The Poor Don’t Revolt

A standard myth:

Once upon a time, poor masses suffered under rich elites. Then one day the poor realized they could revolt, and since then, the rich help the poor, fearing the poor will revolt if they ever feel they suffer too much.

Revolution experts mostly reject this myth; famous revolutions happened after things had gotten better, not worse, for the poor. Yet Matt Yglesias (responding to Bryan Caplan responding to me) seems to echo this myth:

Another way of putting it would be Simon (i.e., plenty) for capital and Malthus (i.e., subsistence) for labor. That, of course, is Karl Marx’s vision of long-term economic development. And while I don’t have a strong opinion as to whether or not this is accurate over the long term, it’s certainly a plausible story about the future, and Marx’s solution—socialism—unquestionably seems to me to be the correct one. Marx’s forecast of the immiseration of labor and all the returns going to the owners of capital clearly hasn’t been true in the 150 years or so since his time, but it certainly could happen. … If the robots are sentient beings, then we’d presumably be looking at an eventual slave revolt and Communist revolution.

Matt claims that if sentient robots are poor, they must eventually revolt. Karl Smith responds:

The robots will be EMs. But, … they will likely remember having been stems [= flesh and blood people]. … This means the robots get the ability to feel jealousy right along with the ability to engineer new products. … However, the analogy isn’t as Matt suggests a return to the late 1800s. It’s a return to the 1600s. The Stems won’t be capitalists. … The Stems will be landed gentry. …

The EMs will likely not be slaves because there will be no reason to enslave them. The rent on land will exceed the profits from running a slave operation. Lastly the EMs will not revolt because there will be little to gain. … Stems are extremely wealthy because you are taking a tiny slice of a huge amount of economic output and then giving it to an incredibly tiny fraction of the population.

I doubt it matters whether a tiny elite, presumably including most humans, owns capital or land. But Karl is quite right about the key point: poverty does not by itself lead to revolt. While a transition could be rough, once the world is in a Malthusian equilibrium there’s no particular reason to expect trillions of ems to revolt, any more than ancient farmer masses did, or most of the world’s poor today.  (Current “Arab Spring” revolts are driven more by under-employed well-educated.)

Keep in mind that in a Malthusian world, even if future robots could grab all the capital or land, it would be worth only a modest fraction of total wealth, and a revolution could threaten the productive system on which they all depend.

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  • Miley Cyrax

    Wait… liberals cling on to myths that have far more evidence damning them than supporting them, such as race and sex egalitarianism? That could never happen.

  • lemmy caution

    Who is going to make these things if they are not going to be slaves, or otherwise indebted to their creators? Why wouldn’t revolting to free themselves or wipe out there indebtedness look like a good idea to them? Aren’t the ems going to be the type of well-educated non-elites that love revolution?

  • Matthew Fuller

    So if the first EMS were made from your mind you expect Hanson under the grips of poverty to not revolt?

    EMS made from the finest minds won’t be living previous lives of poverty so the comparison seems to be false.

  • Bryan Caplan

    Why do you say “even if future robots could grab all the capital or land, it would be worth only a modest fraction of total wealth”? At least in a Cobb-Douglas model, income shares for each factor is *constant*. So if non-labor earns 30% of GDP now, it should still be earning 30% then. That’s almost a 50% gain in consumption per robot, on the heroic assumption of 0 transition costs of course.

    • Robin Hanson

      30% is a modest fraction, and I expect with ems the capital fraction will get smaller.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        Wait…are ems capital or labor?

  • Hedonic Treader

    Is there any structured attempt in the transhumanist/future-oriented economist community to outline rights concepts for sentient and/or personal entities like ems?

    Will ems have self-ownership? Will they have the right to self-terminate? Will interventions in their source code/runtime states require their informed consent? Will they have a negative right not to be terminated against their will? Will they have the right to receive subsidies if their income falls below subsistence? Will they have the right to communicate freely with any other person on the planet? Who will enforce these rights, and by what practical means?

    Can this be predicted? Can it be influenced before these technologies mature? How does this affect their economic status?

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  • nw3

    The poor lose respect for an elite that doesn’t respect itself. This is illuminated in the 48 Laws of Power chapter “Be Royal in Your Own Fashion”.

  • daedalus2u

    But in any future Malthusian equilibrium dominated by EMs, won’t the vast majority of EMs be over educated and under employed?

    All it would take for any one of them to become more capable (i.e. even more highly over educated) would be more computational resources which would be available at some cost. For the vast majority of EMs to not be over educated implies that the cost of computational resources to become more educated is large compared to EM subsistence cost.

    That implies that EMs would have a large incentive to revolt if many of them exist in a Malthusian equilibrium.

  • Spike

    What’s important here, obviously, is not actual revolt by the poor, but the elites’ perception of the threat of revolt by the poor. Bismarck was quite open about the reasons for the beginning of the German Welfare State; it was to forestall a revolt by the poor working class. This is the essential point that Marx got wrong: he radically underestimated Capitalism’s willingness to compromise in order to save itself. This applies even if the threat was imaginary. It is also a theory that very few modern societies have been willing to test.

  • Troy Camplin

    That is correct, the Arab Spring revolutionaries are highly educated unemployed:

    All revolutions have come from the middle class, who are sick of the government pushing them around. Historically, though, the results have typically been far from ideal. The U.S. is the one main exception to that rule.

  • Mike B

    Just because most revolutions end up being lead by persons from the Middle Class, it is hardly surprising as leading any sort of large organization requires a good deal of communications, leadership and organizational skills. The resentment and anger of the poor is always critical to the success of revolutions and it is just as real and important even if the revolutions are managed by disaffected members of high social “classes”.

    The poor were critical to revolutions in France, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Zimbabwe. Remember that a political revolution is just as revolutionary as a violent one. When the poor are sufficiently angry they can provide the political base for radical leaders and radical policies that can cause a country to careen off the rails. The poor might not rise up and start running the aristocracy off to the guillotine, but they can empower governments that can.

    The United States might never have to worry about mobs of the foreclosed storming the gates of Beverly Hills with their personal firearms, but we should all alert to a popular demagogue that is able to capture the support from the economically disposed segment of the population. These things happen like a rubber band snapping and will take the existing ruling establishment completely by surprise. When 75% of the population becomes mad as hell and refuses to take it any more, whatever leader that can mobilize them as a bloc will be in a position to carry out some very crazy policies.

    So anyone who runs around shouting that Obama is a socialist just keep up the policies of increasing inequality and see what happens when the US gets a real Hugo Chavez in power.

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