TED Conversations

Russell Richard

Piping Stress Analyst, Piping Stress Inc.

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How would an economic system not based on the acquisition of material wealth work?

The internet is essentially a machine that duplicates products without expending resources. It is a literal cornucopia of content products. The SOPA discussions are demonstrating that the old style economics of one-way distribution will not work for content companies in the present and future. But, what about everything else?

As we gather knowledge about the universe, we are able to create things with greater and greater ease. In the case of just about all content, we have gathered enough information to create a system that effectively generates product for no cost. There is also, usually, no profit - people make things because they want to.

Physical objects are more difficult to generate in this manner. We know this because it still takes effort and resources to make them. However, there may come a time when physical objects are created just as easily as content is created through the internet. What happens then?

What happens when we can no longer rely on profit from making things? How do we create an economic system that isn't based on acquiring material wealth?


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  • Jan 20 2012: It depends what you mean by "based on the acquisition of material wealth". Capitalism creates a society where a minority accumulates obscenely large amounts of wealth by exploiting the labour power of those who do not possess capital (or prefer not to exploit fellow human beings). Socialism posits a society whose citizens are at liberty to acquire personal possessions, but not to exploit other people's labour. Under socialism, most wealth is communally owned and is deployed under democratic control to benefit society as a whole, not a private profit seeking minority whose self-serving activities inevitably engender an unending series of economic crises and, if left unchecked, will cause runaway environmental catastrophe.
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      Jan 20 2012: In your opinion is there a current example of a socialist society as you describe it?
      And, seriously, the same for a capitalist society as you describe it? Thanks.
      • Jan 20 2012: Attempts to create socialist societies have so far been deformed or derailed by the fact that the capitalist powers have made every effort to strangle them at birth or subvert them - efforts made easier by virtue of the fact that attempts to build socialism have mainly occurred in poor, undeveloped or war-ravaged countries which doubtless you could name as well as I.

        Is there a capitalist world which operates essentially as I have described? What element/s in my description do you find difficulty in identifying in any number of so-called free market capitalist countries in the contemporary world?
    • Jan 21 2012: Actually capitalism leads to better education, health care, and environmental care: (see page 20-25) http://www.freetheworld.com/release.html
      • Jan 21 2012: What do you understand by better health care? Highly sophisticated facilities which only the wealthy can access, existing alongside very minimal provision for poor people? Or a health service which is paid for collectively and which everyone can access at nil cost at the point of use?

        These are, needless to say, very different conceptions of health care. Depends what you want to minimise: taxes, or infant mortality and avoidable suffering. Also on what you prefer to maximise: profits for private health insurance companies, or social well-being.
        • Jan 21 2012: Actually, hospitals never turn anyone away because they can't pay. In the U.S. healthcare is better for even poor people than it is for most people in the world. You say only the wealthy can afford it - well, that's not usually the case. Most poor people, unless they are spending their money on drugs or alcohol, can afford much better health care than most people in other countries can.
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      Jan 21 2012: Unfortunately, democratic control usually means some form of government. Governments, once they have power, almost never give that power up. If the majority of he wealth is under democratic (government) control, then it is the government that decides what I can buy and how to by it. Not directly, of course, that would be communism, but indirectly by controlling the flow of money.

      Luxury goods in such a system are automatically removed from the market. They contradict the idea that no one person should have substantially more wealth than any other person. Unfortunately, luxury goods are the places where many innovations are made. Things like cars, finely stitched clothing, and white bread were originally luxury goods.
      • Jan 21 2012: Democratic control always means some form of government. Government is forcibly taking money from other people. Even if this control is democratic, it is still wrong. If 51% of the population wanted the 49%'s wealth, that wouldn't make it right to take it. A democracy stealing money from people and redistributing it is just as bad as a dictatorship like China or Russia. And yes, stealing is equitable with taxation: what else do you call forcibly giving up your property? The difference between necessary and bad taxation is that in a free society, as little as possible is taxed in order to preserve other freedoms. It is for this reason that the Founding Fathers said government is a necessary evil: it must subsist on stolen goods. Therefore, we should limit the taxation to as little as is necessary for defense and courts.
        • Jan 22 2012: Your vocabulary appears to equate the phrase "stealing money from people" with public taxation. Certainly in societies with a dominant wealthy class, taxation is an efficient and prevalent method of looting the poor to benefit the already rich, either directly or by making the poor pay for essential state functions while effectively exempting the rich from similar burdens.

          However it's also possible to conceptualise taxation as a transfer system within capitalist societies which enables the reproduction of the profit system by reducing the toxic disaffection, and the consequential breakdown of the society, which would tend to occur if only the wealthy could enjoy clean water, food, housing, education, health care, essential personal security, etc.

          In an egalitarian, non-capitalist society, more equitable ways of covering the society's essential running expenses and necessary generational transfers will no doubt be developed. But no conceivable advanced society could function without some system, which it might be a gross oversimplification to call theft, for pooling resources and transferring some to the young, the old and the needy.

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