Was just reading a bedtime story to the kids where there was an isolated small town and "everyone was wealthy and happy" and that got me thinking, can it actually be true?

If everyone is "wealthy", then no one would want to do low-level "dirty" jobs, like garbage collection, sewer works. If none of town residents would be doing the dirty work, then people who do perform those jobs would need to come from outside, then the town wouldn't be "isolated". Wealthy would be ability to buy anything the town offers without hardship.

In what situation would it be possible for a town to be:

  • self-sufficient
  • happy
  • and wealthy


Boy did I open a can of worms with "sewage workers"... Forget sewage workers. What about a "crossing guard"? I am sure some people would be very happy doing this part-time low-effort job, but would these people be paid enough to be wealthy enough to afford a place to live and ability to buy groceries and pay other bills and enjoy live (as opposed to worrying about the last penny in their wallet)?

And I did define in the OP "wealthy" as "ability to buy anything the town offers without hardship", in case someone missed it.

Time period: well, this was a kids fairy-tale, so that particular example was at times of horse-drawn carriages, but my question itself didn't have a specific time period in mind.

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    $\begingroup$ What does "wealthy" mean? Many people in this world would say that an American sewerage engineer is quite wealthy. Very many people. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 30 '19 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ My dad was a happy garbage-man once. Why do you expect that low-level dirty jobs would lead to discontent? Attitude is 100% in terms of happiness and wealth. If you have a small town where everyone did what they wanted and what they wanted just happened to interlace to form a functioning town then you'd have it. $\endgroup$ – kleer001 Sep 30 '19 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ Sewage engineers actually make a lot of money. It takes a lot of training to be able to work and operate in that environment. $\endgroup$ – stix Sep 30 '19 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ Well, this is one of those questions Christianity, Communism, the French and a lot of other people tried to answer with "yes". Out of respect for those groups, I'd argue that the answer is: What do you believe? Unsolved issue, completely up to you $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 30 '19 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ My cousin is not "wealthy" by USA standards, but is immunized against most common diseases, works only 8 hours each day, can easily obtain whatever kinds of food she wants year-round. She lives in a home that is clean, free of wildlife, has full indoor plumbing (including 24-hour hot water), has pushbutton year-round climate control, and a complete set of modern appliances. She has a reliable car capable of taking her anyplace on the continent in a couple days in comfort and at low cost. She has ready access to global knowledge networks. Her great-grandmother had none of those. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Sep 30 '19 at 20:18

In theory, yes, but such a town is not likely to be economically self-sufficient unless it has a significantly high amount of technology.

The reason is that the value of a job, and thus its pay, depends on how difficult it is to a) do the job, and/or b) acquire the skills to do said job.

Sewer workers in the real world actually make a lot of money because it is a highly skilled job requiring lots of training and certification. However, things like garbage collection, janitorial staff, farmers, retail staff, etc... are going to be low paid because it doesn't take much skill to gather up garbage, farm a plot of land, or operate a register. It may be hard work, and it is certainly a fundamental infrastructure every town needs, but the fact that literally anyone can do it means it will always have a surplus supply of available workers, and thus the value of the work goes down (basic supply vs demand curves show this). You also can't simply inflate the wages of these low-skill workers, as the fundamental nature of their job means that it will impact the cost of living in the town as a whole, lowering everyone's quality of life. All of this bodes poorly for your "everyone is wealthy" requirement.

In addition, the more wealthy a society becomes, the less likely such a society is to be self-sufficient. This can be seen very easily in the United States. As the country has become more and more wealthy due to the information age revolution, it has lost more and more of its self-sufficiency in manufacturing. Manufacturing is a lower-skill job that doesn't pay as much as say the jobs designing the products being manufactured, so people are less likely to gravitate towards them. Because they're low-pay and low-skill jobs, they also tend to be very vulnerable to undercutting by outside forces, so, in the US for example, the jobs move to where the workers are cheaper, such as China, Vietnam and India. This has lead to a very wealthy United States, but one which lacks the manufacturing infrastructure to fully support itself. Comparatively speaking with the rest of the world, in America everyone is "very wealthy," but we have become less "isolated" (and indeed it would be very difficult for America to fully isolate itself having lost its manufacturing base).

You can also see this effect in places that have even higher per-capita GDP than America such as Middle Eastern oil nations. In these nations, people are even more "very wealthy" than Americans, but they also have no ability to be self-sufficient and are even less capable of being "isolated."

All is not lost, however, as technology can, and often does, make up for the "low-skill worker" pay problem.

A couple of prime examples are elevator and telephone operators. Both of these jobs no longer exist because technology has eliminated them. In a sufficiently advanced society, it is conceivable that even difficult (technology-wise) low-skill jobs such as garbage collection, janitorial work, and retail can be done by automatons. This is actually starting to happen in America with robots replacing retail jobs and doing more and more of the "heavy lifting" in other places like manufacturing.

When it comes to skilled vs unskilled jobs, there will always be a sort of "pyramid" hierarchy. After all, it takes fewer skilled engineers to design an iPhone than it does unskilled manufacturers to build a million of them. In order to make those iPhones affordable to the people in the "middle" of the pyramid, the amount you pay the people at the bottom of the pyramid to build them must also be necessarily low.

If you want "everyone to be very wealthy" you really only have two options: eliminate the bottom of the pyramid or outsource it to someone else.

Throughout history we've done this many times. Most notably are third-world nations using it to lift their populations out of poverty. This is what China has done with American manufacturing because, although it is much cheaper to manufacture in China, the cost of living and conditions are so poor that even being paid far less than an American counterpart, the job is an improvement on life. On the flip-side, because everyone in America has gotten wealthier, the cost of living is necessarily significantly higher (or rather, the expectations on wealth are higher). This is why it isn't possible to simply lower the pay for the manufacturers to match what is being paid in China. After all, everyone still wants to buy iPhones and the trinkets that make life seem better. But, because the cost of manufacturing is lowered by outsourcing the lowest part of the pyramid, the purchasing power (and thus the wealth) of everyone else goes up, so it's a great thing for the people who don't lose their jobs. This is the double-edged sword of increasing wealth.

As far as eliminating the bottom of the pyramid altogether, this is what technological advancement does. For comparison, think of this: even the poorest American has the equivalent of 65 slaves from Roman times working for them in terms of their energy consumption for daily life.

Considering that, even in the 1800s, a single slave would cost the equivalent of a mid-size car today, that's an incredible amount of wealth for someone to have, and literally every household in America has the equivalent of 65 slaves.

Think about something as simple as a hot shower. You wake up in the morning, awakened by your alarm clock, and take a shower. The water is provided you from a spigot, coming from you know not where, and goes down the drain to be disposed of, you know not how. This is something I think we can agree even the poorest of us in the first world have access to.

Now try doing the same thing in Roman times. Only a noble would have a slave able to wake them at a specified time. This noble would then have slaves to gather the water and prepare a hot bath. When done bathing, the slaves would then dispose of the bathwater. The bathtub itself would be a highly expensive item crafted by a highly skilled artisan, so no mere peasants would have one. Having enough wood to burn to heat the bath would be a luxury.

All of these things we take for granted today would have required immense amounts of manpower even a few hundred years ago. Even the poorest burger flipper at McDonald's has more wealth than even kings once dared to dream of. We have free (not in terms of cost, but in terms of availability) access to clean water and sewers. Food is incredibly plentiful, to the point of where we injure ourselves by eating too much (it is perhaps ironic we have reached the point where the poorest of us are likely to be obese when obesity was often a sign of being rich in past times).

Technological advancement has taken us from a hunter-gatherer society where everyone spends all of their time just surviving to the modern society where we are automating more and more of our basic survival requirements, giving us more free time to research ways to automate even more, on a positive feedback loop.

At the end of the day what all this means is that both wealth and poverty are highly relative terms. Societies are constantly redefining what it means to be "poor" and "wealthy," and any society needs a foundation of "poor" to support the "wealthy." The only way to make everyone "wealthy" is to eliminate the poor, either by moving them somewhere else where our "poor" is their "wealthy," or by using technology to make them unnecessary.

Only one of those two methods is compatible with your requirement that the town also be isolated, so the only way for your town to exist is to have technology handle all of the menial work that makes a society function, rather than outsourcing that menial work to somewhere else.

  • $\begingroup$ In much of the US, garbage collectors actually make quite good money. As for farmers, farming is emphatically NOT a low-skilled job, and a successful farmer (rather than a farm laborer) will often be quite wealthy. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 1 '19 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer, specifically "the more wealthy a society becomes, the less likely such a society is to be self-sufficient", combined with the fact that to remain self-sufficient, it needs "to have technology handle all of the menial work that makes a society function, rather than outsourcing that menial work to somewhere else" $\endgroup$ – Slav Oct 1 '19 at 19:04

Sociologists and demographers talk about relative poverty. That's the level of wealth (respective not-wealth) where somebody can no longer fully participate in society.

For instance, children can be cruel. They will marginalize other children for not having fashionable brand-name sneakers, even if the sneakers the child wears are entirely serviceable.

So if most of the parents at a school can buy brand-name sneakers, and a few cannot, than those few will suffer from the effects of poverty.


Any isolated settlement that has plenty of food and no significant social tensions would fit this definition.

  • self-sufficient - yes, of course it is;

  • happy - happiness is mostly a subjective matter, but the absence of known factors causing unhappiness, like violence, disease and hunger should leave us a purportedly happy population;

  • and wealthy - because the settlement does not produce much, its products are generally affordable to its inhabitants.

  • $\begingroup$ I would add an abundance of resources but perhaps that could fall under self sufficient $\endgroup$ – BKlassen Sep 30 '19 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting point on the settlement "not producing much", therefore there aren't many things that could be outpriced for common resident. Sure, let's say the settlement doesn't produce expensive Persian rugs, but everyone can afford a decent rug from the local rug maker. Is it conceivable that the lowest paid worker could afford the highest priced item (out of the limited set of items that the settlement produces?) $\endgroup$ – Slav Oct 1 '19 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Slav I assume that this isolated settlement produces items either for 0%, or for 100% domestic consumption. So the "Persian rugs", if any, would be all exported, and "local rugs" would all be consumed locally, because their export would not be justified. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 1 '19 at 19:22

No, because wealth and poverty are relative. If everyone lives in giant mansions and has gold-plated toilets or whatever, no one is wealthy. If everyone lives in tin shacks and eats canned beans for every meal, no one is poor. See in both cases, there are no poorer or wealthier people to compare to.

As an example, the average American is many times more wealthy than any aboriginal tribal chief. So the American is wealthy right? But he's poorer than the average American entrepreneur. So the average American is poor then? See how it requires someone of a different wealth level to compare to?

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    $\begingroup$ Poverty can be defined in a non-relative sense as "not having enough to satisfy your needs". If everyone in a town is homeless and starving, they are objectively poor, even if there's not a well-fed individual to compare against. It is theoretically possible to eliminate poverty, but that would be impossible according to your definition. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Hoagie Sep 30 '19 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Nuclear Wang: And likewise, if everyone could easily afford their own giant mansion with gold-plated (or even solid gold) toilets, but chooses not to live that way, that doesn't make them less wealthy. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 1 '19 at 5:00

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