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Making Work for Ourselves (Part One)

Suppose that you and ninety-nine other people are stranded on a desert island. You are lucky, in that the island has all the natural resources – water, food, materials to build shelter – that you will need to survive indefinitely. Between the stranded hundred, there is a sufficient range of skills to competently manage any task you may need to perform, whether it is treating ailments or hunting wild boar. Unfortunately, you know that rescuers will never come. You are too far from habitation, and for whatever reason, the rest of the world will never look for you or find you. Your only focus is living and not escaping. Now suppose there is enough necessary work – in terms of maintaining shelter, gathering food etc – to keep about forty people busy all the time, leaving the other sixty with nothing to do. Let us not quibble about what is considered necessary, why there is not more work or less work, and what it means for a person to be busy all the time. Let us just say that, if sixty of the island’s population acted like they were on vacation, the other forty, using whatever tools and equipment that washed ashore with them, would be consistently able to do the chores. Forty workers could keep one hundred people fed, watered, clothed, warm and dry. Ignore anything that might demand a short-lived burst of extra energy, such as building the first shelters, coping with a spell of bad weather like a monsoon season, or dealing with an epidemic. The island’s population needs forty full-time workers on average. My question for you is: how would the islanders split up the work between them? And what work, if any, would you want to do?

There are no demonic and wealthy social scientists who would round up a representative sample of people and parachute them on to an island to see what would happen. It would be a glorious experiment, but unless the participants are willing, it would be unethical. If they were willing, the sample would not be representative, and the results would not be a reliable basis for inference. Being willing at the outset does not guarantee they will continue to be willing, and an experiment like this might need to run for years as the community may reorganize itself many times before the division of work is finally settled. However, although we cannot perform these experiments, the human race is, in an indirect way, constantly exploring the answer.

The question of who does what work is about organization, or more specifically how people organize themselves when it comes to performing work. Our most basic survival instincts will always lead to some kind of work, for somebody or other. The inhabitants of a desert island are remote from prevailing law and government, and so are free to create their own laws and govern themselves in new ways. They will decide how work and resources are distributed amongst the population. They will decide who has what obligations, who has what rewards. How would they organize themselves? Would they be Marxists, with everybody working according to their ability, and everyone receiving according to their needs? Would there be a simple form of egalitarianism, with everybody expected to do an equal share of the work, and some rules about what is an equal share? Would the island society establish a Capitalist principle of private ownership and trade between the individuals, with people buying and selling their possessions and their labours? Would the island end up with a despot, telling people what to do? Would it divide into classes, with some doing more work, others doing more supervising?

History is not of great help in finding an answer. In the past, most people were kept very busy just feeding themselves. Subsistence farmers comprise the great majority of people who have ever lived. What we learn from history is often skewed. Histories tend to be written from the perspective of the privileged few. Those with privilege tend to be more concerned with each other than with the lot of the great mass, except in those rare cases where the great mass threatens to revolt and upset the status quo. Because the powerful tend to be preoccupied with the powerful, it may feel like little has ever changed in human affairs. Nevertheless, mankind has shown the capacity for change over the centuries. Slavery used to be the norm. Now it is outlawed by and large. The fourth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”

Outlawing slavery is a basic step. Nevertheless, it is a significant step change in how humans organize themselves.

Sometimes people wrongly equate slavery with the enslavement of Africans for use as farming labour in the new world. Slavery has been around a lot longer than just that ignoble episode. Modern sensitivities about race and a disproportionate emphasis on modern American history means we may forget that slavery was common to many ancient cultures, long before the invention of technology to move large numbers of people across the continents. The word ‘slave’ is derived from the word ‘Slav’ because so many Eastern European Slavs were sold in to slavery. The list of cultures which recognized some form of slavery is long: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Aztecs… it goes on and on. The Bible sets expectations for the minimum treatment of slaves. Jews traded non-Jews as slaves. The Muslims had rules to govern slavery. The medieval Catholic Church sometimes tried to ban it, but usually made exceptions for non-Christians. Throughout history, the motivation for slavery has largely been economic. For a very few to be prosperous, many more had to toil.

There are many problems with analyzing slavery as a basis for meeting people’s needs. One problem is that you cannot devise a general-purpose definition of a person’s needs that can explain the needs of the slave and the slave owner without also coming to the conclusion that the slave owner gets more than they need (or that the slave gets less). On the other hand, just because slave owners get more than they need, that does not mean that society does not need slaves. Whether we look at agriculture for the ancient Romans or in 18th Century US, it could be argued that efficiently organizing large numbers of people to work on farms enables a surplus of production which in turn frees other parts of the population to do different work. If everyone is a subsistence farmer, then nobody can be a professional soldier or research scientist. Both Plato and George Washington owned slaves. The debate about the need for slavery hence revolves around the extent to which it is permissible to curtail the individual’s liberties in order to meet the perceived needs of society as a whole. This debate is not limited to slavery, as it would occur in any circumstances where people live together as a group. It is pivotal to our modern lives. Slavery is just one end of a spectrum, with the slave giving up most liberty and being most subordinated into becoming a tool for economic production. All of us give up liberty to some extent, and there is a relationship between the loss of liberty, how we contribute the economy and earn a living, and how much of a living we make.

Slavery still exists today. By some reports, far more people are illegally enslaved today than were legally trafficked from Africa to the Americas; take a look at this article in the UN Chronicle. Illegality makes it harder to track the real numbers. The motives remain economic, but the method of making money has changed. The prime slave is no longer a strong African man who would make a good farmhand. Today slavery is more oriented around the women of many races who are forced into prostitution. It is reported that most of these women are promised new lives as illegal immigrants in foreign countries, only to find out the truth when they arrive. Because of their precarious legal position, their choices are stark. The persistence of slavery today, despite legal sanctions to prevent it, and in the absence of any obvious need for it, tell us something about how people organize themselves for economic gain. It also tells us how demand and supply continues to determine human affairs, even as perceived needs change.

Human history is not a good guide to what our islanders will do, because human invention always changes the parameters of work and need. Advances in science, technology and equipment mean that Thomas Jefferson’s farm, including slaves, was less productive than Al Gore’s farm is without slaves. If you want to make the world a better place now, and forever more, then you should invent something. You may not profit from the invention, but so long as your invention is not lost or forgotten, the human race as a whole has a chance to gain from it. A good new invention may not change the world overnight, but it will proliferate over time. An invention represents a fundamental change in economic parameters. Something that used to be impossible is now possible. This is the root cause of why each generation tends to be more prosperous than the generation before. The driving force of invention, coupled with the accumulation of capital, was recognized by the economist J.M. Keynes. In 1930, in the midst of the great depression, he wrote an essay called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in which he painted an optimistic picture of the future. Keynes predicted that by 2030 people would be working 15-hour weeks, and that the greater motivation for their work would be the human desire to keep busy and, to a lesser extent, to acquire more wealth. To his mind, progress had essentially liberated man from hard graft. Keynes gave a comforting message that the depression was an anomaly, created by the speed of change and the novelty of the human situation. He asserted that the underlying dynamic of wealth creation would prevail in the long run. As a consequence, need would no longer be a significant source of human motivation. Whilst Keynes’ predictions about increases in the standard of living have proven right so far, there is no sign of the leisure society he imagined. If powerful forces are driving us towards a better life, why are they creating a higher standard of living, but not a shorter working week?

The desert island I introduced in my opening question is a metaphor for our planet, the island of Earth. I supposed an island where the stranded inhabitants, with the tools and knowledge they possess, could satisfy their needs whilst utilizing only 40% of the workforce. Choosing 40% was arbitrary. More primitive technology or knowledge would mean a larger proportion would need to work just to ensure all needs are satisfied. Improvements would mean less of the workforce has to be engaged to satisfy the islander’s needs. The exact figure is less important than the sense of a sliding scale, and that most of us can agree on a definition of human needs that could be satisfied with less than 100% of the workforce. If progress is driving us further and further towards a world where our needs are met more easily, how does this change our motivations and how we organize ourselves? Do we become indolent? Do we seek solutions to needs that are more personal than societal, such as treatments of infertility? Do we use the time made available and try to accumulate even greater, previously unimaginable wealth? Does our answer change, depending on whether we live in an existing society with established customs and practice, or if we imagine ourselves constructing a new society from scratch?

Nobody can parachute a random sample of one hundred people on to an island, to see how they behave over a period of years. However, we can perform a thought experiment. We can imagine the scenario, and try to identify how they would behave. Our estimations should be based on the evidence of how people have behaved in the past, and how they behave today. I am going to continue the thought experiment in the sequel to this post, to be published next week. In the continuation, I will look at the choices the islanders are faced with, and contrast them with the choices people make in the real world. That way, I hope to learn about the island society, and our own.

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