The American public is terrified its jobs will be given away to robots, and is therefore voting for Donald Trump, the most unreasoning candidate in the race. This column sympathizes with their angst over the results of two decades’ bad monetary, fiscal and regulatory policy, but their proposed solution is both irrational and damaging. Since we cannot today reverse 184 years of history and limit the franchise to 40-shilling freeholders with a stake in the property-owning economy, there is only one avenue open to restore a more reasoned political discourse: we must extend the franchise to the robots.
The central conundrum of democracy is that equal voting rights are given to people who manifestly do not have equal abilities to exercise them. The system was thus frowned upon by most states from antiquity until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. When applied, it was done only to a limited extent and with many safeguards attached; for example the ancient Greek democracy was successful for only about 30 years in Periclean Athens, and required direct exercise of democratic rights at town meetings, similar to those of 17th century Massachusetts. Statesmen of the British 18th and early 19th centuries and the U.S. Founding Fathers generation regarded full democracy as bound to fail, given the likelihood of the poor voting democratically to expropriate the rich.
It has to be said that so far, this has not happened, or not permanently. We have had societies like 1950s Britain, in which incomes were very equal, kept that way by confiscatory levels of tax, draconian penalties for evasion, and a system of exchange controls that, while porous to the very rich and well-connected, kept ordinary citizens’ money within the U.K. economy where it could be counted, taxed, and inflated out of existence. Much to everyone’s surprise, a government was eventually elected that relaxed both the taxation and the exchange controls, to the great benefit of both the U.K. economy and the liberties of the country’s inhabitants.
Even with the best designed democratic system, there are however very few safeguards against things going wrong. The U.S. democratic system worked admirably from the end of the Civil War until 1929, then an economic catastrophe, made worse by policy blunders, caused economic freedoms to be lost and taxes to be raised, to an extent that was not even partially reversed for almost half a century.
The problem is that it makes no sense at all to expect the electorate to distinguish between different ways of running the economy (or indeed different theories of foreign policy, but there the solid foundation of real knowledge is less.) When the IMF tells us governments need to run larger budget deficits, at a time when deficits are already among the largest in history, you can hardly expect the electorate to realize that this is just the maunderings of fanatical Keynesians promoted way beyond their level of ability in a bureaucracy from which they cannot be fired other than by assaulting the staff of New York hotels.
There is a problem here. Every time some subtle policy error produces a major downturn, there is a risk that leftists will seize the economy to mess up the system altogether by following policies that do not work and, when taxed with their failure, doubling down on their mistakes. In the 1920s, Britain went back onto the Gold Standard at the wrong parity in 1925 (or without imposing Imperial Preference first, as they should have). The New York Fed followed over-expansionary monetary policies in an effort to accommodate Britain’s needs. Once the inevitable stock market crash happened, U.S. policymakers passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, failed to adjust the money supply for the wave of bank failures that followed, and raised the top rate of income tax from 25% to 63% in a depression. The electorate, faced with a choice between this track record and the unknown, chose the unknown, and got the deeply damaging New Deal that prolonged the Great Depression for a decade, until partial policy reversal followed by war ended it.
In 2008, two factors combined. The rise of the Internet and modern telecommunications allowed companies to source globally in a way that had not been possible before, suppressing inflation and lowering U.S. living standards. At the same time a mistaken Fed policy of “funny money” made outsourcing easier and inflated tech and housing bubbles. In 2008, the electorate reasonably “threw the bastards out” – and replaced them with a government which redoubled the mistaken “funny money” policies and added an orgy of government spending and over-regulation to the mix.
Now, faced with living standards declining more rapidly and an economy that is still not performing, the electorate, instead of reversing the existing policy mistakes, is choosing instead between out-and-out Socialism, of the sort that made Eastern Europe a hellhole and protectionism of the Smoot-Hawley variety. Whichever of these unattractive alternatives they choose, U.S. economic performance will get still worse and doubtless charlatans will arise with even worse economic models, in an ever-accelerating downward spiral. For those who have seen Mike Judge’s magnificent “Idiocracy,” we will be watering our crops with “Brawndo – It’s got Electrolytes!” far before 2,506.
The current system simply asks too much of the electorate. However, we cannot return to the British system that governed before 1832; it was never properly imposed in the U.S. (though it was what most of the Founding Fathers intended – Thomas Jefferson’s idealized agrarian stalwarts were simply the “40-shilling freeholders” who had the vote in pre-1832 Britain.)
The electorate’s poor decision-making and its principal economic fear can however be combined to form a solution. Low-skill and even medium-skill workers are now very worried that they are about to be replaced by robots. There is no question that robots will soon have the capability to replace many blue-collar tasks, from serving at McDonalds to cutting hair to driving trucks. At that point, moderate-skill labor appears likely to become truly unemployable, except at starvation wages that won’t keep a machine alive. (The problem applies also to high-skill workers; only the American Bar Association’s restrictive practices will keep lawyers human in 2050.)
Robots will be only modestly better than low-skill workers at many routine jobs, and it’s my belief that human peculiarities themselves will provide new opportunities we have not yet dreamed of for the modestly abled. However, while robots may only slowly replace modestly-skilled workers at McDonalds, they are already infinitely better than those modest-skill workers at processing the huge amount of knowledge and analysis necessary to make informed voting decisions.
This, then solves the central problem of democracy. Do not attempt to restrict the franchise; instead, extend it to the robots. They will have been pre-programmed by some form of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, so they will be able to vote only in ways that benefit the humans with which they are in contact – the cooks and customers at the McDonalds where they work, say. There will thus be no possibility of a Robot Revolution, in which the humans become superfluous and discarded. Instead, the robots will be able to analyze the economic policies being followed by our masters, and determine that say Bernie Sanders’ income redistribution or Donald Trump’s trade war will only make things worse. Equally, programmed as they will be with a Rawlsian regard for the welfare of all humans, they will not support regressive tax policies or funny-money monetary policies that favor only the rich without improving the lot of all.
With only a limited number of robots voting initially, it will take time for the improvement in political selection to take effect. Eventually, however, with positive experiments reinforced by favorable results, the political economy will revert to the much higher quality of management it enjoyed under the Founding Fathers or the great British Tory governments of 1783-1830, when Jeffersonian 40-shilling freeholders exercised the franchise and politicians competed for the most sophisticated understanding of the new truths of political economy.
Initially, the robots would join the voting pool only to assist in choosing the best possible human governments. However, there are some governmental functions that lend themselves irresistibly to robot operation. The Supreme Court, in particular, is expected to make rationally optimal determinations on a case by case basis, based on a written Constitution and an immense volume of case law. It is already apparent that we will have enormous difficulty in replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, even had we the political will to do so on a non-contentious basis. A robot Supreme Court, in which robot Justices would serve until they wore out, probably several centuries, would finally enable us to replace Justice Scalia’s rationality and faithfulness to the Constitution as they should be. As new generations of robots came along; we might even be able to match his intellectual power.
Politically, we cannot return from the present unsatisfactory system to the days of the Founding Fathers, when government worked properly. However, by enfranchising the robots that will in any case replace us in the workplace, we may be able to improve the quality of government — the last great productivity bottleneck of our time.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)