"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." That was what British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, when asked about the failings of the political model, and history has thus far borne him out.
But Winston Churchill said that more than half a century ago, at a time when fascism and Soviet communism were pulling chunks of the world apart, and the United States was a shining city on the hill. Churchill was thinking about the realities of mid-20th century governance, about a post-war world, and a rising middle class — he probably wasn’t thinking about a new race of super-intelligent robots that could render humanity obsolete.
Not like Elon Musk. Say what you want about Musk, but I’d bet ten dollars that no matter what time of day, he is thinking about robots. He seemed to be thinking about them earlier this week, anyway, when he said that thanks to widespread automation, governments would be able to give all citizens a universal income. That sweet, sweet government money wouldn’t be subsistence fare, either, but a salary for simply existing, paid out by utopian societies that trundled along on the back of robots.
He's always thinking about robots
"There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation," Musk told CNBC, positing a future where truck drivers have their jobs rendered obsolete by self-driving vehicles. Musk tells those about to be replaced by robots not to worry, though. "People will have time to do other things, more complex things, more interesting things," Musk said. More leisure time would also be a bonus, allowing people to create art, organize their communities, or binge-watch all the Netflix shows they’ve missed out on.
Musk’s projection is the end point for a very logical, technocentric way of thinking, but is it viable in real life? Imagining, for a moment, that tech companies are capable of making and implementing the kind of breakthroughs that automate large swathes of society, it’s still very difficult to marry a universal income with western society —cultures hardcoded with political and philosophical beliefs that stand against the idea of money for nothing.
Speaking directly to Musk’s example, we live in a world where Donald Trump has just seized power by appealing directly to the same truck drivers who Musk says will be replaced by robots. They’re a group of people already feeling dispossessed, redundant, and left behind by overseas labor and a changing economy - ditching them in favor of a real-world Johnnycab would be political suicide.
The cheery projection that these truck drivers won’t mind being mothballed because they’ll have more time on their hands to work on their personal projects may not work, either. The United States is built on philosophies of individualism, ingenuity, and hard work: concepts difficult to espouse when the government’s paying you to sit at home and paint along with Bob Ross reruns. The protestant ideals of northern European countries like Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are allied against the concept, too, their subconscious belief systems rewarding penance and hard work.
It’s an altered version of these concepts that filtered into the American dream, a hangover from the puritan ideals the pilgrims brought over. You’ll be a millionaire, the United States promises, if you work hard and stand out. How do you stand out from your peers if the government’s giving you all the same amount? The concept of a government salary shades dangerously close to communism, a dirty word for most Americans, whether they voted for Trump or Clinton.
The reason I don’t know if Musk’s universal income idea would ever fly is because it’s never happened before. The Netherlands has a plan underway, and Switzerland got close this summer, with a plan to give all citizens about $2,500 a month, but the plan was rejected, leaving us with no historical examples to consider. So, in keeping with Musk’s own penchant for speculation, let’s turn instead to sci-fi — specifically, to Iain M. Banks’ Culture books.
Let's turn to sci-fi for examples
Banks’ Culture is a far-future society on a galactic scale, a conglomeration of planets, space stations, and outposts administrated and organized by "Minds" — incredibly powerful artificial intelligences. The Minds are so advanced as to be near-omniscient, capable of waging wars, managing production, and operating a functional utopian society without any human input. Humans aren’t even needed to create new Minds — while the Culture’s earliest artificial intelligences were the result of work by meatbag scientists, the machines quickly took over design duties themselves.
But rather than kill off their creators like Roko’s Basilisk, the Culture’s Minds treat humans well, creating societies, worlds, and workspaces for them to live. In those spaces, humans — without the survivalist need for a job — are free to do what they want. Which often, in Banks’ books, means taking dangerous espionage roles, playing life-or-death games, or smoking ludicrous amounts of consequence-free drugs.
That could be the world that Musk is envisioning, but while the Culture is a utopia for sure — a multiculturalist playground run to peak efficiency — that doesn’t mean everything runs smoothly for everyone all the time. Wars are fought against ornery aliens, upper-class snobs keep others as indentured slaves, and trained assassins murder people and fashion their bones into furniture. The Culture’s citizens don’t have to work, but they do anyway. It’s human nature, the dearly departed Banks suggests, to get into fights even when we’ve already got what we need.