This is an article by Amon Twyman at the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies (IEET). The article (called The Social Futurist Policy Toolkit) lays out a basic blueprint for Social Futurist policy. Basically, it’s a kind of proposal for post-scarcity economics.
The Social Futurist policy toolkit
Posted: Apr 27, 2014
In a recent blog post and IEET article, I laid out an extremely general critique of Capitalism’s place within our society, and the barest outline of an alternative known as Social Futurism. The essence of that article was that Capitalism does certain things very well but it cannot be paused or adjusted when its effects become problematic, that rapid technological change appears to be on the verge of making certain alternatives viable, and that unfortunately we may be forced to fight for our right to personally choose those alternatives.
That article was necessarily brief and very broad, which did not allow me the opportunity to address policy details of any sort. It would be unfortunate if people thought that meant Social Futurism has no specific ideas at its disposal, so I want to lay out a kind of “policy toolkit”, here. The following policy categories are not compulsory features of any Social Futurist movement or group, but are more like basic building blocks from which specific policy configurations could be adapted to local conditions. Similarly, the toolkit as it currently stands is in no way considered exhaustive.
It is my intent that this toolkit should form a kind of bridge between the broadest, most general level of political discussion on the one hand, and the development of specific policies for local groups on the other. The six basic policy categories are only very briefly discussed below, but will each soon be analysed fully by the WAVE research institute.
Finally, none of the ideas presented in this article are new (section 6 being my only novel contribution), but this mix is seldom presented in a single ‘chunk‘ that can be easily memorised and communicated. It is my hope that in time the label “Social Futurism” may act as the natural intersection of these disparate-but-compatible ideas, enabling people to refer to an array of possible solutions to major problems in two words rather than two thousand.
1. Evidence, Balance, & Transition
All of the policies in this toolkit should be approached from a pragmatic and flexible (rather than an ideologically constrained) point of view. When trying to be pragmatic and flexible, our main concern is with policies that actually solve problems, so the use of empirical evidence is central to Social Futurism. Policy development and review should emphasise the setting of quantifiable goals and application of empirical evidence wherever that is an option, to encourage policy that evolves to better meet our goals over time.
In this vein, we should seek to find optimal balances between extreme ideological positions, to the extent that any given choice may be viewed as a continuum rather than a binary choice. An extremely important example is the question of transition, which is to say the process of development from our current PEST (political, economic, social, technological) situation to a more efficient and just society. Often political questions are depicted as a false dichotomy, or choice between things as they are and radical utopias entirely disconnected from current reality. What is both preferable and more tractable is an intelligent balance of the past and future, in the form of a pragmatic transition phase.
For example, sections 2-4 below propose a series of economic adjustments to society. From the perspective of someone invested in the status quo, they are extremely radical suggestions. From the perspective of a radical utopian, they are half-measures at best. From a Social Futurist perspective, they are required to maximise the likelihood of a better society actually coming into existence, while attempting to minimise the risk of severe societal destabilisation caused by rapid and untested change. My own vision of a societal transition phase follows an observation from Ray Kurzweil, in which change often takes longer than anticipated, but also ends up being much deeper than anticipated, meaning that focus on a transition phase may allow us to work toward truly radical transformative change in the longer term.
In short, the effectiveness of our methods should be tested by looking at evidence, we should balance our policies in a flexible and pragmatic manner, and we should seek a staged transition toward a better future rather than risk critically destabilizing society.
2. Universal Basic Income & LVAT
A minimal, “safety net” style Universal Basic Income should be established. This is as opposed to putting undue strain on the economy by introducing a basic income larger than is required to satisfy essential living requirements. Where possible, the UBI should be paid for by a combination of dismantling welfare bureaucracies, and Land Value & Automation Taxes (LVAT).
LVAT is the extension of traditional Land Value Tax to include a small tax on every unit of workplace automation equivalent to a single human being replaced. This extension of LVT is intended to harness the economic momentum of workplace automation, which is expected to be the principal cause of technological unemployment in coming decades. The tax should be considerably less than the cost of hiring a human, thus causing no disincentive to automation (some would argue that any tax would disincentivize automation, but our goal is not to encourage automation, and as long as automation is cheaper than human labour it will win out). The LVAT would take the place of increasing numbers of arbitrary taxes on goods and services which are currently being added and increased to shore up Western economies.
Social Futurism is compatible with private property ownership and does not advocate property confiscation. Wealth redistribution is only advocated to the degree that it can be achieved through LVAT & UBI as described above. The extent to which people should be able to choose if, how, and to whom they pay tax is addressed in section 6. It is also worth noting here that where a functional equivalent of UBI exists (e.g. citizen shares in Distributed Autonomous Cooperatives) which is proven more effective, then Social Futurists should favour the more effective solution as per point 1.
3. Abolition of Fractional Reserve Banking
Fractional Reserve Banking is the process by which banks are required to hold only a fraction of their customers’ deposits in reserve, allowing the money supply to grow to a multiple of the base amount held in reserve. Through this practice, central banks may charge interest on the money they create (thereby creating a debt which can never be repaid, across society as a whole) and expose the entire economy to risk when they cannot meet high demand for withdrawals. Fractional Reserve Banking fosters potentially critical risk to the entirety of society for the benefit of only a tiny proportion of citizens, and therefore should be abolished. The alternative to Fractional Reserve Banking is Full Reserve or 100% Reserve Banking, in which all banks must hold the full amount of deposits in reserve at all times.
Full Reserve Banking is much more conservative than Fractional Reserve Banking, and would signal an end to “easy credit”. In turn, it would afford enough stability to see our society through a sustainable transition phase, until technological post-scarcity makes reliance on traditional banking systems and the Capitalist principle of surplus value itself unnecessary.
4. Responsible Capitalism, Post-Scarcity, & Emergent Commodity Markets
Social Futurist policy must favour the encouragement of responsible trade and strong regulation of reckless behaviour, with an eye to making Capitalism an engine of society rather than its blind master. To this end, it should be Social Futurist policy that all companies that wish to operate within any given community must be registered with the appropriate regulation bodies employed by that community. Non-regulation and self-regulation by industries which are not accountable to the communities they affect is unacceptable. (For the purposes of this brief statement I have conflated Capitalism and markets, despite the fact that trade existed millennia before the organization of society around profit based on Capital investment. These issues will be treated separately and extensively, later).
Where possible, Social Futurists should advocate the transition to non-monetary peer-to-peer resource management under post-scarcity conditions. In other words, we should seek to avoid the creation or maintenance of artificial scarcity in essential resources. A continuing place for trade even under post-scarcity conditions is acknowledged and encouraged where it reduces artificial scarcity, promotes technical innovation, and serves the needs and directives of the community. Emergent commodities (e.g. natural artificial scarcities such as unique artworks) will need a framework for responsible trade even under optimal post-scarcity conditions, so it behooves us to develop such frameworks now, in the context of contemporary Capitalism.
5. Human autonomy, privacy, & enhancement
Social Futurism incorporates the transhumanist idea that the human condition can and should be improved through the intelligent and compassionate application of technology. We also strongly emphasise voluntarism, and in combination these things necessitate the championing of people’s rights over their own bodies and information. It should be Social Futurist policy to oppose any development by which people would lose individual sovereignty or involuntarily cede ownership of their personal information. Social Futurists must also defend the individual’s right to modify themselves by technological means, provided that the individual is a mentally competent consenting adult and the modification would not pose significant risk of harm to others.
6. Establishment of VDP (Virtual, Distributed, Parallel) States
The principle of subsidiarity holds that organizational responsibility should be devolved to the lowest or most local level capable of dealing with the situation. In other words, power should be decentralised, insofar as that doesn’t diminish our ability to face challenges as a society.
For example, local governance issues should be handled by local rather than national-level government where possible. Social Futurism takes subsidiarity to its logical conclusion, by insisting that people should have the right to govern their own affairs as they see fit, as long as by doing so they are not harming the wider community. On the other side of the coin, broader (e.g. national and transnational) levels of governance would be responsible for issues that local organizations and individuals could not competently face alone.
Where global governance is needed, the model should be one of cooperating global agencies focused on a specific area of expertise (e.g. the World Health Organization), rather than a single government acting in a centralised manner to handle all types of issue. In this way, decentralization of power applies even when an issue cannot be resolved on the local level.
In order to encourage the development of such a system, we advocate the establishment of communities with powers of self-governance known as VDP States, where VDP stands for “Virtual, Distributed, Parallel”. ‘Virtual’ refers to online community, orthogonal to traditional geographic territories. ‘Distributed’ refers to geographic States, but ones where different parts of the community exist in different locations, as a network of enclaves. ‘Parallel’ refers to communities that exist on the established territory of a traditional State, acting as a kind of organizational counterpoint to that State’s governing bodies. Two or three of these characteristics may be found in a single VDP State, but it is expected that most such communities would emphasise one characteristic over the others. Alternatively, a VDP State may emphasise different characteristics at different stages in its development.
Given Social Futurist emphasis on voluntarism, VDP State citizenship must be entirely voluntary. Indeed, the entire point of the VDP State is to broaden the range of governance models which people may voluntarily choose to engage with, where they are currently told that they simply have to accept a single model of governance.
As this is clearly a new and experimental approach to governance, it is to be expected that many ideas associated with it are still to be properly developed and tested. Some of these ideas may not meet our own standards of empirical review. However, to briefly anticipate some common objections it is worth noting several points. Firstly, decentralization does not imply an absence of social organization. It simply means that people can exercise more choice in how they engage with society. Secondly, yes it is true that all three of the VDP characteristics have limitations as well as strengths (e.g. difficulty in defending isolated enclaves), but that is why any given VDP State would find the mix of features that suits its purpose and context best. Thirdly, as mentioned earlier in this article, different approaches may be mixed and balanced as necessary, such as a single-location VDPS being used as a template for the later creation of a distributed network of communities. Finally, the VDPS idea is not intended to stand alone but to complement any initiatives which have the potential to maximize its value (Open Source Ecology, for example).
Further development of these ideas will be posted on the WAVE movement blog.
Addendum: A note on Marxism
Below I give an example of the point made in section 1 (about balance and transition), which draws upon a Marxist viewpoint because Social Futurist concerns tend to be shared by Marxists, but the logic would equally apply to movements whose long-term ideals and methods are more like our own, such as The Zeitgeist Movement. I have put this note to one side because I do not want to give an incorrect first impression that Social Futurism is Marxist in nature. It is simply intended to address societal problems which have already been comprehensively analysed by Marxists, so it is worth noting the relevance of their point of view to our own.
Marx argued that the root problem with Capitalism is surplus value. This means that Capitalists (i.e. investors) pay workers only a proportion of the value of what is produced by their work, and the remaining (“surplus”) value is taken as profit by the Capital owning class, along with rent and interest on debts. Marxists assert that workers should collectively own the means of production (i.e. factories, machines, resources, all Capital), thereby ending surplus value and phenomena such as problematic banking practices along with it. From this perspective it might be reasonably suggested that “treating the symptoms” rather than the core disorder would be fruitless (or worse, dangerous), and that citizen benefits of any sort should be paid for by distributing all profit from collectively owned means of production equally.
Without wishing to get into a discussion of whether ideal Marxism is possible or doomed to give rise to historical Communist authoritarianism, I would say that even a benign Marxist revolution would entirely destabilize society if it occurred too quickly. Social Futurism does not deny the Marxist analysis of the problem, but seeks a staged transition to a post-Capitalist society which does not attempt to undermine the entire basis of our current society in a single move. Although an optimal, long-term Social Futurist outcome may not be desirable to some Marxists (and certainly not to historical Stalinists or Maoists), it would definitely involve the eventual transition to democratic, decentralised post-scarcity, and removal of Capitalist surplus value as the central organizational principle of our civilization.
Dr M. Amon Twyman (BSc, MSc Hons, DPhil) is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET and a philosopher interested in the impact of technology on society and the human condition. Amon was a co-founder of the UK Transhumanist Association (now known as Humanity+ UK), and went on to establish Zero State and the WAVE research institute.
This article can also be found at http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/twyman20140427