Richard wrote “Progress is not so much limited by resources, such as energy, as it is by attention.” There is some truth in that, and that statement can also be used to hide some much deeper truths.
It seems necessary to get really explicit about some of the different basic levels of what an economy is (acknowledging that there are many more higher level strategic structures than I will be explicit about in this piece). And it is important to at least get the major sets of the basic components clear, so that the strategic interactions between them becomes clear.
At the simplest of strategic levels, money and markets seems to perform two quite independent classes of function.
1 Creation of “value”;
2 Coordination through transmission of information.
The first idea I will look at is value.
What is value?
What sorts of values are there?
Survival is one strongly selected value.
It seems that each of us as individuals starts life with a set of values which can be thought of as being distilled by a process of evolution by natural selection operating over deep time at the genetic level. As such those influences on our values will have been found by natural selection to have been relevant over the sorts of circumstances that various combinations of moderately important and very common, or very infrequent but extremely important in those infrequent instances. Thus an event that occurs only once every 50 thousand years or so might seem unimportant to most humans, yet if how one reacts to it has a 99.9999% influence on survival, then it can be very highly selected for in a population. So events like multi-year winters from super-volcano explosion can have a major influence on our genetic makeup, and may even be deeply buried in our cultural makeup.
Survival values can be expressed at many strategic levels of tendency to action in reality.
They can come as levels of preference, likes and dislikes.
They can come as tendencies to make distinctions at any level of model or context.
They can come as tendencies to types of thought or action in particular contexts.
In the deeper evolutionary sense of genetics, all of these are modulated through gene frequencies in populations, and the effects of the expression of the downstream products of those genes (through RNA, proteins, and catalysis or switching or modulation of systems or probabilities of system states that result). All very complex, many different levels simultaneously present, all levels interacting with all other levels.
Once our brains are sufficiently well formed to be capable of learning, then we find ourselves in an environment with both physical and cultural influences (and it can be multi layered, as often culture has many layers of effects on the physical environment we find ourselves in).
So all of us start out learning distinctions and concepts and values from the culture of our birth. Most cultures come with ideas that discourage the questioning of cultural values – ideas like right/wrong or heresy or Truth. These ideas can have a powerful influence on the development of higher levels of awareness, in some cases suppressing them entirely.
Some individuals are fortunate enough to live in cultures where questioning is encouraged, where individuals are allowed to question and test anything.
Now, to a good first order approximation, at the macro scale of human beings and the things we can see and experience, it seems that all actions have consequences, and the consequences of some actions become a significant threat to the survival of others. So this ability to question and experiment is not without limits or free of risks.
How one assesses the likelihood of risk and benefit in domains that are truly novel is one of the difficulties. It is essentially impossible.
One of the great delusions that most suffer under is that the past is a good predictor of the future.
While this may be true most of the time, it is not true in the case of real novelty.
It does seem to be the case that we live in an open system, and that the regularity of cause and effect we experience at the normal scale of human experience is actually the result of “stochastic systems” at the lower level.
Stochastic systems in this sense refers to systems that are truly random, but within certain probability distributions.
Both the logic and the experimental results of the realm of Quantum Mechanics seem to clearly demonstrate that the operational utility of the notion of cause and effect that we are used to in our normal experience is merely an illusion in a sense. Cause and effect seems to be the result of vast numbers of random interactions within certain probability distributions giving very predictable outcomes at the level of large collections of things.
However, at the level of individuals within those collections, Quantum outcomes seem not only unpredictable, but unknowable.
It seems that human awareness has several levels of such stochastic “quantum” processes within it.
It seems we all have an ability to express such randomness as levels of “creativity”.
So, coming back to economies more directly, part of what the “profit signal” in an economy does, is to encourage innovation (novelty) that allows individuals to produce goods or services at a lower cost than competitors, and thus make greater profit.
In antiquity people rapidly figured out that such a system leads to loss of profits, so people tended to form into guilds and groups to protect their way of making a living from too much competition.
One of the powerful things that has happened is that we have found other ways of automating processes, using energy from sources like water, wind and fire.
For several centuries there has been much disruption, as new technologies have removed the need for humans in old areas, and have replaced them with machines, and what has happened in the past is that new areas for humans to add value have opened up.
Now something fundamentally different is happening.
We are in an age of exponential growth of automation technologies (actually some aspects are double exponentials).
To a good first order approximation we are now seeing a doubling of capability every year.
We can now automate any process involving information alone far faster than any human can perform any such task.
We are seeing the first generation of 3D printing.
Molecular level manufacturing is on the near horizon. Sure there are some significant hurdles to overcome, and the overcoming of them is a matter of a few years, perhaps a couple of 10s of years, not much more.
So the process of the price signal in markets encouraging human creativity is now resulting in very small groups of individuals being able to create vast amounts of value, by automating processes that once employed millions.
So let us step back to values directly.
Some values we get from genetics.
Some values we get from culture.
We are also capable of creating values, and choosing values.
Economic systems focus on a particular sort of value – exchange value in a market.
Humans have many more sorts of values.
Primarily we have survival values.
We are capable of choosing any other sort of value, or creating a vast set of context sensitive values (values that have different weightings in different contexts).
We speak of family values, cultural values, environmental values, and many more abstract and higher level sets of values (potentially infinitely recursive). In a very real sense, liberty is as much about the ability to influence one’s own sets of values, their hierarchical structure and their contextual weightings, as it is about freedom of movement and reasonable access to resources.
Most value sets that individuals have include the values of universal abundance of the key factors in life and liberty (clean water, fresh healthy food, safe warm comfortable and aesthetically pleasing shelter, energy, communication, sanitation, healthcare, transportation).
Markets are systems of exchange values, and exchange values are based in scarcity. Anything universally abundant has, by definition, zero exchange value. Thus, something like air which is arguably the most important survival value for any human being, has zero market value because it is universally abundant.
Many of our social systems are now much more about the sorts of legal and political protection groups are able to secure for modes of profit making, with ideas like intellectual property, patent, copyright, etc; and using those to prop up a system that is now in direct conflict with the life and liberty of most people.
The great conflict of our modern age is that most people have abstracted value to such a degree that they now use money as a proxy for all values, yet they fail to appreciate that the monetary value of any universal abundance is zero.
That would not be a big issue, if markets really were tending to delivering universal abundance through automation.
But that is not what we are seeing.
What we see is the development of another, entirely predictable aspect of monetary value.
Once one abstracts value to money alone, then it would seem to make sense to take actions to protect monetary value.
But protecting monetary value means preventing universal abundance – as universal abundance destroys monetary value.
Thus what we see is the rise of artificial barriers to universal abundance.
We see IP laws, that make it illegal to copy stuff. The only reason for that is to prevent universal abundance and protect profit.
The necessary outcome of such tendencies is poverty, where it need not exist.
What we are seeing is a direct logical conflict between scarcity based values (markets and their value measure money), and abundance based human values for things like life, liberty, beauty, love, and a potentially infinite set of others.
In times of genuine scarcity, markets were a great tool for increasing abundance, but only to a point.
We are now at a stage in our cultural and intellectual and strategic development where we can deliver automation of any level of good or service, yet our systems of thinking, of measuring value, of culture, of technology, are, for the most part, still optimised around scarcity.
The really hard thing to get is that exchange values, market values, are fundamentally based in scarcity. We only trade that which some other doesn’t have for that which we don’t have.
When we can create and deploy technology that allows any person to have anything that anyone knows how to create (through automation and high speed transmission of information), we really don’t have much that needs to be scarce.
We have ample matter, ample energy, to have anything we reasonably want.
Sure there are limits.
We cannot keep breeding and expanding our population indefinitely.
Sure we can’t all have a new house every year.
Sure we can’t all live in the same place.
And we can all have access to any experience we reasonably want. We can make the windows or walls of our dwellings display any view we want, real time from cameras or created from someone’s imagination or automated based on any combination of the previous two.
I have spent a lot of time questioning and overriding the values of genetics and culture, at many levels.
Very little of my time is involved in generating market measures of value.
Most of my time is put into questioning how I can most effectively maintain my life and liberty.
How do I most effectively increase the probability of living a very long time?
How can I generate the highest probability of the greatest degrees of freedom over that very long life?
It seems clear to me, from many levels of analysis, that the scarcity based measure of value we get from markets is the single greatest long term systemic threat to both my life and my liberty.
It seems clear to me that we can use markets as tools in domains of real scarcity, provided that we do so within a context that holds individual life and individual liberty as our highest values.
It seems very clear that focusing on economic values as a priority is the single greatest threat to life and liberty that exists in our current age of exponential expansion of computation and automation.
Great – Thanks Richard.
Now I think I can see much more clearly that we are very largely thinking along similar lines.
The major quibble I have remaining is around your statement “True wealth is ecological in nature.”
As an ecologist, I have a certain sympathy with that view, but as a logician integrity requires of me that I specify that wealth is a personal value measure.
What each of us values seems to be part genetics, part culture, part choice, part chance.
It seems clear to me that if liberty has any meaning, it is in deciding what our value sets are, and how we structure them in different contexts.
Wealth is a measure of value.
Money has been a socially useful shared measure of value in as far as it has both allowed exchanges of scarce goods in markets, and has promoted cooperation through the information aspect of profit and price signals.
The great mistake of many economists and philosophers has been (and is) to think that any single metric can adequately capture all aspects of value.
Clearly, in a survival context, money has been useful.
We now have the option of creating an entirely new sort of game.
It seems clear to me that in our future resolution of disputes will involve conversations and levels of agreement around risk and utility and reasonableness; in a context of respect for individual life and individual liberty (acknowledging that all things effect all other things, and nothing is risk free).
I strongly suspect that Robin will have a strongly contrary perspective (based upon many hours of listening to him previously and reading much of what he has written).
Ok – putting on my software developer and systems hat ( 😉 ) – yes we need mechanisms to reach agreement.
Here on earth energy is going to be the major limiting factor.
Anyone wanting to do serious engineering will need to do so off planet (either in person or by remote). I suspect all serious engineering projects will be automated to a substantial degree.
Coming back to earth, if everyone has a certain share of the energy resources, and can allocate fractions of that to whatever projects take their interest (I expect most people will need less than 10% of their allocation most of the time), then we can use “Kick Starter” type voting of energy to projects we support.
So we can individually use whatever utility metric we want to make our decisions, and energy (Earth surface area, as adjusted for orbital, tilt and aspect effects) is the metric of allocation.
I envisage about half of the land and sea area will be allocated to natural ecosystems, half the rest to individuals, and the balance by various democratically determined mechanisms selected from time to time and for various periods (some might be held in reserve for individual allocation). The absolute details are not important. The key factor is decentralisation of power – at all levels, with strong secondary and tertiary strategies to maintain cooperation and alignment with the values of individual life and individual liberty.