Post-scarcity Economies: Characteristics and Considerations
Post-scarcity economies are common in the Terragen Sphere, especially in the Sephirotic empires. In these societies abundant material resources, energy, information, and automation are available for use by consumers with few restrictions. Common characteristics of such economies are described below.
Autonomous Industry Almost all post-scarcity economies arise after significant development in automation, both physical and intellectual, that almost entirely negates the need for sophont labour. In effect automated technologies (chiefly robotics and artificial intelligence) reach a point in which all tasks including the design, construction and installation of new automation are automated. This feature of post-scarcity economies is the basis for most other characteristics and is the spur for the development of post-labour economic theories.
Post-labour Methods of Resource Distribution Societies transitioning into a post-scarcity economy often have a high emphasis on sophont labour as a means of resource acquisition. This is not always the case; there are examples of societies that have transitioned from gift economies or neofeudalism but historically labour markets or state/socialised employment are the norm. This presents a problem as automated technologies reduce the demand for labour and thus, in classical economic terms, the price of labour in the form of wages go down. If newer economic models are not adopted the number of actors in the economy decreases, only encompassing those with labour to sell or capital/commodities to rent. This can mean a bleak outlook for those excluded and history is littered with examples of ghettoization, famine and even social cleansing. However there are examples where positive outcomes were achieved, usually through volunteerism wherein those still able to engage in the economy provide for those who can’t. But these cases are in the minority and the majority of societies that make a transition adopt a different model.
Markets Most post-scarcity societies still feature private markets as a mechanism for distributing non-fungible goods and services (though some do not and utilise gift economics instead e.g. the Utopia Sphere). Currency in these markets can include both fiat and non-fiat currency. Whilst the former are rarer in post-scarcity economies they are generally favoured if backed by an archai. Unlike scarcity economies markets play a far more optional role in day to day life. Whilst such commodities as specific land, extra resources, branded products and personal services (to name a few) have to either be freely given or purchased on a market fundamental needs are almost always taken care of without the need of private currency. Market participation greatly varies between societies; in the NoCoZo >98% of individuals interact within a market on a regular basis, at the other extreme the Utopia Sphere reports a number of <1%. Due to this even in post-scarcity economies with prolific markets it's entirely possible to live a moneyless yet good life.
Steady state and Circular Economics With sufficient economic commitment and/or molecular nanotechnology industries can be designed with near-perfect recycling in mind, facilitating a transition towards a steady state economy. Waste products can either come in forms safe to release into a surrounding biosphere or be used as raw materials for other industries. Particularly with advanced nanotechnology any substance can be broken down into its constituent elements (given energy and time) ready to be rebuilt. Whilst not a necessary characteristic of post-scarcity economies most adopt the practice as it avoids the huge potential for environmental damage unchecked growth of automated industry could cause. Whilst the resources available to a post-scarcity economy can be vast (potentially multiple solar systems worth of matter and energy) autonomous industry can potentially grow exponentially. This has been the cause of more than one Cinder system. In addition steady state economic principles are often put in place to prevent overconsumption or greed and to encourage an ecologically friendly culture.
On-demand Real Economic Growth and Decline The size of a post-scarcity real economy is largely a matter of choice. Industrial output can be increased or decreased simply by ordering automated industries to replicate, or recycle, themselves. This feature generates some curious capabilities not present in economies employing scarcity models. For instance: when faced with a project that will require a significant fraction of the economy to be committed for a significant amount of time a post-scarcity economy can opt to grow their industrial base to reduce the relative cost of the project. The cost of the growth could amount to little more than a small “industry seed”, usually a versatile assembler whose size could be measured in cubic metres to centilitres depending on the sophistication. Allocated enough energy and resources a seed could grow giving rise to far larger industrial facilities, potentially even covering an entire planet in one giant factory. Thanks to this phenomenon post-scarcity economies are able to embark on projects that cost many times their total economy for negligible cost.
This “outgrowing the bill” is extremely common, almost all mega-(and above)-projects feature some combination of current industry commitment alongside new industry growth. In some civilisations this solution is offered to individual civilians who desire an item/service far beyond their means. Restricted industry seeds can be granted to the individual along with the rights for the required matter/energy to grow the level of industry required to grant their request.
Large-scale Transmutation Sufficiently advanced civilisations can utilise conversion reactors (specialised) for transmutation rather than energy production) and deep well industrial zones (DWIZ) allowing for transmutation of elements. This simplifies a lot of the scarcity still apparent in post-scarcity economies as certain locations may be deficient in specific elements necessitating policies developed from scarcity economic models. Transmutation can reduce or eliminate other methods of reducing rare-element scarcity such as increasing industrial commitment to prospecting, mining and refining of said elements as well as increased R&D to reduce demand.
Time Regardless of technology no good or service can be provided instantly, the time it takes to manufacture and deliver is referred to as the “wait-time.” In post-scarcity societies wait-time is usually negligible as most everyday items can be provided for in minutes, delivered from either well-placed storage or manufacturing. If the wait-time is deemed to be an issue there are often logistical mechanisms for quickening supply. For example; if a household assembler is asked to provide a complex/large item it may be quicker for a neighbourhood assembler farm or industrial assembler complex to fabricate the item and transport it to the consumer. Importantly depending on the system this service may alter the cost of the product for the consumer, whether or not it does and exactly how differs from economy to economy.
Gift Tech This article focuses almost entirely on modosophont economics. Transapient economics is not possible for modosophonts to comprehend. Nethertheless modosophont economies are influenced greatly by transapient, mostly in the form of ultra-technology and ultra-services. The extent to which transapient economics is a regular feature in modosophont life varies from society to society. In some ultratech is distributed in the same manner as anything else and in others transaps choose to sell their technology and services on a market (though why they would need modosophont currency is often a mystery). Whatever the prevelance or mechanism by which transapients interact with an economy the fundamentals of resource allocation are the same.
Self-sufficiency With suitably advanced technology it becomes possible for small groups, even individuals, to enjoy a high tech lifestyle entirely independent of anyone else. Given some land to gather materials from and a source of renewable energy a workforce of bots, AI and assemblers can allow even the most isolated of individuals to live a comfortable life. Because of this in many societies there are those that are outside of the economy at large. Periodically however there is interaction to acquire elements scarce to the area, new assembler templates, knowledge, news, entertainment and non-fungible goods and services. There also usually has to be an initial interaction to acquire the workforce and rights to the land; whilst in theory claiming unused land is simply a case of going and working it in most polities ownership of land must go through political channels first (though if procured totally rather than rented it may be possible to gift or sell on later). This is either because a polity has laid claim to large swathes of land (up to and including multiple star systems) for future use or is keen to enforce environmental agendas. In any case self sufficient communities do not present a significant determinate in post-scarcity models; either they are so isolated they do not need to be taken into account or they regularly trade in ways that are factored by the models.
Text by Ryan B
Initially published on 13 May 2014.