The Dim-Post

August 29, 2011

Reductio of the day

Filed under: philosophy — danylmc @ 1:54 pm

Sam Harris boils down the debate about equality, freedom and wealth creation by asking (I paraphrase slightly):

If some future entrepreneur invents a labour saving device that makes them a multi-trillionaire but puts dozens of millions of people out of work, should the government redistribute their private wealth?

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65 Comments »

  1. Danyl, this has been going on for decades. A major thrust of modern software development is to reduce the requirement for people to be involved in business processes. So software developers are already doing this labour saving work.

    Comment by Crusader Col — August 29, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

  2. Surely it will all trickle down eventually? Have some faith, Danyl.

    Comment by James Butler — August 29, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

  3. I’m curious how you decided to paraphrase from “tens of millions” to “dozens of millions”. For now I’ll just put it down to a satirical aspect of the post that I’m looking through.

    Comment by MikeM — August 29, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  4. Such a comment makes the assumption that the people made redundant can’t produce anything else that others find of value with their new-found time. What about all of the telephone switchboard operators made redundant since automated exchanges? What about all of the PAs made redundant by the PC and Word Processing? In general, Sam Harris’s view says that we shouldn’t be aiming for any productivity enhancements, because it inevitably allows fewer people to produce more, thus making others redundant.

    Comment by MarkS — August 29, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  5. Why not? They’ve been required to do that in the past. Allegedly they still are. I think taxing profits is a good idea.

    I do like his caution in speculating about having one exceedingly rich person, a magic labour-saving device and only 30% unemployment. I suspect that with a really good labour-saving device we could push unemployment to 80% or more of the possible labour force.

    Comment by moz — August 29, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  6. Don’t worry: Obama is on to this. He has worked out how the banks have destroyed the economy. Not with fake money, excessive credit or artificially low interest rates. No, it were ATMs what done for the economy.

    Are many inventions actually labour saving devices? How does a MySky save labour? And surely a microscope magnifies what a labourer can achieve, rather than doing her out of a job.

    Still, I’ll accept that computers have put typewriter repairmen out of work. I wonder if any that haven’t retired are out there unjamming photocopiers.

    “In general, Sam Harris’s view says that we shouldn’t be aiming for any productivity enhancements, because it inevitably allows fewer people to produce more, thus making others redundant.”
    Which is similar to the idea of makework schemes and even the broken windows fallicy.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — August 29, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

  7. I don’t think he was arguing that this sort of labour-saving shouldn’t happen – just that the fact that it does should affect our view of wealth-redistribution.

    Comment by Kahikatea — August 29, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  8. You know, I’ve always wondered if a economist had actually studied what impact Star Trek’s replicators would have on our capitalist economy. then I realised: We would all have 52 inch HD replicators, but we would still have to pay a royalty to McDonald’s everytime we ordered a Big Mac.

    And of course, those who couldn’t afford a replicator of their own would be told their government supplied replicator would come with crippleware to stop it making ciggies and booze – and the millions who can only dream of owning a replicator would still be starving in the Horn of Africa.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 29, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  9. Losers lose. No Socialist wet dream will fix that.

    You’ll figure that out eventually Danyl. As you cash those Bludging for Families cheques for your new child, proof will be in the end result. A child that has to grow up in a Country considerably more poor than it otherwise would be and with blighted prospects for its future citizens. You just have to hope the law of diminishing returns isn’t so severe that the education system collapses to the point where no other developed country in the world will take on New Zealand educated “workers”.

    Comment by OECD rank 22 kiwi — August 29, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

  10. “But there is nothing to prevent the ultra rich from cooking all their meals at home, using vegetables grown in their own gardens, and investing the majority of their assets in China.”
    Good show: the Chinese will then get richer and want to buy even more of our stuff (but don’t mention trickle down) and imagine what the balance of payments would look like with all those profits (and Chinese tourists) flowing back to the home country of the ultra rich (kinda like a sovereign wealth fund).

    Perhaps we should worry about the ultra rich putting their money under the mattress. (Would that be “going gault”? Possibly, but the gummint would have the last laugh by just inflating their wealth away).

    Danyl, with our fancy fluoridated toothpaste, horseless carriage, freehold home, universal franchise and electricity we ARE multi-trillionaires… compared with the average man of the 1800’s.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — August 29, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

  11. Those dang Chinese!

    Comment by Hugh — August 29, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  12. “…Losers lose. No Socialist wet dream will fix that…”

    What if the socialist wet dream was to put you and your mates up against a wall? Winner’s win?

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 29, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

  13. I prefer the original to the paraphrased version; but the choice of labour-saving devices as an example does still lend itself to previous decades’ worries that automation would leave us all with nothing to do. But it’s a bit of a distraction.

    The question is whether there’s a limit to the income inequality you’re really prepared to stand for. (Fun fact: I gather from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_Mass_%28book%29 that the less the intervention the more furious the inverse-log curve for income distribution.)

    Comment by lyndon — August 29, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  14. Winner’s win?

    Only if the organs were harvested.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 29, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  15. What if the socialist wet dream was to put you and your mates up against a wall?

    Sanctuary makes a good point, even if it is a pretty uncomfortable one for many. Whatever your view, the fact is that we live in a society (not just an economy) and if enough people feel that their side of the social contract is unfair, eventually they’ll do something about it.
    Check out recent events in the Middle East, for example.

    Comment by Neil — August 29, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

  16. This problem goes back all the way to the Luddites, who were concerned that more efficient mechanised looms were putting cottage piece workers out of weaving work. Which was true (although the problem was also partly in the impact of wars with America upon raw cotton imports). But a little redistributive investment in retraining for cottage piece workers might have helped them to find alternative roles in a rapidly industrialising economy.

    Although the government at the time pursued the alternative strategy of making it a capital offence to protest by damaging a mechanised loom, and hanged a whole load of them until the rest stopped complaining. Problem solved!

    Comment by Dr Foster — August 29, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

  17. The answer is that it is economically impossible to not redistribute their wealth if it is a continual stream of money.

    If all wealth accumulates to one person those at the bottom begin to reduce in number. This in turn reduces the number of consumers in total and profitability begins to drop. The result of this is that the economic system ends up collapsing and begins again unless those at the bottom were to go the Marxist way sooner and “overthrow their oppressors” at which point the system would also be reset and wealth would begin to accumulate again unless they redistribute it.

    If it is a one off creation of wealth for that individual it is economically impossible if the same situation is replicated repeatedly on smaller scales (i.e. the real world).

    If it is a one off creation of wealth that is not subsequently replicated the wealth would not have to be shared but probably should in the interests of fairness. If someone has worked hard their entire life they do not deserve to have their means of income stripped from them. There is a moral duty to ensure those who work to better our society are not then screwed over by it and actually have some other way they can be put into work, some way we can shift the way we work (e.g. everyone starts working 20 hour weeks) or simply some benefit system that accounts for there always going to be a fixed number of unemployed due to the way we structure society in order for it to maintain equilibrium. These compensatory measures require money and the only place to obtain it is from the one who invented the new device, since he caused the unemployment for the others he is also the one to most fairly take a financial burden due to it.

    Comment by Rob — August 29, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

  18. If some future entrepreneur invents a labour saving device that makes them a multi-trillionaire and makes dozens of millions available to produce other goods and services, thus lowering the cost of whatever is made by said labour saving device, as well as opening up opportunities for other economic activity, should the government redistribute their private wealth?

    Comment by Rick Rowling — August 29, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

  19. Are we worse off because of the invention of the electric fan, would society be better off if we increased employment by requiring punkawallahs for all our air movement needs?

    Should we therefore tax fan designers and manufacturers more, and redistibute the money to would-be punkawallahs, or might they possibly be better employed elsewhere?

    Comment by Rick Rowling — August 29, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

  20. If someone became a trillionaire, I reckon they could pretty much decide for themselves how much of their wealth would be redistributed.

    Comment by gazzaj — August 29, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

  21. There’s a famous Horizon documentary from 1978, called “Now the Chips Are Down’. It predicts permanent mass unemployment as a consequence of the spread of the silicon chip — already, it says, staff are disappearing from service station checkouts and typing pools are being laid waste by new “word processors”. It was taken very seriously at the time. And it was almost completely wrong.

    So while I’ll grant that the underlying question is interesting, its overt premise seems faulty.

    Comment by Russell Brown — August 29, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

  22. The point. You missed it.

    Comment by Hugh — August 29, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

  23. Witty and insightful retort. You didn’t make it.

    Comment by Rick Rowling — August 29, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

  24. Let’s reductio this further – what if the entrepeneur made more labour-saving inventions and put 6 billion people out of work? What steps should governments take to improve outcomes?

    Comment by gazzaj — August 29, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

  25. For me I think the question is as much about the influence and power that the rich minority has, or could potentially have.

    Sam reaches an extreme example of someone amassing a wealth equivalent to $10 Trillion, or 1/5th the GDP of the entire world, and asks how fair it is for that person to be allowed to keep it. He doesn’t completely go there, but if it’s even possible then I think an extension is to ask if people (or maybe companies) should be allowed to become so large and absurdly powerful that their position and influence undermines that of the governments and societies which allow them to operate, and what are the repercussions of that sort of situation? (Or something like that..) It already happens to some extent where companies (and occasionally individuals) use money and power to influence government and policy makers, and some people certainly find it acceptable. Maybe there’s a line, or maybe not.

    Comment by MikeM — August 29, 2011 @ 8:49 pm

  26. so if someone invents a life saving device that revolutionises medicine and then gives the idea away for nothing so the whole world can benefit, does he not deserve the countries highest honour over some git who climbed a hill or a shrill cow who presided over parliament? disposable hypodermic needles. bless.

    Comment by morofrujurashuns — August 29, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

  27. From another angle: What do we owe Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet Union ICBM early-warning controller who in 1983 defied protocol and acted on a hunch that a nuclear missile attack warning was a false alarm, thus saving a large proportion of the world from nuclear annihilation? Surely his actions saved at least $10 trillion in lost lives, assets, environment and productivity?

    Comment by Adze — August 29, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

  28. You mean, like, Henry Ford, like, dude.

    Comment by abel the amish — August 29, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

  29. Oh, and from Sams’ website ” WHAT SAM IS READING – Flanagan, O. ‘The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized’ “

    Comment by abel the amish — August 29, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

  30. It’s all in the framing. What about this question instead:

    “How can we create incentives that will encourage people to invent things that make life better for all.”

    Comment by vibenna — August 29, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

  31. vibenna: “How can we create incentives that will encourage people to invent things that make life better for all.”

    Is that not what patent laws are meant to do? Even if they fail dismally and destructively in some circumstances. We possibly can’t address this kind of thing without revolutionising IP concepts.

    Comment by MikeM — August 29, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

  32. As well as Russell Brown’s point, the other fallacy in the question can be with this response:

    If some future entrepreneur invents a new product that makes them a multi-billionaire and creates dozens of millions of new jobs, should the government redistribute some of the income from those new jobs to the entrepreneur?

    Comment by Matthew Hooton — August 30, 2011 @ 7:32 am

  33. Yes Matthew. And let me answer your question with another questions: How many abodirigines do you see who are top models?

    Comment by Guy Smiley — August 30, 2011 @ 8:22 am

  34. People seem to be having difficulty with the concept of a hypothetical question.

    Comment by bradluen — August 30, 2011 @ 8:24 am

  35. @guysmiley – wtf? are you drunk already?

    Comment by TBWood — August 30, 2011 @ 8:29 am

  36. Sorry, I thought everyone had seen Zoolander? No matter.

    Comment by Guy Smiley — August 30, 2011 @ 8:36 am

  37. Speaking of reductio, I find this disturbing:

    “…She admits she did not vote National at the last election…” from

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/5529022/Thats-my-mum-you-re-hurting-PM-told

    The dismal reduction of our journalists to mere parrots to the government propaganda line that has led to the making of asking this sort of question de rigueur is dispiriting.

    First of all, We have a secret vote in this country, so even asking the question is a vile and offensive violation of one of the most basic of our democratic rights.

    Secondly, are we to reduce anyone’s opinion on anything to a forensic examination of their voting patterns, simply as a tool to dismiss and discredit the rest of what they say?

    Reductio ad absurdum indeed.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 30, 2011 @ 9:06 am

  38. What if I invent a labour-costing device that creates so much extra work that tens of millions of people have to go and get jobs? Would the government pay me for this?

    Cos if it’s likely to turn a profit I can have my earthquake machine up and running in 6 months, and in the meantime I’m quite happy to throw rocks at windows, unsort recycling, reformat hard drives etc etc

    Comment by gazzaj — August 30, 2011 @ 9:16 am

  39. @Sanctuary, I agree completely. That side-note in that story is silly to include and irrelevant. The government’s supposed to represent everyone, not just those who vote for it.

    Comment by MikeM — August 30, 2011 @ 10:30 am

  40. “Admits”.

    It’s a confession I tell you. Shameful the way she is using her mother’s situation like that. It all stems from Irrational Anti-Key Disorder. It makes people do terrible things, and the savvy reporter needs to let the readers be aware of what is really going on.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — August 30, 2011 @ 10:46 am

  41. I think such a labour saving device should be seized by the state for the benefit of all, with no compensation to the creator.

    Comment by Bed Rater — August 30, 2011 @ 10:51 am

  42. More reductio in today’s Herald headline: “Poll’s pre-election gloom for Labour”. The poll actually shows the Greens and Labour consistantly at about 42% for months, and National steady as well. The real story is the huge difference that has emerged between Auckland – where Labour and the Greens appear to be actually ahead of National – and provincial New Zealand, where it seems a massive 70% or so of New Zealanders support National. Since that the last major outbreak of political violence in this country in 1981 was exactly along this urban/provincial fault line, this growing polarisation is the real news story in this poll.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 30, 2011 @ 10:54 am

  43. Labour and the Greens being stronger than national in Auckland is new, if true. They typically pull that off in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, but not Auckland.

    Comment by Kahikatea — August 30, 2011 @ 11:27 am

  44. @Kahikatea – TBH, it is hard to be sure, because the story is to busy breathlessly reporting the demise of Labour in the two horse race. The exact lines are:

    “…Labour does get some good news in Pre-election gloom for the poll – it made up ground among Auckland respondents where it had 38.6 per cent support, a four-point lift.

    The gain was at the expense of National, which dropped from 52 to 47 per cent in Auckland…”

    If you assume the Greens are equal (or more likely higher) in Auckland, then that gives a minimum Labour+Greens 48% vs. National’s 47%

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 30, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  45. How about the fact that this labour saving device wouldn’t be worth crap ( in fact couldn’t come to exist) if it weren’t for all of the existing infrastructure and societal foundations surrounding it.
    Same applies to the wheel, the telephone, the printer, the microchip etc etc – without the roads, the electricity, the government institutions, the copyright, the legal protections, the Police, the other businesses supporting the production, the workers rights, the absence of anarchy, the passive obedience to the social contract by the majority – these devices could never see the light of day. We would be in anarchy, and the winners would simply be the well armed thugs of the world.

    So I think when I invent the next world changing device and make trillions of dollars from it, that all those people who help uphold the environment I needed to be successful should share in a small way in my good fortune – because I benefited hugely from their acquiescence in that society. Without the masses going along their humdrum lives under society’s rules – I couldn’t have done it.THey too should benefit.

    And personally – my name for this benefit is TAX.

    Comment by Cartwright — August 30, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

  46. If one man from his own effort and ingenuity earns a greater degree of income, is it right that those not so ingenious or hard working should use their numerical supremacy to elect politicians who will pass legislation to steal a large part of that man’s income?

    Morally it is not right.

    In socialist la la land where morality takes a back seat to indolence, greed, envy and dependency it is fine and dandy.

    Comment by Redbaiter — August 30, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  47. Did you just cut and paste from The Fountainhead, Redbaiter?

    You lazy, lazy little fellow.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 30, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

  48. Hey, it’s that guy!

    Comment by Hugh — August 30, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  49. Lyndon @ 13
    Great link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_Mass_%28book%29
    So what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand”, Philip Ball calls “the physics of society”.

    Ball: “There seem to be ‘laws’ [of] social systems that have at least something of the character of natural physical laws, in that they do not yield easily to planned and arbitrary interventions.”

    Natch, as a right-wing nut-job, I “believe” in the physics of society.

    ————————

    “And personally – my name for this benefit is TAX.” Comment by Cartwright @46.
    Come on Cart: that trillionaire would be paying tax at 33%, so is paying the “same” as public servants and that is just patently unfair!

    Comment by Clunking Fist — August 30, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

  50. AND they’d pay the same 15% GST as everyone else, how unfair is that!

    Comment by Clunking Fist — August 30, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

  51. What the level of “TAX” would be is up to the society, not the entrepreneur. That’s why I deliberately didn’t mention it.
    TBH if I made a trillion $ I’d be happy with a huge tax rate, ( and of course the global appreciation of my fellow citizens, which would mean just as much).

    Comment by Cartwright — August 30, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  52. REdbaiter: “If one man from his own effort and ingenuity earns a greater degree of income, is it right that those not so ingenious or hard working should use their numerical supremacy to elect politicians who will pass legislation to steal a large part of that man’s income?”

    Whatever it takes to make the greedy bastard understand that he didn’t do it by his own effort and ingenuity!
    He did it with the help of everybody else in his country past and present whose minuscule efforts towards a greater good have not yet been rewarded financially. And if he’s not prepared to acknowledge it wilfully he can have it acknowledged forcefully.

    Comment by Cartwright — August 30, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

  53. Whatever it takes to make the greedy bastard understand that he didn’t do it by his own effort and ingenuity!

    In accounting parlance, profit should really be thought of as a numerical measure of “value added” – in the same way that this random collection of black and white pixels didn’t have much value until I (not you) put them together in a meaningful way that presented information.

    In other words: if the enterprise I own has leftover revenue, after paying a fair price to all of the people/enterprises that have actually provided effort and ingenuity…

    Comment by Phil — August 30, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

  54. @ cartwright

    “TBH if I made a trillion $ I’d be happy with a huge tax rate”

    Yeah they all say that until the tax man comes calling and then, “whoops, sorry, the cash has all mysteriously and irretrievably disappeared into an anonymous account in the Caymans and my wife’s family trust. Accountants eh? Can’t turn your back for a second. Pchaw.”

    Comment by insider — August 30, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

  55. “And if he’s not prepared to acknowledge it wilfully he can have it acknowledged forcefully.”

    A declaration based upon a completely illogical premise, but nevertheless an honest reminder of the chilling pathological mindset that always underpins socialism.

    Comment by Redbaiter — August 30, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  56. Sez the guy flying the battle flag of a bunch of dudes who committed treason in defence of slavery.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — August 30, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

  57. …an honest reminder of the chilling pathological mindset that always underpins socialism.

    Or as the rest of us refer to it, “society” – unless you can point to the various non-socialist utopias around the world in which paying your taxes is voluntary…

    Comment by Psycho Milt — August 30, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

  58. I’ve just worked it out.

    Redbaiter is Andrew Ryan.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 30, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

  59. Always the weak unintelligent attempts at ridicule at the expense of argument.

    And still you commies cannot work out why you are losing the debate, and as every day goes by, violence and insurrection look more and more like your only remaining options.

    Comment by Redbaiter — August 30, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

  60. Random Andrew Ryan video:

    Comment by OECD rank 22 kiwi — August 30, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

  61. Redbaiter; I thinks you mean violins and erections.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 30, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

  62. Gregor, nah Redbaiter is a crazy old religious Palin fanatic. Libertarian he ain’t

    (and I realise I’m trying to dissuade your comparison with a fictional character from a video game, but it’s the internet)

    Comment by Bed Rater — August 30, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

  63. Can someone PM me the URL for the blog where everyone’s gonna go hang out instead of DimPost now that fkn Redbaiter has turned up?

    Comment by Progger — August 31, 2011 @ 12:15 am

  64. Hablar blah blah re the inventor. The other side of the question is whether to redistribute the earnings of the affluent. Seems obvious. Anyone read Alvin Toffler in the 80s predicted this. His solution? Lessen the working week, increase welfare. How to pay for that? So simple, tax those who have the income.

    Why is it so difficult to recognise this basic human system – those who can provide for those who cannot, we are a community still. Getting the rich to understand their responsibility is harder – a course in ethics for anyone who drives a car less than 4 years old perhaps?

    Comment by Myles thomas — August 31, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

  65. Should be compulsory viewing, a free market parasite turncoat who summarily slaughters the laissez-faire theories so many of my compatriots have swallowed hook, line and sinker. Simply substitute modern manufacturing processes for deregulation, they are one and the same; labour cost saving devices that have lowered real wages and created structural unemployment since the 1970s:

    Comment by clandestino — September 1, 2011 @ 11:36 am


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