Future Fortunes

Obviously concerned at my lack of new entries while I’m travelling, Martin’s posted an irresistable taunt. The issue at question is “Why do modern societies work so much?”

There are a few answers to this — one is simply an internalised desire to do work, ie, a work ethic. That’s a pretty trite line of thought though, and suffers the same flaws that hedonistic explanations usually do: it doesn’t explain why we find it pleasant, when we already know that different people find different things pleasurable; read up on S&M fetishes if you’re not convinced. Another is risk aversion — working less might make it hard for you to continue to exist, either because you can’t manage to eat, or because you’re going to be locked up. The former can mean either that you don’t have money to buy food, or that you live in a jungle and bigger, stronger people have already grabbed all the berries from your favourite shrub, or anything in between. In capitalist democracies the latter option is fairly rare though — it’s very rare that anyone will force you to work, although people might not be willing to give you food and board if you don’t.

An interesting perspective to look at is that of millionaires. Why does Bill Gates keep working? Why does Richard Branson bother creating new businesses in far off lands when he’s probably already got enough money to live a life of leisure for the rest of his life? It’s possible to simply argue that they’re insane, driven mad by capital acquisition, commerce and market control, but, again, that’s quite a cop-out. Why consider them insane, instead of the anarcho-Marxists rolling marbles under the hooves of Police horses?

A simpler explanation, that’s closer to home, is that they simply enjoy their work. If that explanation applies to people hacking on free software, there’s no reason it shouldn’t apply to exceptional entrepreneurs. Once you’re able to take holidays — like flying around the world in a hot air balloon — and spend weekends with your family, and are doing something you like and consider worthwhile and other people value for the rest of the week, what’s not to like? Why would you even want to work less?

The aspect that omits is why they continue doing it for money, rather than gratis. My current thesis for this is that money and profits serve as an excellent measure of how much you’re contributing to society, and in particular how much other people value what you’re offering or doing. If they don’t appreciate it, they’re not going to pay what it costs. If they do appreciate it, they’ll pay what it costs, and more. By contrast, if you do things for free, people will quite happily take your offering, say “Ooo, neat”, then throw it away; wasting your time, theirs, and possibly depriving the people who would’ve valued it much more.

Even better, continued effort in capitalist society makes leisure time continually more enjoyable. A hundred years ago, there’s no way you could row across an ocean and consider it, while not risk-free, a fairly safe endeavour nevertheless. Lifts at ski resorts, and even skis themselves, have improved by orders of magnitude, making the sport safer, more comfortable and more exhilirating. There’s no way I could take a couple of weeks and visit Norway and England. There’s no way I could reliably and instantaneously chat with people back in Australia while doing so. Just a few years ago, there’s no way I could have left finding accommodation ’til a couple of days before I left, then arranged it at around 3am localtime, and gotten an incredibly great deal, all without having any particular cause to worry that I’d be sleeping on the streets. I couldn’t arrive in Norway not speaking the language, not having any local currency, and not even knowing exactly where I was meant to be going, without having any worries at all about being able to rectify all that from the airport.

And it’s work that makes all this possible: me doing something valuable for other people who give me money, and me giving that money to other people who do various valuable things for me. If I work less, people are going to do less for me, because I can’t give them as much money; and if there’s no quantitive measure or reward for useful work, people aren’t going to be anywhere near as good at inventing useful new technologies and services.

Up until recently, I thought, mostly as an article of faith in improving technology, that the future we were heading to was a leisure society; everyone working three days a week and then having a huge weekend. Now, with a better appreciation for capitalism, I wonder what the hell I’d do on those weekends — I already spend plenty of free time hacking on free software; and there’s not much point to having four day weekends that you spend doing unpaid work, when you could do the same work all week and be paid for it. We’re working smarter, but no less hard; and in the meantime we’re playing much harder.

I find it truly amazing the agnosticism in which capitalism is held by many smart people. It’s easy to find smart people who’re completely religious, and who can differentiate their faith from science, and work out exactly where they draw their lines and what benefits they get from it. By contrast, many otherwise highly educated people either feel that capitalism is innately exploitative and has latent tendencies toward true evil, or at best a tool that can be used for good or for evil depending on who wields it. And yet simply by looking at recent history, the amount of evidence that capitalism is a force for pure, unadulterated good is simply astounding. The rich might be getting richer, but the poor in capitalist countries are astoundingly wealthy too. A few hundred years ago, malnourishment was an everyday risk; now we’re seriously worried about obesity. A hundred years ago, it was vastly difficult to travel far from your place of birth and difficult to work all that far from where you lived — daily commute distances of eight hours walk aren’t unreasonable now, and backpacking around Europe isn’t particularly difficult. A decade or two ago, computers and mobile phones were exclusively for businesses and the wealthy; now you can combine the two and sell it to teenagers.

Other interesting reading on that topic includes this Spectator article.

Martin writes that:

On the other hand, changing technology makes it hard to imagine what life will be like in 50 years. One might semi-seriously gamble on, say, sunbathing now in the hope that there will be a cure for melanoma in a decade. Perhaps people will blithely burn fossil fuels, assuming that some solution will turn up.

We have, for example, probably already solved the problem with the Ozone hole (see here, which was a problem that required fairly drastic changes across the entire planet, and was, at the time, quite worrying. We’re at the point where shrinking populations are more likely to be a concern in some areas than overpopulation. Smog has been massively reduced in major cities. We’ve done a fairly good job at stopping extinctions. We have enough food to feed everyone on the planet. We’re not bad at diverting disasters, but the only way we’re going to get any better at — and be able to cope with asteroid strikes, or nuclear waste disposal — it is continue working as hard as we have been on clever new ideas. If we can build a space elevator, we have a good chance at being able to dispose radioactive waste well away from populated areas, and potentially be able to do nifty things like asteroid mining. But it doesn’t make sense to build a space elevator until we can work out how to do it in a way that’s useful enough to justify its cost, that people value enough to justify the expense, that will make a profit.

A final thought: Martin also writes:

People do not generally have the choice of: “would I rather be a serf, or a nomad?”. They have the experience of being pushed off the map or enslaved by an expanding cultivation society.

How would you be a nomad in modern society? Would you walk from town to town along highways, baking in the sun or get soaked in the rain or freezing in the snow, begging for food at your destination, or hoping to find some food on the side of the road, or in trashcans? Or would you rather get in a plane and fly from city to city or even country to country, spending a few months or a year in each place working during the week and spending the weekend enjoying the sights and the culture, and earning enough money for your next flight into the unknown?

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