Saturday, January 28, 2017

Bread, Circuses and Universal Basic Income

From Elaine's Idle Mind:

Bread and Circuses
I never really understood the appeal of Universal Basic Income, but after reading the European parliament’s proposal for Robotic Civil Rights I think I finally get it.

See, Europe wants to give robots a form of electronic personhood. Robots will have basic legal rights, provided that “robots are and will remain in the service of humans.” (Is the 13th Amendment a basic legal right in Europe, or is that just an American thing?)

The report also proposes a universal basic income for humans, under the assumption that vassal robots will take all the jobs.

These are the same policies that were enacted in Ancient Rome! The Roman Republic had the exact same problem where robots took all the jobs and left unemployed masses in their wake. Roman robots weren’t like the robots we know and love today, but “machines of flesh and blood”, as Aristotle would say. Except that Aristotle was Greek. Instrumentum vocale, as Cicero would say.

Talking tools.
Ancient Roman robot
Rome engaged in lots of warfare where they conquered new territory and took the inhabitants as slaves. By the time the Republic turned into an Empire, slaves made up 40% of Italy’s population and held all the farming and service jobs. Large numbers of landless proletarii had no jobs and no source of income. They were too poor to even serve in the military (early soldiers had to bring their own armor).

Being an agrarian society, Roman wealth came in the form of land ownership. Political populares suggested putting limits on land holdings and redistributing some property to the poor, but the ruling class opposed that idea. Nobody likes to share ownership of the means of production. The nobilis preferred to keep wealth out of the plebs’ control, and provide them with guaranteed grain rations instead. Later on, it was upped to free bread, free olive oil, free salt, pork, and wine.

There was just one problem with this scenario. The last thing the ruling class wants is a bunch of well-fed poor people lollygagging about. Idle poor tend to do unpleasant things like Storm the Bastille, or Occupy Wall Street, or start a revolution, or whatever....MORE
HT: Mr. Keohane's FT Alphaville Further Reading compilation, Jan. 22