ECON: A change of heart (was: ECON: the abolition of work)

Dan Fabulich (
Thu, 30 Apr 1998 01:04:19 -0400


OK, so I was wrong. :)

In my last post on this topic, I said: "so long as some work is necessary
to feed a person, work will never go away; we should struggle to make this
work as inconsequential as possible, but it will never be zero." Sorry,
Tony Belding.

I've come to the conclusion that this is wrong. We CAN all get fed without
doing work, and automation is the way to do it. Here's how.

In contrast to Marx's "labor theory of value," I think modern economics is
a kind of a "capital theory of value," which presumes that all wealth in
some way, shape, or form, stems from capital. In this sense, we understand
the work done by a laborer as comparable to the wealth created by a
capitalist. The only difference is this: where the capitalist uses
material capital to create wealth, the laborer creates wealth using their
"human capital." Wages can be thought of as the price of human capital.

Why is this relevant? Because this means that it is wrong headed to say
that "work" must always be done. Wealth must be exchanged for wealth, but
wealth comes from CAPITAL, not work. And human-owned capital may one day
be just as effective at creating wealth as human capital is today.

So, for example, suppose a new form of robot arm were able to do your job
for you, faster and more cheaply than you could. That's capital creating
wealth. Now suppose that robot arm were cybernetically grafted onto your
body. (This is the example which led me to this change of mind.)
Suddenly, any work that this arm would do would be YOUR work; it would be
*you* doing the job and your human capital creating the wealth.
Alternately, imagine being a worker in a factory around the turn of the
20th century, and then somehow removing your hands and arms from your body
and leaving them there, while you went off to play games. [Soccer,
presumably. ;)] You would need to do no work at all: your arms and hands
would create all the wealth you needed to survive.

- From this perspective, it is clearly possible for someone to own capital
that creates so much wealth that they don't have to use any of their human
capital at all. Indeed, this has been the historical argument AGAINST
capitalists: they don't make as much use of their human capital, which
Marxists considered the only source of value.

Automation represents an increase in the return on material capital
relative to the return on human capital, thus lowering the demand for human
capital. However, as noted, so long as wages and prices are fully
flexible, these lower wages will be able to buy more goods, thus helping to
make certain that workers won't starve as a result of this decreased demand
for labor.

In the long run, however, the solution to this problem is cheap privately
owned capital, with as high a rate of return as possible. The perfect
extreme example of this would the "anything box:" the anything box can
create anything, including another anything box, for free. This is
obviously unrealistic, but since there are some people who don't have to go
to work in order to get fed, it is clear that capital of this scale could
eventually be affordable to everyone. And as prices drop and innovation
continues, we should see technology moving closer and closer to our ideal.

HOWEVER, I still maintain that having lots of sentient robots around would
be good for us too. We don't have to make an either-or decision here. We
can use BOTH, reaping the benefits of automation AND the benefits of a
larger population all in one fell swoop. The sentient robots can use the
non-sentient robots just as well as we can, if not better. So not only
will we have the added benefit of increased productivity from automation,
we'll ALSO have the benefit of an increased population; the only difference
being that one portion of the population happens to be sentient robots.

Sorry if this didn't make much sense, I wrote this in a fit of "eureka" (or
perhaps "d'oh!") at around 1 AM. :)

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