Monday, January 22, 2007

Is Personal Wealth a Good Thing?

Here are a few things that have been on my mind for the past few days. At the moment I’m re-reading Learning the World by Ken MacLeod. It is superbly written, and assumes a degree of (admittedly fragile) civility in the (post-)humans of the future, in stark contrast to Stephen Baxter’s peculiarly pessimistic view of the future (Baxter disregards all possible human enhancement, and instead concentrates on natural human evolution, which has ceased to be a major factor in the future of humanity).

In the futuristic society MacLeod envisions in LtW humanity has spread out from the solar system and colonised several star systems. The method of colonisation involves launching vast generation ships (with indefinite longevity all of the original inhabitants survive to see the end of the trip. Once the ship arrives in a new system the youthful “ship generation” disassemble the asteroids, moons and minor planets and build a vast green sphere of space habitats around the new star. The original ship, divorced of its engines, turns into one of many habitats and the engines themselves are outfitted with raw materials, and become part of the first of many more ships to travel out to the next system to repeat the process.

Over the course of the journey, as more information about the destination system comes to light, there is much (monetary) speculation over the destinations system, with “resource futures” divvied up between members of the crew and passengers. MacLeod has explored the idea of an anarcho-capitalist society and the idea of an anarcho-socialist society in his previous (and excellent) Fall Revolution sequence.

All this has got me thinking about the nature of capitalism, the distribution of wealth, and the future of a posthuman humanity.

At the moment, in Britain and the USA there is a trend towards greater disparity in wealth, average incomes for the top 1% of the population in terms of wealth are increasing, whereas average incomes for the bottom 50% are remaining more or less static. Upper-middle-class people, who would be considered “well off” in another era now believe that they are “poorer” than they actually are. This is because of a combination of factors, including the greater visibility of the rich and their lavish lifestyles. This phenomenon is explored in depth in Stewart Lansley’s excellent book Rich Britain.

This book raises an interesting ethical question: is it fair (and is it just) that some can have so much and some can have so (comparatively) little?

From what I have absorbed on the subject there seem to be two broad schools of thought on the subject:

  1. People who believe that enormous individual wealth is good. These people argue that individuals who possess great wealth have grown assets (e.g. property, land, a business), worked hard, taken risks and deserve their wealth. People who believe this argue that these wealthy individuals pay enormous amounts of tax money (more than other individuals on more modest incomes pay over a lifetime), and also create employment in their businesses and in the services and products they consume. This is an opinion shared by Winwood Reade (see elsewhere in this text).
  2. People who believe that great personal wealth can only exist at the expense of other individuals. These people believe that the owners of capital are given too many advantages, way out of proportion to their actual contribution to society. People who believe this argue that the uber-rich can afford tax-havens and accountants who can hide their wealth and ensure that the uber-wealthy can pay as much, or as little, tax as they want.

My own opinions lie somewhere between these two extremes (although slightly closer to the first school of thought than the second – incidentally, check out The Political Compass for a much more rational description of how [relative] political views should be talked about, in contrast to the traditional left/right image), I believe that individuals should be given as many freedoms as possible, and that these freedoms should extend to things like access to top-quality education, healthcare and biological self-determination (see democratic transhumanism for what I mean by that last point).

I agree with Warren Buffett that inherited wealth is generally a bad thing (here engineered indefinite longevity would solve problems – if individuals never expect to die, they would have no desire to pass on their wealth to their offspring), but I believe the competitive and entrepreneurial spirit has done a great deal of good for humanity as a whole.

One of the more controversial aspects of the new breed of super wealthy has been highlighted by the recent record-high bonuses paid to bankers and financiers. I think that those who gain the most wealth should be the people who create the most wealth – the people for whom the platitudes of the first school of thought apply. I would probably include Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Howard Hughes (only because I have a soft spot for Howard Hughes – he was probably a most objectionable individual). In the process of making their fortunes, these individuals improved the lives of many other people, either through philanthropy (Philanthropist: a rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket – Ambrose Pierce The Devil’s Dictionary), or improvements in the standards of living brought about by their industrial actions.

However there are bankers and usurers who don’t so much create wealth as rearrange it, mostly so that it ends up in their pockets. I’m thinking of Carl Icahn, Mike Milken, and Phillip Green amongst others.

This trend of the rich getting richer and the middle-incomers staying the same without any detectable improvements brought about by the new super-rich may one day backfire, with greater controls put on the recently liberalised financial markets.

Also, I think the most essential question does not concern relative wealth in wealthy countries, but relative wealth between countries. Is it an immutable fact of life that there will always, somewhere, be poor people who must suffer in order for others to lead comfortable lives? Is the fact that there are a few uber-wealthy individuals a cause of the problems faced by poor countries?

I don’t think it is a fact of life. I believe that one day we will be able to arrange the matter of this Earth and this solar system is such a way that it can provide for each and every one of us a lifestyle that Bill Gates or George Soros could not buy today.

However until that time we are forced into considering whether a more authoritarian socialist-style redistribution of wealth might not be better for the time being.

Unfortunately “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” simply doesn’t work without an unacceptably powerful (and inevitably corrupt) state, and even when it is created it means that no one has any great need to excel, except for the empty promises of corrupt governments.

What about social democracy? I suspect that Tony Blair’s third way is a reasonably compromise between social justice and individual liberties. Aside from the Really Bad Idea Tony Blair has been a good premier, and has overseen one of the largest redistributions of wealth in history via the family tax credit system.

I think the middle class consensus of greater consumerism and aspiration that allowed the “third way” to work has broadly been a Good Thing, with the obvious (MASSIVE) problem of third-world poverty as the price-tag for cheap(-ish) designer clothes and nice coffee.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way I need to consider more personal things: I know that as an individual I can have very little influence on global affairs. I know it will make little difference if I recycle, or vote for a particular political party, or write a letter to my MP. I will do all of those things at one time or another, and will do so more out of principle than anything else.

However. Is it not my duty as a responsible citizen to extend my influence as wide and as high as I am capable and in doing so enact the changes I believe need to be undertaken? I’m not sure.

There is a difference between being faced with the abstract reality of a few wealthy people vs. the down-to-earth grinding poverty much of humanity is forced to live in and actually being offered the choice of wealth or power. Power corrupts. Good advice, so is the answer to water down power (through democracy) until its debilitating effect is destroyed?

What I’m trying to say is this: I am in a very fortunate position as a young, healthy, male in a progressive Western democracy. There are problems in the world that I feel I can have no effect on as an individual at the moment. I believe that I can amplify my positive effects through gaining large personal wealth (and incidentally having a good time into the bargain – money corrupts, see?), and ganging up with a load of other guilty people and trying to make a New and Better World. Which option should I take?

  1. Live an ethically and financially secure life as a middle-class writer/academic/engineer. Vote, recycle, minimise my carbon footprint, write to my MP, attend protests and try to shuffle through life without causing trouble or offence to anyone.
  2. Live a somewhat more exciting life as an entrepreneur. Make lotsa money and retire to try to force my idea of what a perfect world should be down various people’s word-holes.

Phrased like that, neither choice seems particularly appealing.

What about the Future?

Between now and the time when the cost of production goes down through magic nanotechnology, everyone is turned into an artificial genius, and everyone gets a butler robot in their own glittering space habitat and the present moment we will need to explore a few important questions:

  1. Is large personal wealth broadly a good thing or broadly a bad thing? Answer: broadly a good thing as long as the wealth is created in an entrepreneurial manner and the wealth is not derived from anything that is detrimental to society as a whole.
  2. Is capitalism, and the free market, broadly a good thing or broadly a bad thing? Answer: I’m not sure about capitalism, however the free market is a powerful resource allocation tool as well as being a necessary side-effect of personal liberty.
  3. Should corporations and limited companies continue to be granted the legal personhood they enjoy today? Answer: Yes, if only to allow for the legal personhood of AI and virtual humans. However corporations should be held to account to a much greater extent than they are today.
  4. Will democracy exist in a posthuman world? Can it exist? Should it exist? Answer: probably. Answer: Probably. Answer: Probably.
  5. Will a posthuman world be broadly libertarian or broadly socialist? Answer: a glib answer might be that as transhumanists seek to overcome the basic causes of human suffering, the very same thing the socialists and the liberals have been trying to do for three hundred years, then a future society will be libertarian, without a need for a state to nanny and bother and help and hinder. But really it depends on what kind of posthumanity various people end up with. Another way to phrase this question is: “will a posthuman world have an all-powerful state (or dominating organised body or group [to account for group minds {in as much as I can judge what a group mind would be like} etc]) that can override individual liberties to a great extent, or will a posthuman world be anarchistic?”

I understand that this is a somewhat rambling summary of some of my political and economic beliefs, I think I will re-write it a few times in the future.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tony Blair good premier beside the really big question? What about the attack on personal and democratic liberties he's overseen? the build up of a DNA database whether you are criminal or not? the pushing of ID cards no-one wants? stopping peaceful protests within miles of the house of commons? questionable ASBO policy which can be argued are also an attack on liberties - did you know someone got one for being sarcastic? Blair has been terrible for civil liberties and even if you ignore that look at the shambles of the Home Office!

He's also transformed the British political system for the worst by making the Labour party almost complete middle of the road with hardly any socialist agenda and worst of all introducing the culture of spin - something that was perhaps inevitable but he was the pioneer either way.

Blair has been barely adequate for a long time, and if you add in his foreign policy then, looking at his overall premiership, i don't think you can even give him that. He does look good next to the previous Thatcher and Major regimes though

sorry, minor point to rant about in an otherwise interesting article