The well-respected, UC-Berkeley economist Brad DeLong contributed to the NY Times “Room for Debate” series today on the topic “Was Marx Right.”1 2 DeLong wonders if Marx was correct that
A more sinister view was articulated by the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.3 He argued that if machines do all the work in the future, as they inevitably will, then we can: a) let the machines make all the decisions; or b) maintain human control over the machines.
If we choose “a” then we are at the mercy of our machines. It is not that we would give them control or that they would take control, rather, we might become so dependent on them that we would have to accept their commands. If we choose “b” then control would be in the hands of an elite, and the masses would be unnecessary. In that case the tiny elite: 1) would exterminate the masses; 2) reduce their birthrate so they slowly became extinct; or 3) become benevolent shepherds to the masses. The first two scenarios entail our extinction, but even the third option is bad. In this last scenario the elite would see to it that all physical and psychological needs of the masses are met, while at the same time engineering the masses to sublimate their drive for power. In this case the masses might be happy, but they would not be free.
The computer scientist Marshall Brain has also thought about these issues. Almost fifteen years ago he said that robotic technology was beginning to replace workers at an unprecedented rate. In order to address these changes, he argued that we need a new economic system where individuals would not have to exchange labor for food. Brain doesn’t want to replace capitalism altogether, but he does want to modify it significantly. And he thinks its in everyone’s interest—including the super wealthy—to do so. For more on his prescient and insightful ideas you can read his online articles: “Robotic Nation,” “Robots in 2015,” and “Robotic Freedom,” at: http://marshallbrain.com/
I think Brain is right; we need to change how wealth is distributed including a serious discussion of a minimum income. This would create, not only a more just society, but one where so much wasted human potential could be actualized. In such a world self-interest and morality would coincide, and we would all be the beneficiaries.
2. For the broader implications of Marx’s thinking see Terry Eagleton’s: Why Marx Was Right
3. A summary of his argument by Bill Joy can be found here: http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html