Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia

Not many are writing utopias these days. The work of the late Iain M Banks is a notable exception, who set most of his science fiction novels in a milieu known as the ‘The Culture,’ variously described as a sort of ‘post-scarcity,’ ‘anarchist’ and/or ‘socialist’ utopia in reviews.

The Culture may not appeal to everyone. Most people would probably get by fine without the extra arms featured by the protagonist of Banks’ last science fiction novel, The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), for example. But after contemplating alternative visions from non-fiction academics like Tyler Cowen in Average is Over (2013)—who cheerfully anticipates a world in which nearly all wealth is held by those who make good working with machines—and Frank Pasquale in The Black Box Society (2015)—who fears much the same—the idea seems more appealing. The arms are optional, after all.

Like the inhabitants of many a science fiction story, the Culture has eliminated material want through technology able to produce more or less anything without any apparent cost. The whole show is kept running by an army of super-intelligent machines called ‘Minds’ who take care of everything from waiting on biological citizens of the Culture to running the mammoth starships and astronomical structures on which they live. The biological citizens keep themselves amused with elaborate hobbies, parties, sex and drugs, not to mention the occasional undercover mission that drives most of the novels’ plots.

In the abstract, it’s easy enough to imagine a future in which machines attend to all of our material wants and no one needs to work. But how would this function from an economic point of view? Under the system that prevails in most of the present world, citizens would either need to own the machines themselves, or pay the owners of machines for their services. But, if the citizens aren’t engaged in paid employment, from where do they obtain the money to purchase the machines or their services, or the raw materials required for the machines to do their work?

At least a few science fiction writers have sketched future systems of law and government—going back to at least H G Wells—but it’s hard to bring to mind anything that could be described as ‘political economy fiction,’ in which advances in economic theory and tax law challenge societal norms and our perception of the human condition, or at least lead to thrilling adventures involving the struggles of public servants and tax accountants to uncover the economic secrets of lost governments. (Kurt Vonnegut does say that Kilgore Trout is working on ‘a science-fiction novel about economics’ in Jailbird (1979), but it’s not clear that Trout ever finished his novel, let alone published it outside Vonnegut’s imagination).

The Culture itself seems to operate on a kind of gift economy in which the Minds are autonomous citizens in their own right but are generally happy to help out with whatever wants or problems the biological citizens might have, without demanding any payment in return. It isn’t clear whether this happy state of affairs came about by fortune or by design, and nor is it clear how the Minds obtain the raw material and energy required to perform their services. A reader can easily imagine a galaxy so big as to have essentially inexhaustible supplies of material and energy readily available to anyone wanting to take them.

Gift economies work well enough amongst groups of friends and small tribes in which everyone knows everyone else, but hardly anybody proposes to replace the market system used in large-scale modern societies with a gift economy. An environmentalist might also complain that the Earth was also once thought to be inexhaustible.

One idea that has gained some serious attention recently is the universal basic income, defined by the Basic Income Earth Network as ‘an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.’ One can imagine machines delivering their income to the government as tax, and this tax revenue being distributed equally amongst all of the citizens of the society, to be spent as they pleased on the machines’ services. Conventional present-day objections to a basic income— that there is no incentive to work and that it could not be funded— are easily overcome because (a) no one needs to work anyway and (b) the amount of funding available is equal to the income of the machines, which is also the amount of goods and services available to be bought.

Searching for ‘science fiction’ and ‘basic income’ turns up a lot of articles describing the basic income idea as ‘science fiction,’ but not so much actual science fiction. One story, though, is Philip José Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage (1967). The eponymous riders are not dissimilar to the inhabitants of the Culture, though Farmer makes them sound a bit sleazier and more self-indulgent.

In a grand speech explaining the basic income, some (unrelated) urban planning, and their problems, one of Farmer’s characters asserts that the designers of this society ‘de-emphasized what the lack of work would do to Mr Everyman… They wouldn’t face the “undemocratic” reality that only about ten percent of the population—if that—are inherently capable of producing anything worthwhile, or even mildly interesting, in the arts. Crafts, hobbies, and a lifelong academic education pale after a while, so back to the booze, fido [television or Internet], and adultery.’ The Culture might not so much disagree as say ‘so, what?’

Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952) alludes to another answer to the problems of the supposed Mr Everyman in telling us that ‘those who couldn’t compete economically with machines had their choice, if they had no source of income, of the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps.’ The latter two organisations provide what is known as a ‘job guarantee,’ in which the public sector employs anyone left over after the private sector has employed everyone that it wants. The Government of India, for example, already guarantees 100 days of work each year to rural households under its Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Schemes likePlayer Piano’s are presented as a kind of welfare, but in a machine-dominated future may be make-work simply used to give Mr Everyman something to do and keep him out of trouble. This seems to be the case for the ‘computer primer’ appearing in Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971), whose job appears to be to press the reset button on computers that have seized up.

Both the basic income and the job guarantee imply large degrees of government intervention to re-distribute wealth, from those able to obtain it through their ownership of the machinery to those who aren’t. What about science fiction worlds less trusting of government?

The Jetsons are a kind of Mr Everyman and Ms Everywoman who own sufficient machinery to meet more or less all of their material needs without having to work (much), rather than having to purchase items from an external company, or rely on a government to provide any income. Philosopher Frithjof Bergmann champions something like this under the name ‘new work, new culture’ though he and his followers are yet to write any science fiction so far as I know.

This brings us back to the problem of how non-working citizens would come to own all of this machinery, since they have no income with which to pay for it. Bergmann’s view is that technology has now become so cheap that more or less anyone—or at least a modestly-sized community—could afford it if they wanted to.

When the original series of The Jetsons was created in the 1960s, people might indeed have reasonably supposed that economic growth and consumerism would eventually make everyone rich enough to own all of the machinery depicted in the show. John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, famously looked forward to fifteen-hour work week by 2030 thanks to these sorts of labour-saving machines. The reader may decide whether it is Keynes or we who are the fools.

Rather than make Mr Everyman and Ms Everywoman the possessors of fabulous technology, however, innumerable dystopian works (and Tyler Cowen) imagine worlds in which a small minority of wealthy individuals own all of the technology while everyone else exists as a disempowered servant or criminal class. A world in which this has gone a step or two further might be such that all living citizens are rich enough to own all of their own machinery because anyone who wasn’t so rich has starved.

One way of kick-starting a Jetsons-type society, without killing off the less well-endowed, would be to issue every citizen with a fixed amount of money upon coming of age, known as a basic capital endowment or stakeholder grant. Present-day advocates of a stakeholder grant suppose that it could be spent on education, or on starting a business, or something else that would set up each citizen for success as he or she saw it. In a Jetsons- or Culture-type future, however, citizens might choose to spend the grant on the machinery required to support themselves in eternal comfort.

Of course this returns to a government that re-distributes wealth. In the Culture, it is the Minds that do the re-distributing. Some Minds do indeed act something like a government if one thinks of the starships and ‘orbitals’ that they run as political units, though they might equally well be compared to the board of directors of a company. Plenty of lesser Minds, however, act as autonomous citizens. What inspires them to be so generous remains a mystery. Maybe an update to Isaac Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics could include an injunction to be generous towards one’s fellow citizens.


This article was first published in Aurealis #109 www.aurealis.com.au