Why I am no longer a libertarian

Next time you see your outspoken libertarian friend, ask them this hypothetical:

Lets represent everyone in the world by two people: Jim and Bob. Jim owns everything in the whole world - all the land, all the animals, all the food. Everything. Bob owns nothing. Bob is hungry and will soon starve to death, but Jim hates Bob and refuses to give him any of his excess food.

Is it ok if Bob steals from Jim?

The eagle eyed among you will notice I'm pitting two ethical principles against each other: Compassion and non-violence. Is it more important that nobody dies unnecessarily, or that nobody is extorted through violence (or the threat of violence)? When push comes to shove, will you abandon your principle of nonviolence or would you let Bob die?

This situation may sound far fetched, but we are getting closer to the point where some people (like Bob) will have nothing to trade for food and shelter:

This isn't science fiction. We have self driving cars and self driving trucks working in labs. (And they'll reach consumers in the next few years). Transport, by the way, is the single largest profession in America. It won't happen overnight, but self driving vehicles will displace more people in America than the entire population of Sydney.

What do you think will happen to all the truck drivers and taxi drivers? Maybe in the short term America can find useful work for another 3.6 million unskilled workers - but what about the next 3.3 million retail salespeople and the 3.1 million cashiers? The reality is that more and more people are finding that (like Bob) that they have nothing of value to trade. Without some way of redistributing wealth, America's economy will quietly let all these people starve to death. (Fun fact: inequality in America today is greater than it was during the Dark Ages).

America has already started to split into two groups: people who design, own and operate automated systems, and people who only know how to do things that robots will be able to do better. I don't want this new age of plenty to start with millions of people starving to death.

Another way to ask the question is this: What are your desiderata for society? What does your ideal society look like? What do people do?

I asked a loud American libertarian this question over dinner the other night and he proudly proclaimed Freedom!. But lets get more specific. What does that freedom look like, exactly? In modern society you can't survive without a job of some sort. This is justified in all sorts of ways - but ultimately its necessary. The food on your plate won't get there without other people working; so its part of the social contract. But the requirement to work isn't freedom - its another kind of slavery. Its different from real slavery because you get to pick your master (and yes, this makes all the difference). But I can't help imagine that the result of automation could be real freedom - freedom from working. I dream of a society where nobody has to work because robots do everything for us. Robot farmers till the land. Robot trucks bring the food to our robot kitchens (built by robots). Isn't that what real freedom looks like? You would still be able to work if you want to, but if you do you'll be working without coercion. You'll be working because you want to give back, or you want more resources than the minimum you need to survive.

If the libertarians win, a small number of people will eventually own all the automation infrastructure. How will you barter for food and shelter in a post scarcity world?

Would you like to know more?

Manna: Two Views of Humanity's Future is a fantastic short story exploring these same ideas.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a book about how capital (owning robots) is quickly becoming much more important than labor. This is transforming our economy already, in lots of interesting (and troubling) ways.