A Selfish & Computational Justification for Global Wealth Redistribution
This hastily written essay was my thesis submission for my philosophy honours degree in 2020. It may have more of an academic tone, assume that the reader has some prior knowledge, and definitely could have been written a bit better.
Human beings are a social species. Coordinating with each other is in our nature. We've evolved the capacity of speech to interact with one another, and there's reason to believe that our brains have grown in complexity and power as a consequence of needing to monitor the social networks we're embedded within, an idea made famous by Robin Dunbar (1992). This group size is thought to have a limit of around 150 people before the group begins to become unstable and fragment. This neo-cortical limit has not halted the progress of our species, however. Our ability for abstract representation and speech gave rise to our capacity to coordinate with people beyond Dunbar's limit and across greater distances, and thus rudimentary economies arose.
Where there are groups of people cooperating, there is usually a division of labour. Some may weave baskets, others raise cattle, and some cultivate crops. This division of labour allows groups of people to achieve far more than they could on their own. As Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations (1776):
"The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour...seem to have been the effects of the division of labour."
Once the basic material needs of a group are met and there is an excess of valuable goods that are not likely to perish, questions of how those goods are distributed amongst the population are likely to arise.
Fast forwarding to today where we have more wealth and power than could have been conceived of by even the most powerful king of the past, questions of inequality and wealth redistribution occupy a strong position in the zeitgeist. Some people possess more wealth than the outputs of entire countries. Talk of ideas like universal basic income — an unconditional payment to all citizens sufficient to cover basic needs — are now the mainstream and are being experimented with as I write this.
The generation and distribution of wealth in the world is unequal and generally follows a power-law distribution. This form of distribution is widespread in nature and is referred to as the Pareto distribution. Interestingly, it appears to have a basis in the constructal law of thermodynamics (Bejan and Errea, 2017) and may be as natural and unavoidable as entropy. That's not to say that this makes wealth accumulation fair. On the contrary, this means there's a tremendous amount of luck involved.
The importance of wealth is hard to understate. It is far more than numbers in a bank account, house by the beach, gold bars, or a platinum credit card. Wealth grants one the ability to enact change in their world, to command resources and assets in pursuit of their own ends. If we possess enough of it, wealth can help grant us the ability to live a life of our own choosing. If we lack wealth or possess next to none, our survival and that of our families can be at risk. In a world where all of the land on the planet has been claimed, there's a certain level of wealth that is necessary for people to live with dignity. The line demarcating this threshold is called the poverty line.
In a world of historically incomparable wealth, but also inequality, distributive justice theorists of today seek to identify what constitutes a just distribution of benefits and burdens among members of society. A just society distributes these things in the right way, giving a person what they deserve, or stripping people of what they do not.
Given that our well-being is dependent upon access to wealth, much philosophical work has been done exploring what can be considered a just distribution of wealth in society.
The literature is vast, and as most philosophers would likely agree, there are substantial convincing arguments for some level of wealth redistribution. The rationale behind these arguments can differ substantially, however, the fact that some level of distribution is justified is widely accepted not just among philosophers, but citizens alike.
One perspective is that of strict egalitarianism, that every person should have the same amount of level of material wealth as all people are born as moral equals. There are some obvious problems with this position, however. While people may be considered to be of equal moral worth, they are not born equal. This is true in many ways, but one of the more salient differences between people is that of size, and thus, they have different energetic needs when compared to one another. Other perceived problems include that this approach curtails freedom, and that it's inherently unfair, because the quantity or quality of one's output would have no bearing on how much they receive in return and that this is unfair. Perhaps the strongest is that the welfare-based argument, the idea that such a strictly egalitarian system would result in people being worse off than they would be if they lived in societies that had inequality, like ours today (Carens, 1981).
Other philosophers take a utilitarian perspective, that what is of primary moral importance is the well-being of people, when it comes to discussions of distributive justice. Positing that, the question of who should get what is solely determined by the impacts that redistribution will have on welfare. This position has also had its critics. Some argue that it violates the freedom of the individual, others refer to the tremendous uncertainty, if not the computational impossibility, associated with engaging in such welfare calculations. There's also the problem of adaptive preferences, the altering of one's preferences in light of the opportunities they are presented with, the pernicious challenge of interpersonal utility comparisons (Elster, 1991), and difficulty identifying the appropriate means of redistribution.
Another approach is based on questions of what we deserve, that people are entitled to economic remuneration because of their actions, or the consequence of their actions, justify it. Some argue that people should be paid according to the effort involved in the work they do, others that people should be compensated for the costs incurred by the individual in doing the work, and some argue that people should be rewarded for the value of their contribution.
Arguably the most well-known theory of justice is that of John Rawls, where he proposes the following two principles necessary for a just society:
- Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
- Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. (Rawls 1993, pp. 5–6.)
In cases where these principles may conflict, the first takes precedence over the second, and 2a over 2b.
There's reams of distributive justice literature which I have not touched on. Some explore the importance of luck, opportunity, libertarian and feminist conceptions of justice, and then there's the entire issue of justice between species and that of the biosphere as a whole. Rather than attempt to add to the vast and noble distributive justice literature arguing in favour or some form of wealth redistribution, I will take a completely different approach. For the remainder of this essay, I will argue in favour of global wealth redistribution from the perspective of a narrow ethical egoist, someone who doesn't give a damn about justice whatsoever (unless justice makes them happy), and still arrive at the conclusion that some form of global wealth redistribution is justified.
I'll begin by briefly outlining the position of ethical egoism. We will then explore what is necessary for well-being and how a substantial degree of our well-being is tied to the outputs of the economy. I will dedicate a substantial portion of this thesis to exploring the nature of the economy, the role technology plays in its growth, and most importantly, the roles individual people play in the economy in general. To do this, I will explore how the economy is a complex adaptive system that evolves across time, and that this evolution can be viewed as a form of computation that is carried out by economic agents — people — distributed across the world.
We will see that people do not only act as the distributed computational nodes of an economy, but they are a source of endogenous change and growth as well, as people are responsible for the invention of new technologies, and that, when people have a threshold level of basic needs me they are more economically productive and capable of innovation, and that this capacity increases with access to greater resources.
We will then explore the state of the world's poor today, and see that nearly half of the planet — more than 3 billion people — live in poverty, and thus struggle to contribute as productively as is likely possible for them, and leaves them unable to reap the benefits that they would undoubtedly desire from the economy.
Given all of the above, I will conclude that redistributing wealth globally is justified from the perspective of the ethical egoist, as our well-being is inextricably tied to the global economy, whose inputs are the labour of billions of people around the world, and crucially, their innovations, and that these innovations translate into higher standards of living for ourselves and the ones we love.
The scope of this thesis is likely beyond that which I can properly address given the constraints. Due to this, I will have to make numerous assumptions and refrain from discussing a variety of different issues and questions. All references to the perspective of an ethical egoist assume that the person holding that position has a decent standard of living. When I refer to global wealth redistribution, I'm speaking of the reallocation of wealth from those that have more of it to those that don't, across the entire planet. I will not comment on how much wealth is too much for a person or country to possess. The borders of countries are of no consequence in this discussion. I will not describe or explore what forms global redistribution will take or through which channels wealth may be distributed either. I make a crucial assumption that global wealth redistribution will result in the improvement in the well-being of those less fortunate, securing for them human rights and core capabilities. I will not discuss whether or not the framing of the economy as an evolving complex system is accurate or how legitimate the characterisations of technology I provide is.
Throughout this essay, there's one perspective I'd like the reader to keep in the back of the mind. This is the perspective that human-beings are information processing biological systems whose well-being is dependent upon their needs being met, and this is a consequence of the processing of matter, energy and information and our ever-improving capacity to do so through the invention of new technologies and the economy.
Ethical Egoism is the position that the only morally right thing to do is to pursue your own self-interests (Wolff, 2018, p.100). One need not view self-interest as only consisting of regard for oneself, it can encompass the well-being of others. For instance, one can engage in acts of altruism in pursuit of a 'warm glow' — the feeling of psychological satisfaction one experiences when helping others. This has been called impure altruism and has been a continued source of debate since the ancient Greeks (Annas, 1993, ch.3) and continues today, with the philosophy and movement of Effective Altruism being the most vocal dissidents.
In this essay, we will take a narrow perspective of ethical egoism, that the only morally right thing to do is to pursue one's selfish interests. Thus, the only well-being that is of intrinsic moral value is our own. Given that we are social animals and that it is an empirical fact that our relationships with others is a tremendous source of happiness (if not necessary for it), taking actions to promote the well-being of our loved ones can be considered an acceptable act within a narrow conception of ethical egoism, as the suffering of a loved-one will impact our own well-being.
We will now move on to a discussion of well-being more generally.
Ideas of well-being, happiness, flourishing (while not exactly synonymous, these terms are similar enough to be used interchangeably in this essay) are critical, if not foundational, to any discussion of morality. Indeed, the moral philosophy of utilitarianism posits that the only moral requirement is that well-being is maximised.
Well-being is a concept we have an intuitive grasp of as a consequence of humans being experiencing things. In the philosophical sense, well-being means something along the lines of how well a person’s life is going for that person (Roger, 2017). Just as the terms happiness and flourishing, when used in the philosophical sense, do not refer to the experience of an entity at a certain point of time, well-being refers to something wider, encompassing one's life as a whole, as while the future is no doubt less certain than the present, there's no reason why experience in the future is less valuable (while perhaps less likely) than it is in the present (Ord, 2020).
Factors that contribute to a person's wellbeing include, but are not limited to: health (mental and physical), the quality of their social relationships, the freedom one has and opportunities they are afforded in life. While it can be argued that one may be able to live a flourishing, happy, fulfilling, dignified, and worthwhile life living in a pre-agricultural society compared to today in the 21st century, for instance, for the purpose of this essay we'll assume that the net increase in freedom and opportunities, material security and safety, and technologies makes it more likely that one will have a higher level of lifetime well-being if they were alive today. (For a brief discussion of why, please see Appendix A. at the end of the essay)
Each person, being biological, has a particular set of requirements that need to be met in order to survive, and more requirements such that the experience of that individual could be deemed to be 'good' by either themselves or to an external observer.
The basic needs for survival include the energetic needs one satisfies with adequate access to food, clean water, and shelter. Once one has enough to barely subsist, there's far more things that can improve the well-being of that person. For instance, the good health of yourself and your loved ones, being in fulfilling relationships, access to education, the ability to pursue different things and develop a level of mastery, and feeling valued by one's community. There are others, while arguably less important (though perhaps inextricably connected to some of the aforementioned factors), that still contribute to one's well-being. These are things like the ability to regulate the temperature of your house, the ability to keep food in a refrigerator or get pizza delivered to your home, being able to harness electricity to do work for you so that you can engage in leisure activities.
Many of the factors of well-being are largely tied to events and occurrences outside of our own control. Access to food is dependent upon farmers and complicated supply chains. Maintaining good health is linked to access to healthcare services and education, which are provided by governments and those that have the requisite training. The electricity in our homes is dependent upon the power-stations we are hooked up to, fuelled and maintained by the governments of our countries and the citizens they employ.
We each have a finite set of resources, the most scarce being time. Trying to provide all of the benefits listed above for oneself given our finitude would be an impossible task. In fact, all of the benefits we get from such technologies and services have taken tens of thousands of years to produce altogether and are the result of trillions of hours of labour.
Even if only our own well-being is of moral consequence, then understanding the factors that contribute to well-being is of vital importance. Many, if not all of the things that positively influence our well-being are the result of our being embedded within economies, as it is the economy which makes the provisioning of such benefits possible.
The Economy, Technology, and Information Processing
The Economy and Wellbeing
The economy has been a source of philosophical discussion since the days of Aristotle, though it has only been a distinct object of enquiry since the 18th century (Haussman, 2018). This is probably due to the fact that it was around that time that the economy started growing exponentially, bringing our prosperity along with it. Our conception of what an economy is, how it operates and changes over time, is evolving as our scientific understanding of the world deepens. While we have failed to grasp the true nature of the economy (as evidenced by some of the predictive and explanatory failures of neoclassical economics ), the importance of the economy is widely known and appreciated. When citizens of countries are polled about the issues they think are most important, the economy is likely to be within their top three. Leading up to the most recent US presidential election, in the midst of a global pandemic that had claimed the lives of over 200,000 people in the US alone, a survey of US voters found that 34 percent placed economic recovery as the biggest issue the country faces (2020 early exit poll: Voters rank rebuilding economy as more important than COVID-19, 2020).
The Gross Domestic Product, the monetary value of the goods and services produced within a society, has been used as a proxy for the well-being of a country's citizens. While now widely regarded as being a poor indicator of the well-being of a country as it fails to capture things like health, the environment, or education, there still exists a widely accepted perceived relationship between a country's economic output and the well-being of its citizens. The general idea being the bigger the economic pie, the more there is to share. When looking at the graph of GDP across time, one can see why. While correlation does not imply causation, the fact is that our collective well-being has increased in-step with the growth of the economy.
Before economic growth, the well-being of people was largely determined by population, just like it is for the rest of the animal kingdom living amidst scarce resources. The resources available to people of the past were relatively fixed and tied to the output of the land alone; the more people there were, the less they got, and vice versa. Prior to the industrial revolution, 19 out of 20 people lived in extreme poverty. That number is now only 1 in 10 (Ord, 2019). Economic growth changed everything.
The average person alive today is more than 4x richer than they were in 1950, but strikingly, in that time the world's population grew by a factor of 4, meaning that the economy has grown by a factor of 13 since 1950 (Roser, 2013).
We are not only richer, but more prosperous in general. Humans today are living longer, getting sick less, are more likely to be literate, are more likely to have a high-school education, and are less likely to die from violence and natural disasters than they ever have been.
What is it that accounts for this tremendous economic growth and prosperity? An increase in productivity — the ratio of inputs to outputs — mainly driven by the creation of new technologies.
The Nature of Technology
Of all the things that impact our lives, none may have more of an impact than the technologies we, and the societies we live within, have at their disposal. Technology is touted as being the main source of productivity growth, making new and better forms of capital available to be used towards our ends.
While biologically speaking we've remained relatively unchanged for 200,000 years, the technological landscape we've inhabited over the millennia has shifted dramatically and have played a critical role in shaping our lives. What distinguishes societies from one another across the ages is not the languages they speak, the clothes they wear, or where they live, but the technologies that they use to go about their lives. "Technology is not a mere ‘condition’ for human beings in the sense of a means that can be used to achieve human ends; rather, human existence is already a human-technological existence"(Coeckelbergh, 2011).
Technologies transcend borders. When a new process or device is created that is sufficiently better than the ones that preceded it, it slowly but surely permeates across the world. The internet has made this process all the more faster. Technologies can spread across the world with rapidity unheard of just a century ago, even in the space of seconds when it comes to technologies like software. This is one key factor that allows the economies of different countries to grow in unison, sharing their new technological innovations through trade, mutually benefiting from the process and delivering better lives for their citizens at the same time.
However, given its tremendous importance to our well-being, it is somewhat surprising that we lack an overall theory of how technologies are created, how they evolve across time, what innovation is, and importantly, a widely accepted understanding of what technology is (Arthur, 2009).
In The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How it Evolves, celebrated economist and complexity science pioneer W. Brian Arthur gives a detailed account of what technology and innovation are and the process by which they come into being and occur.
He argues that technology, in a way similar to, but not identical to, life, evolves across time through the combination of extant technologies (Arthur 2009). This technological arc of recombination and evolution extends for tens of thousands of years; it is this chain of innovations that span hundreds of generations that make our technologically advanced lives, and the wealth that we generate possible. (An entire argument for wealth redistribution could be made by this fact alone.)
Technology has a variety of meanings. In the overall sense, capital-t Technology is the collection of devices and methods available to society. These devices and methods, lower-case t technologies, are produced by combining that which already exists — practices and components — into something new that enables the capturing and harnessing of natural phenomena to some end. Technologies thus are"orchestrations of phenomena put to our use" (Arthur, 2009).
For instance, an oar captures the rigidity of wood (that arises out of its chemical and biological structure) that's amenable to sawing and shaping, and Newton’s Third Law — that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — to propel its user through water. Let us take fire as another example. The use of fire captures the fact that certain materials like wood are combustible — capable of rapid chemical change accompanied by the production of heat and light — and that these outputs are used to do things like cook food and illuminate our surroundings.
In every instance, technologies make natural phenomena harnessable such that we can use them towards our own ends. This fact is well evidenced by the sheer amount of energy those of us living in technologically advanced societies require to maintain our quality of life. Technologies enable us to manipulate the world around us far more than our physical bodies alone would allow. For instance, rather than have to walk 1000km to visit my family for Christmas, I'm able to cover that distance in a car, using the energy trapped within the hydrocarbons of the fuel to drive the pistons of the car's engine, which leads to the turning of the cars wheels, which, harnessing the natural phenomena of friction, allows me to travel vast distances without relatively little effort.
Thus, a useful proxy for the power each of us have at our disposal is the energy required to fuel our societies. Those of us living in more developed economies like Australia, Europe, and the United States of America use up 30 times more energy than our basal metabolic rates of roughly 8700kj (West, 2017) to fuel our technologically advanced lives.
It is this ability to command the flows of energy to achieve our ends through our contrivances and processes which allows us to live lives where we have leisure time, the ability to fly across oceans, to sequence the genome, develop new medical breakthroughs, to do all the things we'd consider human, and importantly, derive our well-being from.
These opportunities which we are afforded are not limited to that which already exists, as new technologies can be invented to improve our lives in the future. Technologies are modular and they can be recombined in an infinite number of ways to produce new technologies which expand our capabilities further, and in doing so, increase our well-being. Technologies do not only transform the potential of our lives, they transform the economy, causing endogenous shocks leading to greater economic growth (Arthur, 2009), growth we all indirectly benefit from.
The Economy as an Evolving Complex System
While we may know what an economy does, understanding what it is is an entirely different matter. Recent developments in the world of science, particularly complexity science, over the past few decades has illuminated much of how the economy functions and has cast it as a complex system.
While there is no widely accepted definition of what a complex system is (West, 2019), a common framing of a complex system is as a system composed of many interacting elements or components, and from the interactions of these components emerge phenomena which cannot be explained reductively. Complex systems are found throughout the natural world and include cities, the nervous system, the internet, insect colonies, the global climate, (Thurner et al, 2018).
Complex systems are characterised by their non-linearity, randomness, the presence of feedback loops, the generation of spontaneous order and self-organisation, to list a few of their properties. These properties, many of which are a consequence of the number of relational interactions between agents, can make them difficult to model and predict, which can help explain why economists, while boasting many great feats over the past century, still struggle to predict and explain the functioning of the economy.
The economy is humanity's most complex creation (Beinhocker, 2016). According to W. Brian Arthur, the economy is a "vast and complicated set of arrangements and actions wherein agents—consumers, firms, banks, investors, government agencies—buy and sell, speculate, trade, oversee, bring products into being, offer services, invest in companies, strategize, explore, forecast, compete, learn, innovate, and adapt" (2014, p.2).
This constant recursive learning, innovating, and adaptation of these economic agents and the growth their actions result in challenges the equilibrium-focused framing of neoclassical economists. Rather than being something that is given and existing, tending towards equilibrium, complexity economics frames the economy as an open, evolving system, just like that of a living organism, one that it is non-equilibrium (Arthur 2014, p.4).
To investigate the economy from a complexity viewpoint is to see it as something that is constantly in motion, responding to changes not only in the environment but to perturbations that arise within it, and to explore how it evolves across time and what influences this evolution.
The economy isn't like an evolutionary system, it technically is one (Beinhocker, 2011). The reasons why are beyond the scope of this essay, but we will take it as a given for the purpose of the discussion. Just like evolution has driven life to create more order, evolving from single-celled organisms to animals as complex as our own species, so too does the economy evolve, and in doing so, it generates more complexity and order. This was the insight captured in Georgescu-Roegen’s paper The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, summarised neatly when he said ‘the economic process materially consists of the transformation of high entropy to low entropy’ (1971), where low entropy objects or systems are by definition more ordered than those with higher entropy.
Evidence of the complexity of the economy is all around us. That being said, it's always useful to refer to physical quantities where possible. Measuring complexity is extremely difficult and there is no widely accepted, catch-all measurement for it. One metric, however, that is rather useful due to its ease of measurement and basis in physics is that of energy rate density (Chaisson, 2010). Energy rate density is the amount of energy flowing through a system per unit time per unit mass (measured here in egs per second per gram.) It is a more unique measure because it relates specifically to the density of the flow of energy in a system, not the absolute amount. The more energy a system has flowing through it per gram per second, the higher the energy rate density.
The milky way has an energy rate density of roughly 0.5. The sun, 2. The energy rate density of lifeforms is orders of magnitude higher than these celestial giants, as they should be. After all, all of life are examples of non-equilibrium systems that process energy and information to subsist and reproduce, and maintenance of this system requires energy for things like movement, growth, and repair. Plants generally have an energy rate density of 900, animals 40,000. Our species is an outlier, boasting an energy rate density of 500,000. (Chaisson, 2010).
From the perspective of energy rate density, there's nothing in the cosmos (as far as we're aware) that commands as much energy per unit mass, or is as complex, as human-beings and the societies we belong to.
This is reflected in the number of different things available within the economy today, all of which required the processing of matter, energy, and information to produce. According to Beinhocker (2006) the number of unique products and services available in the economy has increased from 10^2 15,000 years ago to around 10^10 today. Each of these individual products or services were subjected to similar evolutionary pressures like that of living forms. They have been shaped over time, those that were useful or 'fit' in the evolutionary sense were selected, and reproduced so that they could be used again, whereas those that were not were discarded.
The process by which this selection occurs, evolution, can be regarded as a computational or algorithmic process (Holland, 1975; Dennett, 1995; Landweber and Winfree, 2002) where "algorithmic search through a combinatorial space of possibilities" (Beinhocker, 2011).
The space in which the evolutionary algorithm runs through is that of the possibility space of technologies, and it is human beings that are the substrate on which the algorithm runs.
The Human Element
Humans as the Computational Substrate of the Economy
In the previous section, we explored how technologies are designs and processes that allow us to harness the natural laws of the universe and the phenomena that arise from them to manipulate matter, energy, and information towards our own ends. We also saw that the economy is an evolutionary complex system that produces, and is produced by, new technologies — and the way in which technological production happens is through the information-processing of human-beings.
Human beings, like all forms of life, have to process information in order to survive. We take in sensory input, which is processed by our body and brain, which results in some action taken. Information processing is thought by many to be synonymous with computation. Indeed, a common conception of what the mind really is is that it is a computational system that is realised by neural activity in the brain (Recorla, 2020). The computational capacity of the human brain is nothing to baulk at, the estimates of which rival the supercomputers of today. All of this computational power requires only a fraction of the energy required to power these machines.
To view human-beings as computational entities makes intuitive sense in the context of the economy. How else could something complex, something that requires so much coordination, continue to function? The individual person is the basic economic unit, the core constituent element of all of the other economic agents, like companies, banks, and governments, that participate in the economy. We are the distributed information processors that use our 'rational' faculties to allocate our wealth in a way that suits us best, which allows the economy to perpetuate and grow across time.
From a computational perspective, it is possible that an economy of the size we see today, with a GDP of roughly 80 trillion USD, could not exist without the sheer number of people participating within it. This perspective grants greater credence to the saying 'our people are our greatest asset'. From the perspective of the economy and well-being, this seems to be the case. This is not just due to the fact that human beings are the computational substrate for the economy, we are more than that, as we are also the innovators responsible for the invention of new technologies.
Every single technology originated in the mind of some person. Technologies vary in how much they can change the course of our lives. Some, like the rubber doorstop, result in a marginal improvement in well-being. Others change the course of history forever, influencing the lives of all those yet to come with the materialisation of their creative insights.
Be it the invention of alternating-current by Tesla, the discovery of penicillin by Fleming, or the development of the Haber-Bosch process for producing fertilisers which it is estimated to contribute to half the world's food supply (Erisman et al, 2008), the ingenuity of humanity can create technologies that, after given some time to propagate and become adopted throughout the economy, can improve the lives of nearly everyone alive.
If human beings are the primary economic agents within an economy, whose contributions, even those of an individual, can have dramatic impacts on the inputs and outputs of the economy, and thus improve our own lives, then ensuring that as many people contribute productively to the economy as possible makes sense from a selfish perspective alone.
So in what state is humanity in at the moment? How many people could be considered to be sufficiently well-off to be able to contribute productively to the economy, and most importantly, invent new technologies which we all can benefit from?
The State of the Least Fortunate
The population of human beings on Earth today is roughly 7.6 billion (World Bank, 2020). Of this, 10% live in extreme poverty (Poverty, 2020). According to the United Nations, extreme poverty is "a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services."
940 million people around the world lack access to electricity (Ritche, 2019). In 2017, 821 million people were undernourished, meaning they lived in a state of not being able to a sufficient level of food to satisfy dietary energy requirements (Roser & Ritchie, 2013).
Undernourishment can create life-long problems and limit the realisation of the potential of a person. Research has shown that undernourishment in childhood can lead to a permanent reduction in IQ, as well as cause those people to display increased aggressive and anti-social behaviour (Malnutrition In Early Years Leads To Low IQ And Later Antisocial Behavior, 2020).
The statistics outlined above affect the world's poorest, where every single day people are struggling to eke out a living on less than $1.90 a day. There are plenty more who are still considered to be living in poverty. In 2017, 24% of the world subsisted on less than $3.20 USD a day, and 43.6 percent, or roughly 3.4 billion people live on less than $5.50 a day (Poverty, 2020), and most of them are found in developing countries.
Poverty severely impacts cognitive performance. In a 2013 paper published in Science, researchers found that poor people suffer from a 13-deficit in IQ, nearly a standard deviation, when working through difficult financial problems (Mani et al, 2013). It is widely established that IQ is one of the best predictors of economic success in a person, and many would accept that economic success is a good course grained proxy for contributions to society.
While not necessary for survival, mentioning internet access rates across the world is worthwhile in this section. Internet access is a crucial component of living as a 21st century citizen, and is considered to be a human right, one that enables numerous other rights including the right to affiliation, education, and the right freedom of expression.
The number of people connected to the internet reached 3.4 billion people in 2016 (Roser et al, 2015). An important point to note here is that to qualify as being 'connected to the internet', one must have accessed the internet at least once within the past 3 months. The number of people who access the internet daily is likely far lower. Social media usage can be used as a coarse-grained proxy, as countries in the OECD tend to have social media usage rates of higher than 90% (Clement, 2020). Facebook, the largest social media network in the world, has more than 2.6 billion monthly active users. 1.73 billion of those use the platform daily (Facebook, 2020). To be generous, we can say that 2.6 billion people have access to the internet. With a world population of roughly 7.6 billion people at the time of writing, only a little less than two-thirds of the world could be considered as having internet access.
The figures above paint a sad picture. Nearly half the world live in a state of poverty, concerned with matters of survival, trying to avoid falling into a complete state of destitution, and lack access to the incredible opportunities technologies like the internet provide.
Given the sobering statistics outlined above, it is not unreasonable to posit that nearly half of the world's population are operating below their cognitive capacities and are not contributing to the global economy as well as they, or we, might be able to.
Conclusion | Wellbeing, The Economy, and Global Wealth Redistribution
The economy is an evolving complex system that improves the well-being of nearly everyone connected to it. The economy and the technologies that comprise it grant all who are connected to it the ability to access and harness more energy than they would be able to on their own, up to and exceeding 30x for the wealthier people in society. This energy gives us an increased capacity to manipulate the world around us towards our own ends through the use of technologies, which are designs and processes that capture and orchestrate natural phenomena. This is all the result of our being connected to the economy and has substantial impacts on our well-being.
The technologies that the economy makes available to us enable us to produce and store vast quantities and varieties of food, get access to world-class education through a pane of computerised glass, fly across the planet in the space of a few hours, enable us to be vaccinated against diseases that have plagued our species for millennia, and grant us access to more entertainment than we could consume in millions of lifetimes. The beneficial outputs of the economy are too numerous to list.
If one takes the perspective of narrow ethical egoism, that the only our own experience is of moral worth, then an improvement in the economic process will likely have a positive impact on one's own wellbeing. This will happen either through the improvement of one's own living standards, or those of one's family and friends, whose well-being influences our own, as is the nature of human relationships.
In the previous sections, we explored two key ideas relating to the economy, its growth, and evolution. These were:
- That the economy is an evolving complex system whose computational substrates are the human beings that comprise it.
- New technologies, which drive economic growth, arise within the minds of individual people and once they are created, they are subject to a quasi-Darwinian process through the point described above.
This section was followed by a discussion on the material conditions of humanity, namely the poorer half of it. We saw that 3.4 billion people live in poverty and that poverty severely limits one’s cognitive abilities.
If 1) is true, then improving the cognitive capacity of the people that make up the economy will likely result in an overall improvement in the economic process, just as adding more computational power improves how ‘good’ a supercomputer is. This improvement in the computational capacity of the economy will lead to increased economic output, and in turn, lead to the improvement of the well-being of those that are connected to the economy.
Reducing the number of people who live in poverty, freeing them from the concerns of survival so that they may pursue whichever ends they might conceive of, will also lead to the invention of new technologies. A single technology alone can alter the course of human history for the better, improving our productive potential, allowing us to manipulate the world around us to our own ends in new and exciting ways.
One method by which we could improve their material conditions would be through some form of wealth redistribution, shifting wealth from those people and countries who have a relative excess of it to those that don't. Specifics aside, assuming this would result in the improvement in the material conditions of those who are recipients of this wealth transfer, it could be one of the most productive decisions to make. This is true even from the perspective of an ethical egoist who has a decent standard of living, as it is the outputs of the economy that determines much of our wellbeing.
One intervention I believe will have a dramatically positive impact on the world’s well-being at large, especially from the computational perspective taken in this essay, is connecting the rest of the world to the internet. Like a computer, the brain is only as useful as the information it has access to. It doesn’t matter how powerful it is — if you don’t provide it with good inputs, you won’t get good outputs. The outputs we're concerned with, as we explored above, have the potential to affect us all. Connecting more people to the internet — the library of the world — will not only help secure human rights like those listed in previous sections but could grant people access to education and the basic service they may not be able to access within their own countries.
Viewing the world's poor as defunct computational nodes in the grand economic network, simply as assets which aren't being utilised effectively, is dehumanising. People have intrinsic worth. However, I believe this characterisation can serve a useful purpose. I hope that it could begin to convince even the staunchest libertarian that global wealth redistribution is something we should do, even if we only care about our own wellbeing. There are over 3 billion in the world who do not live the lives so many of us in the 21st century take for granted, struggling each day to see to their basic needs, dreams of what they’d love to do or be hidden behind the noxious fog of poverty. Sharing the wealth that we’ve accumulated to those that need it most could release 3 billion more minds from the bony grip of poverty, and it will benefit us all.
Appendix A | Freedom and Flourishing
Each person is a unique biological entity with capacities to exceed in some domains and perform more poorly in others, to derive greater pleasure from some activities and less from others. This variability in experience means that, there's a subset of the potential lives one could live that will result in higher levels of well-being when compared to others, and that these 'good life sets', as I'll call them here will, vary from person to person. One person's good-life set may include playing the guitar or being a painter, but not being a runner or an accountant. Another person's good life set could include being a computer programmer, a ballerina, and a father, but not include being a teacher or movie critic.
This means that some people may have been born thousands of years ago with the genetic predilection for being a techno DJ or basketball player if given the opportunity, but because they were born before these activities were even invented, they would have to live a life without that which would have possibly made them the happiest they could have been.
The implication here being that, if we accept that people have some degree of positive freedom — that they're capable of some degree of self-mastery in pursuing a life of their own choosing (Berlin, 1969) — then increasing the degrees of freedom or opportunities available to the individual will likely result in them finding way of living that suits them best, or at least better than other alternatives, which helps maximise their life-time well-being.
These opportunities and freedoms are not intrinsically generated, as the distributive justice literature makes more than apparent. The opportunities we are afforded in life are largely the result of the environments in which we're embedded and bodies we're born with, so completely outside of our control.
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