Working hard or hardly working?

Working hard or hardly working?

I think much of what I like about capitalism stems from the idea of certainty; the idea that we can be sure, perhaps naively or misleadingly, that individuals will always act in accordance with self-interested values. It definitely makes it a lot easier to figure out how I should act when the system isn’t entirely dependent on me considering everyone else. But there’s obviously an argument for people caring more – the case of negative externalities, public goods, environmental responsibility and the role of welfare being prime examples. But what might that economy, let alone society, look like? One where we were dependent on compassion and consideration rather than sceptical of it.

Writing in 1931, John Keynes alludes to an economy rid of  “many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hagridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtue”. His article ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ refers to his vision of society in 2030; a society in transition from a capitalistic to post-scarcity model, in which the abundance of resources leads to a fundamental shift in its composition and function – allowing for less work and greater leisure. But at the cost of a greater reliance on individuals, not their self-interest.

In order for this to be realised, Keynes identified that in society there are two types of needs: those that are absolute like food, water and shelter; and those that are relative and only seek to make an individual feel superior to other individuals. While it would be impossible to completely satisfy the latter type of need (there will always be another iPhone model), the former category can be achieved by means of technological advance.

Keynes continues, “a point may soon be reached… when those [absolute] needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.”

This removal of constraints on economic resources will engender “great changes in the code of morals… we shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value”.

As economist Robert Chernomas comments, Keynes “transcends the neoclassical shibboleth about scarce resources and unlimited wants, and with it the economic limits to the human condition”. Implicitly, Keynes identifies the human state limited by the current market rationale, which once would allow people to become “apostles of science & art”.

Putting aside the technical economic analysis required for this to occur, it is hard to deny the allure of the utopian society described by Keynes, as it is characterized by ultimately free and moralistic values. But it would require a significant upheaval of ideas that have become integral to modern society and therefore economic existence, those of the market-centered economy.

Taking technological productivity advance as a given, that some small proportion of the population is able to service the needs of the greater population, a post-scarcity economy would require two elements.

Firstly, that the production of goods and services in the market be pleasurable enough that people would want to continue to do so – after all we would still need doctors, teachers, firemen and alike. Secondly, this idea of a utopian life must not deter those guaranteed a certain standard of living and consumption into idleness and therefore despair.

To consider the first, let us consider the current state of the market. Recently an article in The Economist ‘Nice work if you can get out’  outlined important changes in attitudes about work in the 21st century. Highlighted within the piece was the increasing trend for some forms of work or ‘exploit’ to amount to pleasurable time as fewer dull jobs have made way for ‘knowledge-intensive’ occupations.

Consequently, “leisure is no longer a sign of social power. Instead it symbolizes uselessness and unemployment”. Rich sections of society may now essentially find work and leisure interchangeable. This perhaps on its own feeds into the post-scarcity society – as people may in finding leisure in their work be happy to provide goods and services germane to market conditions.

It ultimately however doesn’t acknowledge other factors that draw people into work not limited to dispersions in the standard of living (drawn to attention by the state of inequality), alongside social and public recognition, that is only afforded to some extent by wealth associated with work. A similar conclusion is expressed by the publication ‘Revisiting Keynes’ edited by Lorenzo Pecchi and Gustavo Piga that posits that “Keynes overestimated the desire of people to stop working and underestimated the pleasures and rewards of work”.

Now to the second requirement, the issue of idleness among the unemployed is already a significant issue in society today. The economic incentives at play, in a market society, are caught between ensuring people can maintain an acceptable standard of living whilst still encouraged to take on employment. This too therefore would be a challenge posed in a post-scarcity economy – a solution to which would be impossible to guarantee without a fundamental and permanent shift in the human psyche that made the institution of work a necessity of human life.

Either way, both these requirements rely heavily on the human state as opposed to the market state. Individuals together would need to work for this society to be realised, as opposed to the individualistic mechanisms of the capitalist society.

We’re a long way off from a post-scarcity society. But from Keynes’ writings it’s clear that some form of individual questioning of our attitude towards work and our reliance on our current economic institutions would be needed if we were to ever endeavour to make it a reality.

Ultimately, I think it’s hard to question something that you’ve already taken as given. Growing up in a market-centered economy where we are keenly aware of the role of incentives and the value of wealth makes it difficult to reconcile the values of a post-scarcity community.

I was taught that you worked hard to attain certain economic outcomes; a secure income, a secure and sustainable lifestyle. As well as that the harder you worked at those things the more spread you might have for other opportunities, whether that be reading, buying an iPad or going scuba diving in Honduras. And this idea relies fundamentally on scarcity. So once taken away why would people work when not compelled to by the state of the market?

And having considered all these different factors and values that influence the way we think and operate which would you ultimately prefer – a post-scarcity paradigm reliant on individual values more than market forces or a pre-abundant one that takes solace in its reliance on the market’s invisible hand?