Utopian thinking or the end of life as we know it

Sir Thomas More

When Sir Thomas More finally got Utopia published in 1516, I wonder if he knew just how much trouble it would cause.

More, of course, was writing about the ills of Medieval Europe, with all its attendant warfare, poverty and illness. Utopia needs to be seen in the context of  the humanist revival of the time. But there is something about the novel that has resonated with philosophers and do-gooders for centuries.

The world that More describes in Utopia is not all that unfamiliar to the modern reader.

Utopia is a land somewhere in the New World, according to More, and draws its name from the island community’s founder King Utopos.

There are 54 cities on the island, with each city inhabited by 6,000 households. The cities, in turn, are divided into groupings of 30 households and elected a leader. Those 200 leaders elect a Prince through secret ballot who rules for life unless deposed for one reason or another, but primarily for tyranny.

Published in 1516.

Utopia’s people are living in a sort of commune. There is no private property. Everybody dresses the same. Everyone is required to do a stint working the fields, but they must also learn at least one other essential skill to meet the needs of fellow Utopians. Everyone must work, but everyone can draw upon needed goods which are stored in a central warehouse.

This being Medieval Europe, everybody in Utopia has two slaves who are either criminals or persons captured from other countries. The slave work in gold chains which form the wealth of the country, which More explains this keeps thievery down because the gold is in plain sight.

Life in Utopia is ordered. People just can’t move around freely. They must seek permission to travel and if they do not obtain it, well, they become slaves. Every household, too, takes turns feeding the community.

One last thing, there is no privacy in Utopia. There are no pubs or places for private gatherings. Everybody is under the watchful eye of leaders and fellow citizens.

Now, let’s fast forward to a vision of 2030 Europe from Ida Auken, Member of Parliament for Denmark.

Writing in the World Economic Forum, Auken also envisions a utopia:

“Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city – or should I say, “our city”. I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes.

It might seem odd to you, but it makes perfect sense for us in this city. Everything you considered a product, has now become a service. We have access to transportation, accommodation, food and all the things we need in our daily lives. One by one all these things became free, so it ended up not making sense for us to own much.”

 In the new city, no one pays rent because someone who is using our free space when they aren’t using it.

The foundation of the new city is Artificial Intelligence and robots which do all of the heavy lifting that an economy needs:

“When AI and robots took over so much of our work, we suddenly had time to eat well, sleep well and spend time with other people. The concept of rush hour makes no sense anymore, since the work that we do can be done at any time. I don’t really know if I would call it work anymore. It is more like thinking-time, creation-time and development-time.”

With everything being free and no need to work, people at first just kind of lazed about and concentrated on entertainment, but then they came to their senses and started doing productive, creative things with their lives.

And as in More’s Utopia, there is no privacy, because the government keeps tabs on everyone:

“Once in awhile I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. No where I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me.”

Auken hasn’t worked out all the details on life in the City of the Future. She says her missive was just to get us thinking about how good life could be for everyone.

Now, there are some stark differences between More’s Utopia and Auken’s utopia. In the former, scarcity is obviously an issue, as is the distribution of goods and services. In Utopia, everyone is required to work, but slaves are there to make it more bearable. In Auken’s utopia, there is obviously no scarcity and everyone has what they need and, presumably, what they want thanks to A.I. and robots (and bountiful free renewable energy.) But the goal is the same: an ordered society where there is little to no disagreement over what everyone thinks is important.

Star Trek’s holodeck escapism.

Auken’s utopia puts me in mind of Star Trek. No one really has to work, has everything they need and if they are feeling maladjusted, there’s the holodeck and its attendant pleasures. Worse comes to worse, there’s always the Betazoid counselors who can really get into your head.

Is this future possible? I doubt it.

I don’t doubt that A.I. and robots aren’t going to be doing a lot of work in the near future. They’re already doing the work of a lot of people now. More, they have the potential to do a lot more in the future. I’ve see papers that forecast fully 40 per cent of all current jobs will be done by robots by 2030 and the majority of jobs by mid-century.

All of which means, of course, that millions upon millions of people in the developed world will have to find something to do with this enforced leisure time.

How will people earn a living? Already close to 36 per cent of Americans receive federal welfare benefits. If most jobs are lost to automation, that percentage will climb – 50 per cent, 60 per cent, 70 per cent? Who knows? Some jurisdictions are already experimenting with guaranteed annual incomes.

How does a society fund such largesse? Some economists argue we need to do away with money and with private property. The cashless society will be one where the value of money is determined not by the market, but by government decree.

I have trouble wrapping my mind around such a world. Economics, after all, is founded on scarcity. The scarcity of a good or service determines its value. Gold is harder to come by than tin, so the former is more expensive than the latter. A nuclear engineer’s skills are in short supply and are more valuable than those of a common laborer.

Star Trek’s replicator supplied everything you could ever need or want.

In Star Trek, their abundance is founded on incredibly cheap energy. They have basically harnessed elusive zero point energy – energy from nothing. That has created so much wealth that everything is free.

In the real world, energy is not free. If anything, it keeps getting more expensive and there is real scarcity which explains why all governments are deeply in debt.

But if governments the world over decided in unison to abolish cash and print whatever money they needed, would that solve all our problems?

That is the socialist, globalist dream. I don’t know how many times I’ve read some proponent of a clearly uneconomic renewable energy project argue that government should just print money to get the project off the ground.

Utopian thinkers also believe human nature is malleable. More believed that. Auken clearly does as well. Given enough coercion people will do as they are told if it promises a life free of meeting basic needs and if they’re free to indulge their fantasies.

We’re certainly moving in that direction. Rules abound in modern society. We are told what we are allowed to say, think and, above all, do. At the same time, we are also allowed to indulge our fantasies about gender, sex and drugs.

For conservatives, the socialist utopia is a dystopia. We see human nature as immutable. People will want and should be free to pursue those wants so long as they do not harm others in the process.

It goes beyond that, though. Conservatives also believe in the dignity of work, in the notion that we provide goods and services for each other and are rewarded in turn for providing the self same. Work, in other words, gives life meaning.

For a lot of us, a world where there is no work or where work is a privilege is literally out of this world – just like Star Trek.




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