Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about postmaterialism and “the death of social democracy.” Basically, it is my view that critics of rising wage and wealth dispersion don’t seem to understand the extent to which traditional welfare state institutions depend on conventional modes of earning income, and that the deeper threat to the welfare state is the fact that a growing number of people are sorting into wealth creation that is harder to detect and to tax, i.e., people are shifting from an emphasis on market income to an emphasis on psychic income. As market income is taxed more heavily, and as the alternatives to maximizing market income grow more attractive, we’ll see more of this phenomenon.
Eli Dourado has done a brilliant job of describing the underlying technological dynamics at work.
When factors of production are fixed, when demand for government supplied public goods is inelastic, when there are lots of points of control, the government will exercise more control. When the opposite is true, when there are few points of control, the government is unable to act invasively.
This is a phenomenon we’ve discussed in the context of Somaliland.
As you can see, there is a system of feedback. But the countervailing forces need not push outcomes to a stationary equilibrium. As we all know, time-to-build can result in cycles. Since technologies take time to change direction and develop, and since politics is slow to adapt, we should expect a non-stationary equilibrium. I think this is consistent with the broad facts. A hundred years ago, at least as it concerns white males living in the US, the government was relatively non-invasive. As a result, they developed centralized technologies that created a lot of growth, technologies of control. As new points of control were introduced, the government became more invasive. The modern state was born. At some point, innovation gradually increased toward technologies of resistance. The low-hanging fruit from the prior era eventually petered out, and sometime around 1974 we began to see lower TFP growth. As technologies of resistance improve relative to technologies of control, I can’t say exactly what will happen. A lot depends on whether government becomes gradually less invasive as points of control disappear or whether it continues to overreach; if the latter, we could observe some kind of interesting political turmoil.
I wonder if post-materialism is not also part of an attempt to evade control. A lot of talented people are scaling back their labor efforts, and while surely not all of this is due to taxes and regulations, some of it may be. And other innovations which seem truly new, such as the development of autonomous vehicles, are the result of control of which we may not even be aware; for instance, how profitable would it be to develop autonomous vehicles if Pareto-improving trade with immigrant drivers were not made impossible by immigration and labor restrictions? …
The Internet has been somewhat insulated from the kind of political control that I am claiming leads to the cycle of control and resistance. As a consequence, I think we observe an epicycle there. Internet technologies can be centralized at the company level or standardized at the protocol level. Email is an example of a technology that is standardized at the protocol level, and it was developed in the early days of the Internet, when market power was a serious concern. Today, there are so many competitors in the online messaging field that market power is not a real problem. Consequently, we observe services like Facebook and Twitter, which are centralized and can provide “higher production” by reducing spam, for instance. If Facebook and Twitter ever abuse their market power too much, that is when distributed, protocol-based substitutes such as Diaspora and Status.net will take over. And when the government starts exerting more control over the Internet, we’ll observe the adoption of new technologies to circumvent that control, such as encryption and mesh networking.
In a strange way, this theory is a partial vindication of Ayn Rand; the only problem is that she was too literal. The productive people do not go on strike when they are over-controlled. Instead, they innovate around the points of control. They go on strike at the margin. And it doesn’t take a big, dramatic exit. A little bit cumulatively over decades is sufficient to both be noticeable in the data and to reduce the amount of control that can be exercised. [Emphasis added]
What I like about this framework is that it is a reminder that the “productive people” aren’t just conventional entrepreneurs, etc. They’re also people who use technology to make markets for illegal products like raw milk cheeses.
I offered a somewhat fanciful take on these issues in March of 2010:
Look at the projections of fiscal doom emanating from the federal government, and consider the possibility that things could prove both worse and better. Worse because the jobless recovery we all expect could be severe enough to starve the New Deal social programs on which we base our life plans. Better because the millennial generation could prove to be more resilient and creative than its predecessors, abandoning old, familiar and broken institutions in favor of new, strange and flourishing ones.
Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.
Work and life will be remixed, as old-style jobs, with long commutes and long hours spent staring at blinking computer screens, vanish thanks to ever increasing productivity levels. New jobs that we can scarcely imagine will take their place, only they’ll tend to be home-based, thus restoring life to bedroom suburbs that today are ghost towns from 9 to 5. Private homes will increasingly give way to cohousing communities, in which singles and nuclear families will build makeshift kinship networks in shared kitchens and common areas and on neighborhood-watch duty. Gated communities will grow larger and more elaborate, effectively seceding from their municipalities and pursuing their own visions of the good life. Whether this future sounds like a nightmare or a dream come true, it’s coming.
This transformation will be not so much political as antipolitical. The decision to turn away from broken and brittle institutions, like conventional schools and conventional jobs, will represent a turn toward what military theorist John Robb calls “resilient communities,” which aspire to self-sufficiency and independence. The left will return to its roots as the champion of mutual aid, cooperative living and what you might call “broadband socialism,” in which local governments take on the task of building high-tech infrastructure owned by the entire community. Assuming today’s libertarian revival endures, it’s easy to imagine the right defending the prerogatives of state and local governments and also of private citizens — including the weird ones. This new individualism on the left and the right will begin in the spirit of cynicism and distrust that we see now, the sense that we as a society are incapable of solving pressing problems. It will evolve into a new confidence that citizens working in common can change their lives and in doing so can change the world around them.
Obviously, the vision I sketch out is unlikely for all kinds of reasons, but it is a crude description of a world in which individuals and communities “innovate around points of control.”