Post-scarcity is an economic theory in which most goods can be produced in great abundance with minimal human labor needed, so that they become available to all very cheaply or even freely. Post-scarcity is not generally taken to mean that scarcity has been eliminated for all consumer goods and services; instead, it is often taken to mean that all people can easily have their basic survival needs met along with some significant proportion of their desires for goods and services, with writers on the topic often emphasizing that certain commodities are likely to remain scarce in a post-scarcity society.
In the paper “The Post-Scarcity World of 2050-2075”, authors assert that we are currently living an age of scarcity resulting from negligent behavior (as regards the future) of the 19th and 20th centuries. The period between 1975 and 2005 was characterized by relative abundance of resources (oil, water, energy, food, credit, among others) which boosted industrialization and development in the western economies. An increased demand of resources combined with a rising population led to resource exhaustion.
One of the main traces of the scarcity periods is the increase and fluctuation of prices. To deal with that situation, technology advancements come into play, driving an efficient use of resources to a certain extent that costs will be considerably reduced (almost everything will be free). Consequently, authors forecast that the period between 2050 and 2075 will be a post-scarcity age in which scarcity will no longer exist.
An ideological contrast to the post-scarcity economy is formed by the concept of a steady-state economy.
Today, futurists who speak of “post-scarcity” suggest economies based on advances in automated manufacturing technologies, often including the idea of self-replicating machines, the adoption of division of labour which in theory could produce nearly all goods in abundance, given adequate raw materials and energy. More speculative forms of nanotechnology (such as molecular assemblers or nanofactories, which do not currently exist) raise the possibility of devices that can automatically manufacture any specified goods given the correct instructions and the necessary raw materials and energy, and so many nanotechnology enthusiasts have suggested it will usher in a post-scarcity world. In the more near-term future, the increasing automation of physical labor using robots is often discussed as means of creating a post-scarcity economy. Increasingly versatile forms of rapid prototyping machines, and a hypothetical self-replicating version of such a machine known as a RepRap, have also been predicted to help create the abundance of goods needed for a post-scarcity economy. Advocates of self-replicating machines such as Adrian Bowyer, the creator of the RepRap project, argue that once a self-replicating machine is designed, then since anyone who owns one can make more copies to sell (and would also be free to ask for a lower price than other sellers), market competition will naturally drive the cost of such machines down to the bare minimum needed to make a profit, in this case just above the cost of the physical materials and energy that must be fed into the machine as input, and the same should go for any other goods that the machine can build.
Even with fully automated production, limitations on the number of goods produced would arise from the availability of raw materials and energy, as well as ecological damage associated with manufacturing technologies. Advocates of technological abundance often argue for more extensive use of renewable energy and greater recycling in order to prevent future drops in availability of energy and raw materials, and reduce ecological damage. Solar energy in particular is often emphasized, as the cost of solar panels continues to drop (and could drop far more with automated production by self-replicating machines), and advocates point out the total solar power striking the Earth’s surface annually exceeds our civilization’s current annual power usage by a factor of thousands. Advocates also sometimes argue that the energy and raw materials available could be greatly expanded if we looked to resources beyond the Earth. For example, asteroid mining is sometimes discussed as a way of greatly reducing scarcity for many useful metals such as nickel. While early asteroid mining might involve manned missions, advocates hope that eventually humanity could have automated mining done by self-replicating machines. If this were done, then the only capital expenditure would be a single self-replicating unit (whether robotic or nanotechnological), after which the number of units could replicate at no further cost, limited only by the available raw materials needed to build more.
Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU project, has cited the eventual creation of a post-scarcity society as one of his motivations:
In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming.
Karl Marx, in a section of his Grundrisse that came to be known as the “Fragment on Machines”, argued that the transition to a post-capitalist society combined with advances in automation would allow for significant reductions in labor needed to produce necessary goods, eventually reaching a point where all people would have significant amounts of leisure time to pursue science, the arts, and creative activities; a state some commentators later labeled as “post-scarcity”. Marx argued that capitalismthe dynamic of economic growth based on capital accumulationdepends on exploiting the surplus labor of workers, but a post-capitalist society would allow for:
The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.
Marx’s concept of a post-capitalist communist society involves the free distribution of goods made possible by the abundance provided by automation. The fully developed communist economic system is postulated to develop from a preceding socialist system. Marx held the view that socialisma system based on social ownership of the means of productionwould enable progress toward the development of fully developed communism by further advancing productive technology. Under socialism, with its increasing levels of automation, an increasing proportion of goods would be distributed freely.
Marx did not believe in the elimination of most physical labor through technological advancements alone in a capitalist society, because he believed capitalism contained within it certain tendencies which countered increasing automation and prevented it from developing beyond a limited point, so that manual industrial labor could not be eliminated until the overthrow of capitalism. Some commentators on Marx have argued that at the time he wrote the Grundrisse, he thought that the collapse of capitalism due to advancing automation was inevitable despite these counter-tendencies, but that by the time of his major work Capital: Critique of Political Economy he had abandoned this view, and came to believe that capitalism could continually renew itself unless overthrown.
The five attributes proposed by Peter Joseph in his book The New Human Rights Movement: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression (2017) form the foundation of the natural law resource based economy (NLRBE) concept for a post-scarcity worldview: