What If You Didn't Have To Work?

Just a warning: I’m starting off with some current events in the United States, but this isn’t going to become a political post.  I promise. 

For those of you who live outside the United States and don’t know, healthcare is a big issue in this country.  Unlike Canada, England, or many other Western countries, we don’t have any kind of national healthcare system, but in the last few years a law was passed that would help those who can’t afford health insurance to get it.

In the last couple of weeks, the Congressional Budget Office determined that the healthcare law could prompt some people to quit working because they no longer have to have a job with benefits in order to have health insurance.  Presumably these are people with enough savings or income to not work, possibly through a spouse.

This produced some levels of horror from some in the country at the idea that some people would choose not to work.  We do seem to roll a large part of our identities up into what we do for a living.  To be a complete adult in this society, you have to have some sort of occupation (homemaker, while not paid, is on the list).  You do get a pass, though, if you’re independently wealthy.  If you’re rich, no one is going to tell you that you can’t sit on your butt all day.

The point that got me, though, is the idea that there are many people who only remain in their job in order to keep health insurance coverage.  Let’s put aside for a moment the question of why your job should dictate what sort of health care you can receive.  That’s never made sense to me.

After reading that story, my mind started taking the idea farther.  Some people are only working because they need healthcare.  But what would happen if we didn’t need anything at all?  What happens to us as a planet if somehow we managed to do away with the problem of people lacking the basics of survival and every person had the food, shelter, and health care they needed?

There’s a name for this sort of economy: post-scarcity.  In my research for this post, I ran across someone who claims to be a frustrated economist who took on the topic.  His conclusions are…interesting.  Basically, he believes that once you remove scarcity from the equation, humans will only work for two things, sex and attention.  His entire post is HERE.

I am not an economist, and really don’t know the first thing about it.  I have, however, watched a whole lot of movies and TV shows.  There are two that immediately come to mind that have addressed the idea of what happens to humans when we aren’t constantly trying to get what we need to survive.

The first is the Pixar film Wall-E.  In the future posited by Wall-E, humans have trashed the planet and left on a fleet of spaceships where their every need is catered to by robots.  And I do mean everything.  The humans don’t even have to walk from place to place and instead travel around in hoverchairs.  They do nothing but consume and have gradually become a species of…well…blobs.  Faced with an existence where they don’t have to do anything, they don’t do anything.  Only the reintroduction of scarcity, namely returning to Earth where they need to re-establish farming and such to survive, gets them to be productive again.

Star Trek comes to a different conclusion.  The citizens of the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek have all of the necessities of life.  Replicator technology provides food and goods, but, unlike in Wall-E, people use this freedom from want as a way to pursue goals in life that truly interest them.  No one joins Starfleet as a way to escape poverty.  They join because they want to be in Starfleet.  Instead of taking jobs they don’t want just to make a living, they are able to do whatever they desire.

This brings up a couple of interesting questions.  Who takes the jobs that nobody wants?  Surely there are some.  What happens when a replicator breaks down?  Someone has to repair it.  Maybe a robot does it.  But who repairs the robot when it breaks down?  Inevitably there are less glamorous jobs that people have to do in order for that society to function.  We also never see people who have chosen not to do anything.  Are there any?  Is some kind of occupation compulsory despite the post-scarcity economy?  Or are people in Star Trek such believers in their society that some willingly take on the crappy jobs?

I have no idea.  But I would like to think that if we did manage to reach post-scarcity in the world, we would be more like the people of the Federation than the people that went off to be treated like giant babies by a bunch of robots. 

Realistically, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  When post-scarcity first hits, I imagine the short term would be closer to Wall-E.  Not working to make a living would be such a novelty that most people would go that route.  But we’re humans.  Eventually boredom would set in.  Sure for some movies, TV, video games, and other forms of entertainment would be enough.  But others would need to do something. 

And this is why we might get closer to Star Trek than Wall-E.  In a world where money no longer matters, more focus could be put on our actions.  Sure you don’t have to do anything to survive, but what are you doing to make the world even better?  Are you researching something?  Are you creating something?  Are you helping the people around you?

Post-scarcity makes for an interesting thought experiment.  For some, their jobs would vanish.  Who needs a mall when you can replicate anything at home?  If you work retail and suddenly everyone can get whatever they want, what do you do then?  For others, the need for their jobs would still be around.  Doctors and nurses are still required in a post-scarcity world.  But if you are in one of those jobs and tomorrow you find that you don’t have to work to get food, shelter, clothing, or health care, would you stay?  Given the opportunity, could you really do nothing for the rest of your life?  I don’t think I could.