Scarcity in a Post-Scarcity World

November 6th, 2013   Submitted by Foo Quuxman

ReplicatorA common idea seen among modern utopians – particularly ones of the communist persuasion – is that we currently have everything needed for a post-scarcity society but that this utopia is held back by the market (often with much more colorful language than that). Others say that we do not have the technology yet, but that it is just around the corner (within the next century or so). However, even with technology far beyond what we have now the basic functions of a market would still be necessary to cope with a still existing scarcity.

Assume for this thought experiment a device (or group of devices) similar to a Star Trek style replicator, with these attributes:

  • Transforms raw matter and energy into a physical version of a design.
  • It’s energy efficient, and time efficient enough to make all other manufacturing methods obsolete.
  • Can create any object allowed by the laws of physics. (a supercritical mass of U235 is *not* recommended)
  • Can cheaply convert between matter and energy (implied by the other attributes).

Here are some things which will still be scarce even under such extreme conditions:

  1. Matter/Energy (sometimes called Mattergy)
    The raw materials used by the replicator. Given the cheap conversion tech specified above, the distinction between matter and energy disappears, but it’s still scarce. The only way to get around this is to fundamentally break the laws of physics.
  2. Replicator time
    This boils down to opportunity costs (doesn’t everything?). Should I use the next few minutes to replicate my lunch or to build a second replicator? Should I replicate someone else’s stuff first, or something I need more?
  3. Computational power
    Many readers are familiar with the already insatiable demand for computing power, but even the most casual user has had indirect contact with computational bottlenecks. If mind-uploading tech or strong AI existed than this would become an even larger product.
  4. Space/Geographical area
    This is another fundamental limitation of physics: Your computers, replicators, mattergy storage, and a host of other things simply can not occupy the same space at the same time. And if you pack too much matter into one place you’ll have a black hole on your hands. There will always be scarcity in location. Even if everyone has a house which is identical to every other house, the space in that house is still scarce because only so many people can live in it. The value of a specific location (on a planetary surface, or in orbit) can vary widely. Even if our minds are uploaded into seemingly infinite virtual worlds, the processors doing the computations still depend on limited space.
  5. Transportation
    The limitations imposed by space require us to move things from place to place, sometimes over long distances under harsh conditions. Is it better to transmit a schematic of a station wagon to a different location where it can be replicated, or to fill a station wagon with a high density storage medium and transport data to a distant location by driving it there? It’s going to depending on the cost of transportation, which is going to depend on the scarcity of time and space.
  6. Communication
    Transportation interacts with communication in interesting ways (and in some ways they are the same thing). Communication also ties everything else together. Highly relevant are the speed of light and bandwidth constraints of electromagnetic radiation in a given medium (ie. fiber optic vs. free space).
  7. Design
    A replicator is useless without schematics. While trying not to turn this into an argument over intellectual property, even in the complete absence of IP laws there is still scarcity in design, and subjective value to early adoption of a new design.
  8. Services
    You knew this one was coming. In addition to the common services that are normally thought of, all of the scarce resources above require a service industry to economize.

Some people claim that scarcity is caused by the market. It is not. Scarcity existed long before markets did. Scarcity is caused by the fundamental structure of reality. Any society in this universe has to deal with scarcity using one of these methods:

  • A command or communal economy. These can work if the society is small enough. A family is one classic example. For groups smaller than the Dunbar limit just about anything can be made to work.
  • A market economy. More or less what we are familiar with. The key advantage of the market is that it can scale almost without limit.

There is also a third option that appears only when the available resources vastly outstrip demand, and when that condition is satisfied it appears quickly, it is called a gift economy and it is the basic mechanism that makes open source function. But no system can ever completely due away with scarcity itself.

10 Responses to “Scarcity in a Post-Scarcity World”

  1. Greg AllmainNo Gravatar says:

    Where do you think 3D printers come into the overall idea you’re expressing here?

    • LibertymarkNo Gravatar says:

      when people take control of their own liberty and production via technology or self reliance…all of a sudden scarcity issues minimize. of course the system doesn’t want people to know about decentralization of things. Look scarcity is real…but so is abundance. For example people bitch and moan about lack of water, lack of clean water, etc. and yet how much of the globe is salt water? and what are we doing with it? exactly. zip

  2. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    This is a good article. The whole idea that we could live in a post-scarcity world is so ridiculous that I felt it didn’t even deserve a rebuttal. But I’m glad somebody finally made one.

  3. Ethan GloverNo Gravatar says:

    Communists have never been so hot on economics. After 200 years after being proven wrong, they still look to LTV.

  4. djeimsyxuisNo Gravatar says:

    This article is very well thought out.

  5. Ry MurphyNo Gravatar says:

    The real tipping point will probably not as much depend on 3D printing as the eventual technological advances that will lead to virtual reality or at least realistic sense manipulation. The article alludes to this a little. But basically I see within our lifetimes a future where at the very least, most creature comforts will be delivered digitally. This already exists with entertainment, but once the tech exists to replicate all of the senses, it will overtake a lot of need for physical goods, and we can just use whatever devices are necessary to, say, realistically simulate Paris to eliminate the need to travel there, or to simulate the thrill of riding a motorcycle to cancel out ever having to build one. (Or the obvious, to simulate sex). What that would do to the value of anything that exists solely in the “real” world (or “meatworld”, as its already called sometimes) is an interesting thought, and of course some of these scarcities still would exist.

  6. Good criticism. Post Scarcity / Resource-based economy = Marxism with robots. Its rhetoric can be summarized like this: “Give me free stuff made by robots.”

  7. johnNo Gravatar says:

    If demand is scaled to basic human needs, there’s plenty. If it’s about human desire, there’s never enough.

  8. peppermintNo Gravatar says:

    In Star Trek, everyone on Earth who didn’t join Starfleet seems to have a restaurant or cafe, or a farm for artisinal food products

  9. roodneyNo Gravatar says:

    I think your argument takes the term too literally. The idea of post scarcity economy doesn’t mean nothing is scarce. Just like communism doesn’t rule out the use of currency or capitalism doesn’t exclude social programs like healthcare. Your talking about a theoretical definition, like ‘true communism’ or ‘true capitalism’. Post scarcity economics are on the way whether we like it or not, but it’s not the rigid definition that you are deconstructing. It’s more like, ‘…well we’re at 60% unemployment because not that many jobs are really necessary. Many of our daily essentials have a near zero cost but that’s good because people couldn’t afford to buy them at anything more than that.’ The question is how to integrate our current model with the one over the horizon, and what systems could be in place to transition. Personally my first suggestion is voluntary economic disengagement. Withdraw your connection to our current economy as deeply as your able and you’ve already made it that much easier to move forward once the great downsizing begins.