The science fiction novel, The Unincorporated Man, is widely praised for its thought-provoking premise. Yet I find no evidence that it provoked thought about its premise.
The premise is folks selling shares in their future income. Initial ownership is: person 75%, parents 20%, government 5% (there are no other taxes). People typically sell 12-15% to their university, more for other early training and resources, and they trade shares with relatives, spouses, and coworkers. They then own less than 50%, must accept majority control over their careers and locations, and try over time to rebuy enough to regain control.
Among the 70+ reviews/comments on the book I’ve read, a few take a position on this idea (all against), but none engage the idea, i.e., offering arguments for or against it based on details of the book. The most detailed argument I found was:
A horrendously bad idea that will only fuel the worst aspects of human nature: greed, ruthlessness, selfishness, and more of such unpleasantness.
The book’s characters at least give arguments. For: gains from voluntary trade, and the system’s wide acceptance among vast peace and prosperity. Against: Horrors, its “slavery”! (Spoilers below the fold.)
The plot is propelled by a mean greedy executive at a big bad corporation playing unfair to try to get our blast-from-the-past hero to incorporate, so that others won’t get ideas. His heavy hand inspires sympathy and the book ends as a rebellion begins, expected to kill billions of the forty billion then alive, in the hope of stopping a future of trillions “programmed from birth to accept a certain range of menial jobs for 5 percent of their labor.” (The sequel, Unincorporated War, arrives in May.)
Now it is quite unfair to portray big corporations as the bad guys here. The obvious villains, if any, are parents; people own so little of themselves because parents take 20% off the top, and then make kids pay for school and expenses that our parents give us for free. Yet in the book’s 500 pages no one ever resents parents; it is all those conniving corporations, who don’t even have a direct stake in folks’ self-ownership.
Also, the book never even considers the possibility of non-voting stock, or loans. Sure non-voting stock might sell for a bit less, but if self-control is so precious, why not pay a bit to keep it? Or why don’t parents sign over their proxy votes to their kids? Instead of killing billions to fight corporations, why not just free your kids?
In the book’s back story, two thirds of the world died in a Great Collapse, when within a few months virtual reality gear went from decent to fantastic and most everyone who could stopped working to plug in. Soon they realized their problem, but most chose a few more weeks of virtual fun then death over rebuilding their lives. Not very believable, but perhaps worth pondering.
My position: in general it is a reasonable system, though improvable via non-voting stock. I might wish parents felt more generous toward their kids, but that’s hardly the fault of the property system.
So why do so many folks praise a “thought-provoking” book that seems to provoke no thought? Do they like the idea of a book that signals they are thinking, more than actually thinking?
Update: Here’s a review of a sequel.