The Terrifying Future Envisioned By Libertarians

I've written often before about how much of the war between the American left and right is essentially the building of sand castles in the face of the oncoming tide of globalization, deskilling and mechanization of the workforce accompanied by catastrophic climate change. Much of what constitutes public policy battles in this country are fought between the one-percenters simply trying to loot what's left before it all crashes and burns, and neoliberals desperately trying to pump up asset prices and force everyone into engineering programs to disguise the destruction the of the regular wage economy. The far right and progressive left, meanwhile, are each trying to bring back the social and economic norms of the 1950s and late 1960s, respectively, in efforts of utter futility.

It's rare to find columnists who are asking themselves the right questions. It's rarer still to find ones who have the right answers. But it's when conservatives and libertarians ask the right questions and come up with their honest responses that we see the crippling danger of allowing them anywhere near the levers of power. Consider the example of Tyler Cowen, conservative/libertarian economist and pundit, writing in POLITICO Magazine, celebrating a future in which a few technically skilled "economic winners" in cities will lord it over a mass of rubes left behind in an era of mass mechanization:

Less acknowledged, perhaps, is what all this technological change portends: nothing short of a new political order. The productivity gains, the medical advances, the workplace reorganizations and the myriad other upheavals that will define the coming automation age will create new economic winners and losers; it will reorient our demographics; and undoubtedly, it will transform what we demand from our government.

The rise of the machines builds on deeper economic trends that are already roiling American society, including stagnant growth since 2001 and a greater openness to trade and foreign outsourcing. But it’s the rapid increase in machines’ ability to substitute for intelligent human labor that presages the greater disruption. We’re on the verge of having computer systems that understand the entirety of human “natural language,” a problem that was considered a very tough one only a few years ago. We’re close to the point when we can fit the (articulable) knowledge of the entire world into the palm of our hands. Self-driving cars are making their way onto streets in California and Nevada. Whether you are a factory worker or an accountant, a waitress or a doctor, this is the wave that will lift you or dump you.

He's right about this. As I have written, soon the machines will come for the doctors and lawyers, too. My prediction is that there will be a collective hysteria in elite circles once white collar jobs fall prey to mechanization and deskilling as blue collar jobs have done, and that in turn will necessitate a rethinking of the social contract after a period of intense political acrimony.

Cowen sees it similarly, but instead of a rethinking of the social contract, he sees a glorious libertarian Social Darwinist paradise:

The rise of intelligent machines will spawn new ideologies along with the new economy it is creating. Think of it as a kind of digital social Darwinism, with clear winners and losers: Those with the talent and skills to work seamlessly with technology and compete in the global marketplace are increasingly rewarded, while those whose jobs can just as easily be done by foreigners, robots or a few thousand lines of code suffer accordingly. This split is already evident in the data: The median male salary in the United States was higher in 1969 than it is today. Middle-class manufacturing jobs have been going away due to a mix of automation and trade, and they are not being replaced. The most lucrative college majors are in the technical fields, such as engineering. The winners are doing much better than ever before, but many others are standing still or even seeing wage declines.

These trends will only accelerate in the years to come, rewriting America’s social contract in the process. We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given a decent standard of living to one in which people are expected to fend for themselves. I imagine a world in which, say, 10 to 15 percent of the citizenry (or more, in due time) is extremely wealthy and has fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives, equivalent to those of current-day millionaires, albeit with better health care.

Much of the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but they will also have a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and cheap education. Many of these people will live quite well—especially those who have the discipline to benefit from all the free or nearly free services that modern technology makes available. Others will fall by the wayside.

The slogan “We are the 85 percent!” probably won’t sound as compelling as the Occupy Wall Street version. It will become increasingly common to invoke “meritocracy” as a response to income inequality—whether you call it an explanation, a justification or an excuse is up to you. Since the self-motivated will find it easier to succeed than ever before, a new tier of people from poor and underprivileged backgrounds will claw their way to the top—Horatio Algers for the automation age.

This new digital meritocracy will prove self-reinforcing. Worthy individuals will rise from poverty on a regular basis, but that will only make it easier to ignore those left behind. The wealthy class will grow larger over time, and more influential. And the increasingly libertarian values of the wealthy will shape the public debate, strengthening the upper class’s grip on the commanding heights of the economy and society, and pulling policy in their favor.

You might think the 85 percent would rise up in protest. Many commentators, influenced by widening income inequality and the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements, are predicting exactly that scenario: an America torn by unrest and maybe even political violence. I do think we’ll see some outbursts of trouble, but in the long run the picture will be fairly calm and indeed downright ordinary. Expect a society that will be more conservative, both politically and in the more literal sense of that term.

Cowen goes on to argue that all the poors will simply fight and eat each other rather than focus their gaze on the 1%, and that a new dawn of libertarianism tingned with slight neoliberalism will rise in America's technocratic urban centers. It's well worth reading his piece in full to appreciate the giddiness with which he anticipates this Malthusian nightmare.

I don't, however, think it will end that way. The history of middle class societies that lose their footing in an age of mass inequality and labor destabilization suggests that a more progressive social contract will emerge under the threat of revolution. The other, only slightly less likely possibility is a fascist regime that attempts to lay all the blame on "The Other". A slow, comfortable descent into class-based Social Darwinism seems less likely than either option, though it's certainly possible.

But these are indeed the questions we will be compelled to answer. The fact that we will have to confront this decision one way or another makes it hard to take seriously the massive fights over, say, Obamacare. In 15 years a natural unemployment rate of 15% accompanied by unimaginable devastation due to climate change will necessitate the sorts of programs, solutions and political turmoil that will render most of today's arguments utterly obsolete.

The future will belong to those who prepare public policy for that eventuality, and who work to put politicians in power who are ready to enact that policy when the time comes, and when the demographics of the nation have altered enough to make it possible.

Whatever happens, the libertarian fairy dreams of men like Tyler Cowen must not be allowed to become realities.

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