Keynes’ Forager Future

Suresh Naidu pointed me to a fascinating 1930 essay (excerpts below) by the famous economist John Maynard Keynes on the long term future. Consideration of the far future put Keynes into a very far mode, where he upheld far ideals against near practical constraints. While Keynes accepted that farmer ideals of work, property, and saving for the future were needed to maintain economic growth, he detested such ideals, and looked to a future roughly a century hence when, humanity’s absolute material needs being satisfied, we embraced forager ideals for sharing material goods, living in and enjoying the moment, and just doing what feels right.

Now Keynes did note that humans also seek relative status, but he seemed to assume that humans would coordinate to suppress such urges, and to keep just enough farmer habits to preserve material wealth. In his far idealistic mode, he didn’t even seem to consider the possibility that nations would still compete for relative status, and promote farmer norms for that purpose, or that individuals would still work full time seeking personal relative status.

We are now only eighteen years shy of Keynes’ 2030 forecast date. While there has certainly been a weakening of farmer ideals, especially on fertility, we are far from embracing forager ideals overall. We still work hard for material wealth. Our lower classes have moved furthest, more rejecting marriage, religion, and full-time work, via relying heavily on the sharing of others, and this is considered a big problem. Give us another century of similar economic growth, and this lower class malaise might well infect most everyone. But it is far from clear that this would settle at a stable rich no growth equilibrium, rather than economic and population collapse.

In any case, even we preserve farmer norms enough to support continued growth, material wealth per person will only be high until we find new techs to increase population faster than we increase wealth. While in theory-overconfident far mode, Keynes’ is tempted to see his forager-value future as lasting indefinitely, it would in fact only be temporary. The em transition that I envision within a century or two should quickly return most people (i.e., most ems) to near subsistence income, and put a huge premium on reviving farmer-like norms and ideals. And even if that doesn’t happen, growth must slow in the very long run.

Is my summary fair? Judge for yourself; here are excerpts from Keynes’ essay:

What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence? … The modern age opened; I think, with the accumulation of capital which began in the sixteenth century. … In spite of an enormous growth in the population of the world, … the average standard of life in Europe and the United States has been raised, I think, about fourfold. The growth of capital has been on a scale which is far beyond a hundredfold of what any previous age had known. And from now on we need not expect so great an increase of population. … I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. ..

The needs of human beings … fall into two classes –those needs which are absolute … and those which are relative. … Needs of the second class … may indeed be insatiable. … But … a point may soon be reached … when these [absolute] needs are satisfied. … Assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. …

I think with dread of the [required] readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man. … We already have a little experience of … the wives of the well-to-do classes, … who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing. …

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive … the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes. … For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. … A fifteen-hour [work] week may put off the problem for a great while. …

We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. … Social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard. …

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue-that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.

But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.

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