Able Abel and Post-Scarcity

Bryan Caplan has an extremely thought-provoking post over on his blog:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island.  One, named Able Abel, is extremely able.  With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island.  Eight islanders are marginally able.  With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person.  The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable.  Harry can’t produce any food at all.

Questions:

1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

Do click the link, there’s more to the post, not to mention some rather interesting comments.Leave aside all the very important questions (which other people have already brought up) over how much of the fruits of Abel’s labour are, in fact, solely the fruits of his labour, the value Abel derives from the very existence of the social fabric, and so on. The question I was wondering about was this: what level or ratio of ability would overturn our intuitions (I say our under the assumption that most of you feel the same way, but I don’t know how justified that is) on forcing Abel into “slavery”?

What if the total level of the economy is far above subsistence level in the aggregate, as I think we can agree most Western countries are? Assume the others’ abilities remain roughly constant: at what level of Abel’s ability to create wealth/resources could we claim to have hit “post-scarcity”? A hundred times subsistence? A thousand? A million? Does it not matter? If the other 8 demand that Abel work an extra second so that Harry doesn’t starve, or even so they can enjoy some chunk of the incredible wealth that this “economy” has accumulated, would we still consider it slavery?An extra minute? An extra hour?

Most people would consider “how big a chunk” and “how much more work” the more important questions here, I think, and insofar as most discussions of taxation seem to revolve around it I think the “status quo” sees things more clearly than Caplan. My intuitions suggest that the size of the chunk should vary with the level of the aggregate economy over subsistence more than the actual distribution of wealth within the economy. Presumably this is where we could use some actual economics to guide us.

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