Crime and Punishment in Post-Scarcity World

Recently there has been many discussions about how to transition to an economy where robots and automation will fill most occupations that most people would be eligible to fill.   This will lead to a large population with no available work and thus no means of income.   Often accompanying the assumption of universal automation is the assumption of the elimination of scarcity.   In a post-scarcity economy, people can live a comfortable lifestyle without having to work.

Conceding this possibility, I wonder what effect post-scarcity will have on crime and punishment.

I have a particular vision of the economics of the post-scarcity world.   In particular, I imagine a cashless economy for the vast majority of people.  In such a scenario, there would not be any guaranteed income because money is irrelevant.   Instead, I have a vision modeled after business travel expense reimbursement.   Each person is granted specific reimbursement ceilings for various needs such as housing, transportation, entertainment, communication, breakfast, lunch, dinner, etc.    Each item would have a certain limit of what would be covered.  If a person’s choice is below that limit, he has no claim to the savings.

I would call this arrangement a universal basic living-standard instead of a basic income.   An analogy is the third-party payer healthcare environment, especially in the government operated universal health care model.   In the healthcare model, the patient gets needed care without even being presented with the cost.   Behind the scenes, decisions are made as to what care is appropriate and how much the provider would be reimbursed.   I am imagining a similar model for all basic living standard needs: food, shelter, entertainment, transportation, etc.

To illustrate, imagine the current monetary environment where a person enters a shop, walks to an aisle, picks up some items, and then walks out without paying.   In the current economy, he would be confronted, alarms would go off, it is possible that summoned police will pursue the individual that can lead to a confrontation that can end in arrest and sentencing if not in violence.

The same scenario in a universal living-standard economy would have none of those consequences after leaving the store.   The person can return later and repeat the behavior.  In fact he will, just like everyone else will.

This is similar to people using health care services up to a point except that access to healthcare services involve registration with the provider and being given precisely what is needed for the condition.   I imagine that there will be a similar model for all living standard needs.

Commerce within the universal living-standard will change.   In particular, things will be provided as services instead of products.  People will rent durable items that they would normally buy.  For consumable goods, each person will be given what they need at the time.  Again, it is like the business travel-expense model that reimburses for specific receipts of food service for each meal (breakfast, lunch, or dinner).

Ultimately, service centers will replace retail stores.   Restaurants will replace grocery stores.   Convenience stores will change to permit only enough to satisfy immediate needs.    I imagine that there will be community cafeterias spaced near each housing area, such as within apartment buildings, similar to on-site workplace cafeterias.   Alternatively, there may be food trucks that arrive in areas at specified time windows.

Housing will begin to lack kitchens because it will be impractical or even impossible to prepare one’s own meals.

To clarify, I’m describing the vast portion of the population that are will be unable to find income-producing jobs in an fully automated world.  These people will rely on an expense account for basic living standards.   Since only about one percent of the population will have income jobs, there will be entire communities where everyone will be covered by such benefits.   In such a scenario, I expect there will be many service options nearby so that there is sufficient variety available without needing to privately provide these services, such as dinners.

As an aside, I’ll discuss elsewhere the essential element of life-style surrounding relationships.  Friendships, families, and communities need some element of personal contributions for the sole benefit of the members of those relationships.   I expect this will arise naturally within the expense-account economy where people will concentrate in areas that match their familial or cultural bonds.   Within these communities, people will volunteer as providing the final human touch to delivering the services.   We see something similar today in the meal-kit services that deliver precut and premeasured fresh ingredients for people to do the final preparation and cooking.   The cooking would occur in community kitchens that serves many families who are closely related by kinship or shared values.   Since the same preparation could be automated, such activities would not be compensated by income, but the compensation will come locally through appreciation for the effort and the resulting status within the community.   This is a topic for another post, but even in this case, consider the majority of the community that receives the meal from the community kitchen.   They need only to show up to get fed.

I’ll be especially optimistic in assuming that automation is so successful that it can provide a living standard that satisfies most people, something comparable to an upper middle-class living standard.   People have generous access to quality transportation, entertainment, and food just as they have access to quality healthcare.

Even within this ideal scenario, I expect there will still be crimes.

To clarify, I’m assuming that this scenario eliminates the incentives or access to many crimes like theft.   Automation will provide a bounty to meet most people’s needs and will replenish any shortages quickly.

Recent events provide a clue as to the crime that will predominate in the future of universal living standards.   That crime will be of sabotage, destruction, or injury.

A criminal can ruin the food for a particular meal period, or he may overturn the tables in the dining area.  In housing developments, the criminal may attempt arson or at least arranging for false alarms requiring middle-of-night evacuations.   More simply, a person may be deliberately disruptive of the environment and thus degrading everyone else’s living standard.

To compensate for unrestricted access to a satisfying living standard, the criminally minded may seek to gain advantage over the community by denying the rest of the community their share of what is available to consume that day.

Even with an optimistic view of a post-scarcity environment where automation can permit upper-middle class living standards for the majority without the need for earning any wages, I am pessimistic in that there will be within the communities a criminal element that will seek destructive means to deny those standards to the rest of the community.

The easy case is the sole individual who acts criminally.  The automated surveillance and policing will quickly identify and extract this individual in this optimistic view of future.

The more difficult and likely more common scenario will be for a sizable minority who share some relationship imposing destructive behavior against the rest of the community.   The tipping point where be when the targeted population will cease to have an overwhelming super-majority over the destructive group.   It may take just 10%-20% of the population to cooperatively degrade the living standards of the remainder.

This post-scarcity comes from near complete automation.   That automation includes government, law making, and boundary setting.   The automation will constantly gather data about what is occurring in communities down to the individual level.   The nature of the automation is to optimize resources for maintaining universal access to a standard of living.   These algorithms will adapt to observations of the emergence of new communities and the increased tensions between communities.   Compared with mass arrests and punishments, a more efficient solution will be to separate antagonistic groups into cohesive communities.   That separation will include specific borders that separate people who need to be separated.

These borders may be specific city blocks or certain major roads.   Eventually, they may become walls with specific border crossings.   Visiting outsiders will need to be specifically sponsored by individuals within the community or they may need to be issued specific papers similar to visas.   In any case, the visitors will be recognized and treated as outsiders.  Even as guests, they will not enjoy the full freedom available to residents.

Going back to the earlier scenario of someone entering some service and picking up what he wants and then walking out.   In the post scarcity world, there is no cash exchanged because there is some method of identifying the individual.   The centralized system will have some means of identifying anyone on the planet no matter where he is.  However, in this eventual fragmentation into exclusive communities there will arise a second level of recognition: the residents recognizing the non-resident.

A resident may enter the service center and obtain some quantity of items that will suit him and not experience any objection by others.   An outsider attempting the same transaction may encounter some confrontation by the residents: ranging from inquiring about his sponsor to physical violence.

The only safe place to experience universal basic living standard is in the home neighborhood that shares some common culture or inter-relationship.

I am pessimistic in expecting that there will arise neighborhoods that some people will be unsafe to enter even in a world-wide post-scarcity economy.   There will arise exclusive group identities who will not share their territory with others except under very specific guest arrangements.

The automated government will adapt with policies to permit these exclusionary territories to have local enforcement denying universal living-standards to outsiders.   This adaptation is an optimization of the current conditions because the alternative will be some form of enforcement resulting in some manner of retribution that has the effect of denying a significant fraction of the population their access to a basic living standard.

Under the assumption of a post-scarcity economy where nearly entire population enjoys a good standard of living without the need for work, there will still be crime in the form of denial of services to others.

For cases of isolated individual criminals, it is easy to expect that law enforcement will be similar to what we recognize today.   There will be a universal justice system with standards for proving guilt and standards for punishment.   I expect punishment to change due to the post-scarcity environment where simple incarceration can still afford to provide a very comfortable level of living, but these changes will be constrained by similar universal values we have today.

The bigger changes will occur as certain sub-populations take over territories that exclude others.   As these emerge, the global automated government will grant some autonomy to these communities to provide their own responses to perceived crimes.  There will be locally specific laws with local customs for enforcement, judgement, and punishment.   For outsiders, these may become more extreme than the global standards but permitted because it is the optimal solution of separating mutually incompatible groups.

These are thoughts of a pessimist.  Others may expect that there will arise a global sense of community that will resist any localized rebellious minority.   I just expect that deep within nature of humanity is that any generation will produce a rebellious subculture who will expect superior treatment.   In a world where everyone has access to a superior living standard, the rebellious will seek to sabotage that benefit to the outsiders.   The system will face of choice of separating the rebellious faction, or eliminating them through some other means.   Territorial separation into increasingly exclusive subgroups seems to me to be inevitable, and territories will have local laws that are enforced more severely on outsiders.

In my mind, a post-scarcity economy will result in a fragmented world of contentious border conflicts between mutually disagreeable populations.

Abundant easily accessible income- and wealth-producing jobs are a necessary requirement to achieve anything approaching a harmonious global community with complete freedom of movement and universal justice.  Until recently we were approaching that goal and that was because of the globalization of middle-class job opportunities.

I think we are experiencing today a retreat from earlier progress toward this goal and that retreat is largely in part the loss of job opportunities that gave people something to share: a universal access to income-producing jobs.   Despite abundant wealth to support generous welfare benefits, we are fracturing into contentious groups that are turning against each other with increasing malevolence even despite individual’s assertions of conflict avoidance.  It is inevitable that humans will recognize communities based on shared traits.  The loss of a shared trait of an opportunity for paid work will be replaced with more specialized traits that separate different populations by cultural or familial identities.



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