Free Riders

One of the topics in human evolution that I’ve always found interesting is the free rider problem. Economics has tried to tart it up with their nonsense, but it is a central problem of all human society. Well, it’s a problem as long as there is scarcity. Having people that consume more than they produce is not much of a problem when you have excess. Having people that subtract from the wealth of the society is not even a problem if you lots of extra, like Western societies. America has over two million people in jail at a cost of about $50K a year. If we were struggling to feed everyone, the criminals would not be in jail. They would be dead or exiled.

People who claim to know about these things say religion probably evolved to deal with loafers. On the one hand you have the gods looking poorly upon those who don’t pull their wait. That thought works as an incentive to contribute. On the other hand, it gives cover to the group when they have to punish a loafer. It’s easier to punish a relative when you believe the gods demand it of you. Similarly, it also rewards charity to those who can’t contribute. Religion solves a problem, but it also rewards the sort of behavior that makes the problem less of a problem in the long run.

When you see stories like this one I saved for some reason, it’s easy to see how the death of the gods undermines the whole effort. The Rousseau-ist cults have tried to fill the role once fill by Christianity with a mountain of rules and regulations. But, that leads to stuff like this. A mountain of laws and a massive regulatory bureaucracy is just not the same as an angry and vengeful god. Regardless, the West has enough wealth to tolerate a large welfare class without undermining the the general belief in working hard and pulling your weight. The tax payers may bitch about these loafers, but they are ashamed to join them. That suggests a bit of hard wiring, rather than just culture.

Futurists like to talk about how robots will be doing all our work in the near future, but that’s not quite right. The technology is nowhere near as close as they would like to pretend. That does not mean that some jobs cannot be done by robots. This company thinks they can liberate the nation’s burger makers. Automating fast food jobs is probably going to happen within the next ten years. Assembling a Happy Meal requires no decision making at this point. The human merely supplies mechanical work and that can be done by machines. Humans are cheaper at the moment, but that’s probably about to change for lots of these jobs.

The driverless car, which sounds pointless to most people will probably put taxi and limo drivers out of work. Bus drivers could probably be replaced. It’s not happening tomorrow, but a decade from now it is not unreasonable. Again, the great robot takeover is not happening anytime soon, but within the lifetime of people reading this, it will happen, at least for low-skill work. Anything that does not require mobility and thought is ripe for takeover by the new robot workers. The question is how quickly the cost of the robots can fall below the cost of humans.

What never gets mentioned by modern economists or public policy types is the fact we already have scads of people in useless jobs. Having experience with the federal government, I know about a third of the people employed do nothing. They show up, perform tasks as instructed, but it is all busy work. Another third do real work, but we should probably stop them. The army of people coming up with new warning labels for shampoo bottles are a net negative to society. The rest probably do useful work, but I’m probably being generous. The same math is true in state and local government.

It’s not just the public sector. The private sector has millions of pointless workers. Lawyers are an easy example. Health care is packed to the gills with people who are there because the law requires it. The business does not need them, other than to meet the demands of the state. Education is another obvious example of make work. Tyler Cowen gets paid to write a blog for goodness sakes. It is easy to overlook the value of these jobs, but the truth is we got along fine for a long time without them. The growth of these sectors coincides with the end of manufacturing and that’s not a coincidence. We found something for idle people to do.

The question then is what happens when most people are idle? What happens to the free rider problem when robots are able to do all of our work and serve all of our needs? We’re already close to having a robot army to guard us. If robots can produce our food, shelter, transportation and entertainments, what do we do with our time? How does our morality about work and leisure adapt?

I don’t know the answer, but one option is Marx was right. Eventually, capitalism destroys itself. We will advance to the point where we eliminate our reason to exist. The robots will not become aware and stamp us out like in sci-fi movies. We will become aware of what we have done and stamp ourselves out. Those falling fertility rates may turn out to be good times a generation from now.

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3 Comments on "Free Riders"

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Lee Johnson

I think the end point of your logic in a as-much-as-possible-post-scarcity economy, say in which one million people can provide a middle-class lifestyle for eight billion, is massive addiction.

Sufficiently advanced virtual reality, good old drugs, and hyper-communication will result in people addicted to things other than reality.

I just discovered your blog. There is a really interesting idea in your post, in that the reaction of humans to humans creating robots that can do most of the work, is for the humans to take themselves/ ourselves out. That possibility to automation has not been suggested by anyone that I know of, though maybe Asimov was on to it with the “Spacers” in one of his Foundation/ Robot sequels. I suspect there are human scientists right now working on creating silicon lifeforms with artificial intelligence, to which human intelligence can be uploaded. These scientists and the people funding… Read more »
Nedd Ludd

A consequence free welfare state doesn’t seem
to me like a system that would have a very long shelf life.(See below.)

Outraged Swiss village of 1,000 residents forced to raise taxes after African refugee mother-of-seven moves there and costs them £40,000 a month in benefits