It struck me the other day that many people hold two beliefs that are incompatible with one another. Those beliefs are the idea that people have a fundamental right to life, and the notion that everybody should earn a living.

How are these two beliefs incompatible? People who believe that everyone should earn a living say ‘why should others get something for nothing when I have to work?’. But if you have a fundamental right to life, then you must have a fundamental right to access whatever you need to make life possible. Food, water, protection from the elements, these things should not have price tags attached to them, forcing you to submit to wage slavery or begging in order to obtain such essentials. They should be freely accessible, the common property of all people.


Now, clearly, there is a practical problem with this sentimentality. Work has to be done to produce food, clean water, and pretty much all other essentials of life. The right to life is, of course, a purely human invention. There is no fundamental right to life built into the natural world. Were it not for our technological capabilities and social systems built up over millenia, human life would be like daily life for the rest of the animal kingdom: An ongoing struggle to survive in a world indifferent to suffering. We would have to strive to obtain the basic necessities of life. Well, not necessarily. Some percentage of the human race would be fortunate enough to live in an area that provides an abundance of food and clean water, and a clement enough climate to not worry about freezing to death during the winter. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a pretty decent one involving minimal work if you happen to live in a place where foodstuff and building materials are all readily available. But, of course, most areas of the world are not like that, demanding instead that animals and people alike work hard each and every day, if they are to survive to see tomorrow.

We have to accept, then, that people have always needed to work if they wanted to live. But, notice how the mentality is not that people must have a job of some sort and that nobody can get anything for free, like ideally this situation would not apply but hey ho this is how the world works, so we should just accept it. No, the argument is that people should not get anything for free and should earn their living. And that is saying something quite different to arguing that the world compels us to labour away. It is saying that, even if we could get away with not having a job but at the same time not face the prospect of material deprevation, it would be immoral for people to simply live their lives without earning a living.

I fail to see how this mentality is compatible with the notion of a fundamental right to life. It does not matter that this right exists only in our collective imaginations. Plenty of things exist in our world which are entirely a product of our minds with no objective existence outside of human thought. If there were no people in the world there would be no films, no music and no religion. But there are people in the world and those things- along with an uncountable list of other cultural creations- exist because we willed it. We can believe in the right to life, and work to make it a reality. But there can be no fundamental right to life along with a belief that nobody should get something for nothing.


Technological progress and societal organizations have made our lives much easier than they were in previous generations. In the past, food production took up the vast majority of most people’s time. Today, agriculture employs only a fraction of the numbers of people that used to be employed in order to grow crops and raise livestock. For our ancestors, preparing dinner took up most of the day. Those of us fortunate enough to live in wealthy countries with access to supermarkets, convenience food and microwaves can have a meal ready to eat within minutes. And our notions of retirement as a decades-long holiday as due reward for all those years of loyal service to the world of employment is a recent innovation. For most of history, people worked until they were fit only for the deathbed.

In affluent countries it is actually not the expectation that everybody must have a job or die. The elderly, the disabled, children, they are not expected to either be in employment or to live grim lives of hunger and material deprevation. Society has established systems of child support, welfare, and pensions which support these members of society without forcing them to go out and get a job. Not everywhere. Some parts of the world still have child labour, still require people to work right up until their death and still condemn the disabled to beg on the streets to secure enough money to pay for their next meal. But it is obviously true that in some parts of the world if you are below or above a certain age, or you have a disability which makes it too much of a struggle to function in any job, you are not forced to live in deprevation.

Personally, I see this as progress. But I suspect there are others that do not. People who see any form of socialism as an attack on liberty and spit blood at the very notion that any of their or anyone’s earnings should be used to fund the lives of those not in work, even when some people’s salaries ensure them a personal fortune orders of magnitude beyond anything required for material comfort and they would still be rich by any decent measure if 90% of their savings were taken and distributed among the nation’s children, disabled, and elderly.

Now, maybe these people would say I am misrepresenting their stand here. Maybe they would say, ‘look, Extropia, we are not saying that the child labour is right, that state pensions ought never to exist, and that the disabled should get no help from the government. We are just saying that anyone who is of working age and fit to work should be in a job, and contributing to society instead of just taking from it’.

This attitude assumes that there are people in the world who are not in employment simply because they are too lazy to be in a job. And you know what? Such people exist. There are benefit cheats who know how to work social systems and extract money to which they are not entitled. This, needless to say, means there is less money than there otherwise would be to give to the unfortunates of society who, due to genuine disability or ill health, really cannot be in work, just as there is less money due to the most affluent hoarding it in vast personal fortunes. We ought to put pressure on anyone who is taking a lot more than they really deserve or need, regardless of what social class they are in.


But we should also acknowledge that there are people whose sole job is to close down employment opportunities for other people. Who are those people? Why, the engineers of automated systems that replace manual labour, the software writers who design programs that do white-collar office jobs. Both robots and artificial intelligence systems are becoming less inflexible, and therefore more able to function adequately in a wider variety of tasks. It takes minimum skill to show a robot like Baxter how to perform any manual task that is in reach of its arms, no highly trained technition is required. And bare in mind that a Baxter is to robots what 70s and 80s Pcs were to computers. In the beginning, computers were bulky, expensive machines that required rare skills to operate, and were useful only in a very limited range of services. These mainframe computers evolved into minicomputers like the PDP1 (mini as in not taking up entire rooms, but still pretty big- the PDP1 was as big as a domestic refrigerator), and- by the 70s and 80s- into desktop computers, small, cheap and user-friendly enough to be of service in offices, factories, and eventually, our homes. Today, of course, computers are absolutely ubiquitous and our entire economy is dependent on these machines performing jobs which were either once the responsibility of people, or not performed by anyone due to humans being fundamentally incapable of doing such work.

If robots are about to become as ubiquitous as computers were in the 80s and 90s or today, then that has to have serious consequences for notion that people should earn their living. Bare in mind that, during the Great Depression, 25% of people were out of a job. Given the capabilities of robots and intelligent software being demonstrated in R+D labs around the world and piloted in some real world scenarios, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that pretty soon 45% of all jobs will be lost to automation. It is always tempting to believe one’s own job is immune to robotic takeover, or that technology will always create new jobs. But, as CGP Grey pointed out in his short documentary ‘Humans Need Not Apply’, if our ancestors had thought ‘more and better technology means new jobs for horses’ we can see that they were simply wrong. Today, there exists only a fraction of the number of working horses. They are simply unemployable, not economically viable thanks to the ‘horsepower’ we get from our machinery. Jobs for horses have not been reduced to zero. The Amish and developing world nations use horses or oxen to pull their farming instruments, we breed horses to race, the police use horses, England’s spectacle of trooping the colour would not be the same without those magnificent drum horses, but these amount to a paltry number of working horses compared to what there used to be.

Similarly, human employment may never be reduced to zero. There may always be some jobs which nobody or nothing has figured out how to automate in a cost-effective way, or jobs which we could automate but choose not to, feeling such work ought to be done by people and not machines. Childcare, for instance, may be a job that ought not to be offloaded to machines (though we may well want to make the task easier through machine assistance). However, such jobs must surely amount to a tiny percentage of all employment opportunities that exist today, so once all jobs except those rare unautomatable jobs are gone (assuming that there actually are jobs that could not or should not be automated) the stark truth is that most people will be as unemployable in the job market as a horse is.


If we have succeeded in achieving that level of automation, and have blue-collar robots doing most if not all manual labour, white-collar AI doing managerial, legal and financial work, and the economy is pretty much fully automated, or at least predominately automated requiring only a tiny percentage of the population to do anything, then for heaven’s sake why not extend the benefits system to support not just those who cannot work due to their age or ill health, but those who were made unemployable through no fault of their own? Why make them feel guilty about not having a job when the number of jobs still open to humans has been so drastically reduced there are more people out of work than there are vacancies available to be filled?

Why not, instead, see the ephemeralization of technology- its ability to enable more work to be performed with increasingly less effort- as a golden opportunity to make reality the stirring words of the American Declaration of Independence, that we hold as self-evident truth that all people are endowed with certain unalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The fundamental right to life means the right to have access, without restriction other than greed which restricts accessibility for others, to the material resources required to make life, liberty, and happiness possible. With our upcoming technological capabilities we could make it a reality that nobody need be in a job in order to have a decent life, and in such a world the attitude that people should earn their living would be objectionable by any decent ethical standard.

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  1. So i read the article and I find it flawed. Leaving out the issue of disability and the elderly, which we are managing better, what about people not wanting to work vs can’t find employment?

    right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness Is not a right to not be poor. Access to shelter not necessarily private, to food, clothing and health care seem basic

    Doing more for children makes sense, maybe we should count caring for you kids as legitimate work, entitling you to better benefits, quality education for all.

    What’s wrong with requiring people looking for work, or to do community service? Why free?

    There seems to be an assumption that technology is designed for all, but it’s actually designed for the consumer…

    When I argue for taxation being a part of contributing to society, that implies working. Contributing to society via taxation or service for able bodied adults is not an unhealthy or unreasonable expectation. Or require them to learn a trade or multiple skills. Paint schools, pooper scoop, litter cleanup, the possibilities are limited by our imagination

    Heck we surely could use pipeline inspectors for leaks ….

    We could definitely improve our ability to assess people’s interests and abilities and train accordingly.

    Yes there are those with personality issues, mental difficulties, basically problems functioning in a work environment. These people are not lazy, they just need to find a way to fit into society effectively and that may mean jobs for people helping them do that.

  2. castiel_01 says:

    “People who see any form of socialism as an attack on liberty and spit blood at the very notion that any of their or anyone’s earnings should be used to fund the lives of those not in work, even when some people’s salaries ensure them a personal fortune orders of magnitude beyond anything required for material comfort and they would still be rich by any decent measure if 90% of their savings were taken and distributed among the nation’s children, disabled, and elderly.”

    The thing is those extraordinary salaries of the rich, are actually accumulated in most cases from taking a part of the earnings of the workers as rightfully theirs merely for employing them.

    “We could definitely improve our ability to assess people’s interests and abilities and train accordingly.

    Yes there are those with personality issues, mental difficulties, basically problems functioning in a work environment. These people are not lazy, they just need to find a way to fit into society effectively and that may mean jobs for people helping them do that.”

    Except if they inherited wealth or somehow managed to start a business, random app, or site and are now worth millions or billions and don’t have to do squat to earn anything. Then they get a free pass to live off of their investments, because luck in the market gave them success, while many with the same or more effort might experience failure in the market and bankruptcy..

    If automation can eventually eliminate all jobs, there is no need to force most to work simply for the sake of work, or maybe as a form of taking their free time away. Freedom from work need not be the exclusive privilege of the elite.

  3. It is not work or die. The only real concern I have is that no one has the right to demand that another support them against their will. I work toward a world where it is is trivially easy, with a small fraction of productive capacity, to meet the needs and many of the desires of everyone. In such abundance I would certainly not limit access to anyone. But we are not there yet. The decision whether to give to others and how abundantly must be made by the owners of that which is given. To do otherwise is to say that some are the unwilling slaves of others. That is not reasonable and never will be.

  4. It is work or die. If you live in a state of nature, unless you are fortunate enough to find yourself somewhere that provides all you need without you expending any effort beyond reaching up and plucking fruit from the trees, you have to work to get your food or starve.

    • sjatkins says:

      The hunter gatherer lifestyle was a pretty decent one? Really? It takes over 1000 acres of land to support your average adult hunter gatherer. It takes unremitting work to simply survive at all with both the hunting and the gathering part, and especially the former being severely feast or famine. One toils all day to survive except in very rare tropical paradises and the only for limited populations and for a limited amount of time.

      It is do something in order to continue to survive I agree of course. But given this why would it be right for someone else to take the fruit of my own doing in order to survive and thrive from me by force? Would they not be in effect predating upon me and insisting that I server their needs against my will?

      Anyone that produces more value than whey consume in producing it has already “contrtibuted to society”. Why should we then take part of their own production over and beyond what they have contributed already and out of their future productive capacity away from them? How is that either just or rational?

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