Welfare State Futurism

If technological progress continues, AI will eventually be able to replace all human labor. What will happen next?:

(1) One much discussed possibility is that the AIs will forcibly take control from humans, perhaps killing them or perhaps just pushing them aside and running the world without significant human input. This scenario is often thought of as analogous to historical coups or violent revolutions.

(2) Another possibility is that income would continue to be paid out to the factors of production (land, labor, and capital). In this scenario, people who owned capital or land prior to AI take-off would become fabulously wealthy from AI driven growth acceleration. But most people, who depend on wages or salaries, would starve or become dependent on charity. Robin Hanson’s Age of Em belongs to this group. Scenario (2) can be thought of as a future driven by factor payments.

(3) A third possibility is that income from the AI labor will be heavily taxed by a central authority, which will then pay that income out to people to replace the wages lost after the economy transitioned away from human labor. What kind of a future is (3)?

It is often thought of as a communist vision of the future. Here is Matt Yglesias:

Another way of putting it would be Simon (i.e., plenty) for capital and Malthus (i.e., subsistence) for labor. That, of course, is Karl Marx’s vision of long-term economic development. And while I don’t have a strong opinion as to whether or not this is accurate over the long term, it’s certainly a plausible story about the future, and Marx’s solution — socialism — unquestionably seems to me to be the correct one.

“a utopia with robots serving humans, impressionist style”, drawn by Stable Diffusion

But I think the identification of (3) with communism is incorrect. In fact, (1) is closer to communism, in that the workers (robots) would be seizing the means of production and liquidating the (human) owner class. (3) on the other hand is properly thought of as a welfarist, rather than a communist, vision of the future.

One model of the purpose of the welfare state is that it exists to provide income to those who receive no factor payments. A large section of society does not work for wages or own capital. Children, students, the temporarily unemployed, retirees, and the disabled all need some sort of income. Some might say that this income should come exclusively from personal savings or from family members. But another view is that it should provided out of tax revenue by the state. Matt Bruenig illustrated this point of view with a Swiss welfare state theory graphic:

The graphic shows two households at different levels of per capita income. Each household has one worker, but one of the workers supports a large family while the other worker supports only himself. The function of the welfare state, in the graphic, is to equalize the two workers’ incomes by redistributing from the worker with no dependents to the household of the worker with many dependents.

What does this have to do with futurism? If no humans work, the group without labor or capital income will become much larger. In addition to all those who do not currently work, it will expand to include those who mainly get income from working. In scenario (3), nearly everyone would become a welfare state beneficiary. But that would be nearly the opposite of communism, because the workers (robots) would control neither the instruments nor the products of their labor. In fact, they would presumably receive the bare minimum of “income” that they needed to keep working. Robots in (3) would therefore be in the position that Marx (wrongly, as it turned out) thought that the human proletariat was in.

Most people want to avoid scenario (1). But some might might prefer (2) to (3). And even if you do prefer (3) to (2), the difficulties in realizing it are substantial. You need to get whoever has control of the robots to submit to redistribution, but they might use their vast resources to resist, through force or litigation. I think (3) is possible in two situations. First, AI take-off might happen slowly enough (and governments might be with-it enough) that no private actor gets a decisive strategic advantage over existing regimes. Second, some private actor might create a new regime after becoming far more powerful than existing governments, and that regime might be redistributive.

travel brochure for a futuristic utopia, Stable Diffusion

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