up to my recent article on Atlas Shrugged as a historical novel by writing about those aspects of Atlas that haven't dated and are most relevant in today's context.
Just scanning the news will give you plenty of examples, including this one, a report in the leftist online magazine Salon about a Swiss proposal to institute a guaranteed minimum income.
By gathering over 100,000 signatures—which they delivered last Friday along with 8 million 5-cent coins representing the country's population—activists have secured a vote by Switzerland's parliament on an audacious proposal: providing a basic monthly income of about $2,800 US dollars to each adult in the country. (A date for the vote hasn't yet been set.) Such basic income proposals, which have drawn increased attention since the 2008 financial crash, offer a night-and-day contrast to the current US debate over what to cut and by how much.
The rest of the piece is an interview with a "progressive" economist who opposes the Swiss proposal—but only because he regards it as politically counterproductive, for the most perverse reason. If everyone is given a guaranteed minimum income, he fears, it will provide an excuse to dismantle the rest of the welfare state. "You can imagine that if this proposal in Switzerland passes and everyone gets $2,800, that the right can say, 'Well, why should we provide healthcare—why don't we let people use the money that we're giving them? Why should we provide public schools—we should let people use the money that we're giving them to buy education for their kids in the marketplace.'" Why yes, I can imagine people saying that. In fact, what I find harder to imagine is someone demanding a universal entitlement to cash, on top of a universal entitlement to health care, food, housing, and everything else.
But that's not what's interesting about this article. What is interesting is the "progressive" economist's description of the basic premise behind these proposals—a premise that explains, not just the guaranteed minimum income idea, but also the rest of the welfare state. He calls it a "Star Trek" economy.
We have a system that has high unemployment, high underemployment. This would allow people to survive and to live, with dignity, assuming that other systems stay in place. It puts a floor under wages—people could say, "I don't have to do that job if you're not going to pay well." People could pursue a lot of activities that are not particularly well paid but that have a lot of social use or personal satisfaction: art, creative work, volunteer work, working with people who have disabilities.
So if we were a very rich world, which I think we are to a certain degree, it would be a remarkable way to make sure that people could maximize their ability to express themselves but also maximize their ability to participate in the communities that they live in in a full way. Stay home and take care of kids if that's what you want to do. Take care of your parents when they're old and sick.
People sometimes refer to this as a kind of "Star Trek" economy—you just said, "Replicator, make me a ham sandwich." There wasn't any social conflict around production and consumption. And that, I think, is that kind of ideal in which this kind of a thing could play out. We are probably there in terms of the economics. We are very, very wealthy—we could afford to do this. But we are not there in terms of the politics.
So he admits that the basic premise of his economics is to view the production of wealth as the equivalent of a nonexistent science-fiction gadget which has the convenient characteristic of making material goods materialize out of nothing at whim. And he thinks we're "probably there" right now.
This invocation of the Star Trek replicator reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." We're going to have to add Tracinski's Corollary to Clarke's Laws: "Any sufficiently advanced economy is indistinguishable—in the minds of the left—from magic."
But our literary references are a bit off. This isn't "Star Trek economics." It's Atlas Shrugged economics—that is, it's the economics of the villains in Atlas Shrugged, for whom production is a magical process which happens through mysterious means, whose proceeds they can redistribute at whim. Which is an indication of why Atlas Shrugged is still as relevant as ever.