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I have a basic idea for a world that I am fleshing out. Basically a dystopian future based on minimal, if any, resource scarcity. This sort of society was addressed humorously in a Cracked After Hours video, but was also touched on in The Matrix (originally the matrix was free of scarcity) and the experiments of John B. Calhoun. But those simply state that a world without scarcity is doomed to fail. Not particularly what I am looking to demonstrate.

Now I happened upon this link in my quest to find a similar societal structure, where it suggests that people who don't want to do anything won't and vice versa, but then how do you motivate anyone to do something that isn't particularly glamorous? In our society it's money, in communism it's things, in fascism it is the military state. But are their other options since nobody really wants for anything in such a society? Sorry if this is poorly asked.

I guess a specific example would be a garbage man. Assume society still generated garbage and didn't have automated pickup how would you convince your standard human to pick up other people's garbage.

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    $\begingroup$ If there's truly no scarcity, there's absolutely no need to get someone to do something. Because the need of having someone do something is born from the very fact that "getting it done" is a resource that is scarce. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 16 '14 at 7:21
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    $\begingroup$ It is impossible to eliminate scarcity completely on a planet with even small differences in climate or surface features. People would want biggest possible house in nicest possible climate. Can your world give everyone waterfront property on Hawaii? If not, solution will be not to share the riches but all be equally poor, living in same underground windowless containers with communal access to the surface. There is no way around scarcity. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Nov 14 '14 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ People are also scarce. Attention from people is scarce. A society can't provide that in job lots. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 16 '14 at 23:49
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I suppose you have to go through what is and is not scarce. Are raw materials scarce? Energy? Skills?

In your garbage example, I'm not clear on why there isn't automated pickup. But let's take that assumption. Assume energy and raw materials are not scarce. Perhaps what happens is each person is responsible for their own garbage. Instead of having a garbage truck drive around and pick up trash, perhaps everyone has to take their trash to the dump.

The problem with this of course is pollution. So rather than one garbage truck collecting trash for a hundred people, we have fifty people each collecting their own trash. Wouldn't there be a high level of pollution from this?

Even ignoring pollution, look at it from the other side. Why would anyone take the trouble to grow crops, process them into food, and transport them to market? Trash is relatively easy. We landfill it or burn it. Making food can be complicated. Someone has to plant, weed, fertilize, remove pests, and harvest a crop. After harvest, a crop needs to be transported to be made into food (e.g. tomatoes being turned into spaghetti sauce). Then it needs to be transported again to the grocery store.

Assume that we can drop the conversion into food and transport. People have to fetch their own food and assemble meals from scratch. Maybe we go back to the old days. Ninety percent of everyone is in farming. The garbage man picks up garbage in exchange for food.

Note that we still have scarcity here. We have scarcity of labor. To have a true post-scarcity society, we'd have to get rid of scarcity of labor as well. We'd need automated garbage pickup, food production, manufacture, utility maintenance, etc. It's unclear if there are some things that simply can't be automated, e.g. computer programming, engineering design, scientific theorizing, and writing.

Some of that people may be willing to do as hobbies. That could explain how movies get made for instance. A hobbyist writes a screenplay which another hobbyist decides to direct. A bunch of hobbyists act in it. The individuals may be driven by the potential for acclaim rather than monetary compensation. Perhaps the stack exchange model would be king (people gain reputation based on how others perceive their contribution).

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  • $\begingroup$ All you guys gave me great answers, but you gave me the jumping point I'm going with. Thanks $\endgroup$ – Jake Oct 18 '14 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ I think open source projects and volunteering prove that people are willing to work for free so long as they get something else out of it. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Feb 25 '15 at 23:01
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This went long so let me put conclusions at the top with details at the bottom so you don't have to waste your time if I didn't come close to answering the question.

A "post-scarcity" economy is impossible because:

  1. Some desired or needed objects and services will always be scarce i.e. objects that can't be manufactured, services of human beings.
  2. We will invent scarcity if it doesn't exist naturally.
  3. Scarcity is best managed non-violently on the large scale with money in some form.
  4. (1) + (2) + (3) == we will always have a scarcity economy using money.
  5. Scarcity is good because it induces us to cooperate.
  6. If for some reason humans don't need each other and each other's cooperation, then the only relationship left is the antagonistic one. If we don't need each other, we start killing each other.
  7. If nothing manufactured is scarce, then weapons aren't scarce.
  8. (6) + (7) - (4) == we're boned.
  9. (1) + (2) + (3) + (4) > we're boned. Statistically anyway.

"Scarcity" is good and we're stuck with it anyway.

The transition to (8) would be fertile grounds for stories.

If you want an abundance driven dystopia, that doesn't explode, I suggest simply extrapolating the problems of abundance we have now, obesity, drug abuse, weak personal relationships leading to isolation, alienation and depression, picking fights for fun, egocentric entitlement and narcissism, irrational fear borne of boredom etc.

We might term these, "Choking To Death on Creme" scenarios.

Abundance causes odd behavior, at least in pockets. The world of the today would look much improved in many respects from the perspective of say the 1950s. But it would in other ways would look insane.

For example nobody who came of age before 1955 and lived through waves of viral epidemics, especially the last great polio epidemic of the late-40s early 50s, would believe that upper income, supposedly college educated people of 2014 would refuse to vaccinate their children. (I know because I know a lot of old people and they just want to b*tch slap everyone who thinks that. They always start with, "I can't believe those idiot think...")

The only reason why people would even contemplate rejecting the cheapest, most effective and (largely) free medicine/disease-prevention technology in history is that they are so materially comfortable and protected from communicable disease that it seems more plausible to them that vaccines are instead wholly unneeded and only exist as part of a sinister conspiracy. (Why do we have to by all these fire proofing materials when we never have any fires? Must be a conspiracy of evil fire proof material manufactures!)

People in the future will also become so comfortable with something we view as a dire threat they will make decisions that we will see as inexplicable. Lots of story fodder there for pseudo-post scarcity stories..

Details:

The article you link to is simply wrong. We don't work because resources are scarce, we work because they are plentiful. The more resources you have, the more work you can do and the more materially and emotionally rewarding work you can do.

Moreover, it is work that creates resources. That's what most people actually work on doing directly or indirectly. No "resource" save the ambient oxygen exist save that a human creates it. The more work you do, the more resources you create.

The only real resource is the human mind. It creates all the other resources.

Money actually exist to coordinate human work and apportion our individual expenditures of time and effort, not to allocate "resources." Since human work creates all resources, money is actually a form of communication we use to tell each other what work we need others to do and in what priority. This is called price signaling in economics. Money has never been anything more than information but now days, most money is literally just bits of data in various computers. I go weeks now without touching paper money and even that fiat currency is just symbolic information.

From the perspective of history, we already live in a post scarcity world. We have more resources both in quantity and kind than previous peoples could even imagine, miraculous technology, freedom from the great diseases of history, social harmony, equality etc. We live in a time when obesity is a significant health problem for the poor, something previous generations would consider a sign that a society has passed all want.

From someone from 1814, 2014 in the developed world looks like just as much a post-scarcity society as Star Trek looks to us. Imagine what our day to day lives look like to hunter-gather peoples. They look like magic and a total lack of material want. They cannot relate to our lives or even understand them. Concepts like large institutions composed of tens of thousands of unrelated strangers, are simply unimaginable.

Yet we keep on working and things we value still seem scarce.

The problem with the idea of a post-scarcity world is that it assumes that at some point the human desire for experiences and material tools will saturated. We will all reach a point where we say, " I can't think of anything else I want to do or have."

We won't. What are rare luxuries for the rich in one generation become basic necessities for the poor in the next e.g. Less than 20 years ago, cell phones where the size of walkie-talkies and only the very rich or the very important (doctors) carried them. Now we have social welfare programs to provide them to the poor. Every "necessity" of modern life as made this transition.

Or we will just invent scarcity for the hell of it.

But, lets assume that the basic ideas of Star Trek and the article are true e.g. every human can have anything material they want with zero effort just by ordering a replicator to make it (including more replicators.) They can experience anything they want by stepping on a holodeck. All this is powered by tiny fusion reactors or some magic wand energy source using materials like hydrogen isotopes which are literally just laying around in functionally infinite technologies.

But there will always be things which are scarce. History has shown that scarce items become valued solely because they are scarce. Examples include a particular patch of ground valued for "the view" or antiques whose scarcity is innate because it is connected to the passage of time. Note that items valued for scarcity are also zero sum in that only one person can have/own/use them at a time. An unpublished, single copy manuscript (an anachronism today I suppose) is zero sum, scarce and valued by the exact same manuscript, mass printed or slapped on the web, would not be.

This was actually shown somewhat in the ST:TNG in the episode when a ruthless trader (business people are always evil in Star Trek) kidnaps Data so he can add him to his collection of utterly unique objects such as a bubblegum scented 20th century baseball card and the Mona Lisa.

Suppose you and another person covet the same innately scarce resource such as a historical artifact. Suppose they have it and you want it. How do you resolve the conflict?

You can't trade for it with anything replicated because they can just replicate anything themselves. You can't offer experiences because they have the same access to experience as you.

The only thing you might conceivably trade would be another innately rare object. If that worked, you'd actually be back to scarcity economy in which the trade goods would be innately scarce items. Probably they set up a complex computerized bater system to track the relative trade value of each scarce object. Such a system would eventually condense the relative value to a single number score for each object... at which point you've recreated money.

Of course, there are some positions or services that would stay scarce e.g. a rank in Star Fleet, a stool in Quarks bar at any given time or a reservation at the New Orleans restaurant of Sisco's father. These too could be traded, scored and turned into money.

The moral? The Second Law of Thermodynamics means some things in the universe will always be scarce. Humans will always covet some of these things often just as status indicator through genuine love of the things e.g. historical research, a hand cooked meal, actually obtaining art because you like it and not because it is fashionable.) Doesn't really matter why we want them, something will be scarce, two or more humans will want it, the only peaceful solution is to trade it for something else scarce, efficient trade will require money, and we will always have a money based scarcity economy.

There are darker options though. Abundance could get us all killed.

The one thing you do control that is innately scarce is yourself. People might trade something of their selves for something else innately scarce. In the best case scenario, it would be some skill or service e.g. in a world of manufactured abundance, people will value the handmade just because it is handmade. Heck, we do that today. In the worst case scenario it might be sex or public degradations. One can easily see the evolution of a society in which the rich, those with control over many scarce items, demonstrate their status by making anyone wishing for one of the scarce items degrade themselves publicly, probably in ever increasingly bizarre and protracted means.

You could try to control such behaviors by government laws but governments depend on violence to function. If someone refuses to voluntarily obey a law, the government must be willing to coerce them into doing so, physically control them (prison) and failing all that, kill them. But government killing requires weapons and weapons in sufficient quantity and quality to make any resistance suicidal. If everyone everywhere can manufacture any weapon on demand, then government can't have a violence advantage and can't function. So, replicators will have to blocked from making weapons, except for those controlled by the individuals inside the government.

Weapons are now scarce items. Society is now divided between the haves and have-nots, between those who have weapons and those who don't. How long will that "social injustice" last?

Even if you have a perfect democracy how long will that last when the government doesn't actually need the people at all? They won't because the people in government have the same Santa Claus replicators as everyone else. Plus, they can kill citizens and citizens can't kill them. If the citizens get uppity like say, pestering the individuals in government to resign just because of the technical triviality that their term of office is over, the individuals in government can just kill the citizens, all of them if wish, and not be any worse off for it.

(Hmmm... think I'll go replicate a "You can have my weapons replicator when you pry it out of my cold dead hands" bumper sticker.)

You might try controlling this by giving citizens access to weapon's replicators but only collectively. Weapons replicators would require multiple commands from multiple individuals, effective voting to make weapons. That would work as long the skill to use weapons on whatever level was equally distributed e.g. everyone fight with the same model of autonomous weapons. Of course, since weapons are scarce items, the votes to control them will be traded and we have a scarcity economy again.

The government scenario depends on the assumption that people won't ever be able to hack the replicators and to allow them create weapons despite the law. They will. Even if they do, the above evolution will lead to the same effective outcome : Super Mutually Assured Destruction.

Everybody will remain peaceful because since every one has the same creative potential, they will all have the same destructive potential as well. Individuals will also be able to manufacture defenses as well, making successful attacks difficult (but not impossible. Since entropy favors destruction, destroying will always be easier than creating and defending.)

The regulated replicator scenario also faces the practical problem of determining what objects the replicators can make are weapons and what are not. Any tool can be a weapon. Technologies redirect energy. If they redirect energy toward creation, they are tools if the redirect toward destruction for the purpose of coercing, injuring or killing they are weapons. Hit a nail with a hammer and it is a tool, hit a person with it, it is a weapon. A chemical in the right dose is a medicine, in the wrong dose a poison. How could you be sure people weren't replicating the high tech version of a hammer and then using it to hit people with?

Any restrictions on replicators creates a scarcity economy and eventually human resistance.

Super MAD will work great as long as not a single human being does something suicidally stupid and sets off a retaliation cascade. But there are only billions of humans in the scenario, trillions at the most, so the odds of that happening will be fairly small, right?

Of course it might not get to that point. At some point in the evolution of replicators, somebody with an advantage in replicators would make the obvious calculations of the above dangers. They might conclude that at least in terms of game theory, it might be safest to simply kill off any humans you didn't need to prevent them from getting the power to kill you on a whim.

You'd put such thoughts aside until it occurred to you that everyone else getting replicators will eventually make the same calculation and the odds of someone somewhere acting on such calculations? Suddenly, killing off everyone else save your little group doesn't seem so nuts, it's seems more and more like "It's either us or them. Only the first to strike has a hope to survive. We know it, they know it, we have to strike before they do and the only way to be sure is to strike right now." John Von Neuman made exactly that argument about nukes back in the early 50s when he was inventing game theory. Fortunately, Ike ignored him. Unfortunately the Soviets took their guys who thought the same thing seriously and put their nuclear forces on a hair trigger. Now imagine not a few hundred decision makers mulling over that decision but billions. Suddenly space doesn't seem big enough does it?

Conclusions

The moral is that scarcity is a good thing because it forces humans to cooperate. Of course, often in history we've cooperated to kill, loot and enslave other human beings but cooperating with a large subset of humanity is waaaay better than not cooperating with much smaller subsets all the way down to the sociopathic individual. Ironically, effective militaries are about increased internal cooperation. So, every silver lining has it's cloud.

Still the history of the last 500 years in the developed world has been one of ever increasing size of cooperative networks. The evolution of the corporation occurred in the free cities of Northern Europe because the nobility didn't care about trade but also didn't want the traders to step in on the noble's monopoly of violence. When people needed a collective action undertaken that the noble's ignored, like building city walls or dikes, they had to peacefully negotiate with other to commit resources and times to the project. People insisted on having a say in the control of such projects and that their degree of input on that control of be proportional to the proportion of their commitment. The stock/stake owner corporation was born.

Though often vilified these days, a passing fad I will wager, corporations represent the largest non-violent cooperative systems in human history. Corporations cannot coerce anyone to buy their products especially in the international arena. While interactions with the governments, can make corporation agents of he state with the coercive power of the state, the vast, vast majority of interactions with and between corporations are purely voluntary.

As long distance trade jumped over numerous political jurisdictions, traders learned to make peaceful deals on their honor and reputation because they were foreigners and could not appeal to the local sovereignty for protection. Trade, skills and capital flowed across political boundaries faster and faster and faster.

Culturally, trade and corporations promoted meritocratic promotion faster than even militaries. When you bet the family farm on an investment in a Dutch East Indiamen, you suddenly don't car who the captains daddy was, just whether he can sail the ship. Likewise, nobody in China cares how well you are connected back in your home town.

Today, there is not a single polity that controls the entirety of it's industrial production chain. Part of that chain always flows through at least one other and usually several other polities. Governments can regulate trade less and less because they control every smaller and smaller parts of their own production. While that presents some problems of its own, it also means that governments can't use their powers of violence to coerce cooperation, people have to work it out nonviolently.

Having production scattered world wide means governments and peoples need each other more and more and that makes warfare less and less profitable. In short, we can't bomb the other guy's factories because they're our factories as well. That makes war less likely but humans are genetically programmed to seek dominance and control over others so problems will always crop up.

As much as we wring our hands over "scarcity", it's a powerful force for good.

To reiterate the conclusions: A "post-scarcity" economy is impossible because:

  1. Some desired or needed objects and services will always be scarce i.e. objects that can't be manufactured, services of human beings.
  2. We will invent scarcity if it doesn't exist naturally.
  3. Scarcity is best managed non-violently on the large scale with money in some form.
  4. (1) + (2) + (3) == we will always have a scarcity economy using money.
  5. Scarcity is good because it induces us to cooperate.
  6. If for some reason humans don't need each other and each other's cooperation, then the only relationship left is the antagonistic one. If we don't need each other, we start killing each other.
  7. If nothing manufactured is scarce, then weapons aren't scarce.
  8. (6) + (7) - (4) == we're boned.
  9. (1) + (2) + (3) + (4) > we're boned. Statistically anyway.

"Scarcity" is good and we're stuck with it anyway.

"Choking to Death on Creme" scenarios would make the best stories about abundance.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent. One remaining trick is how to transfer to such "abundance-with-some-scarcity" economy. As increasing skills of robots will replace more and more work which humans do (but not all), work itself (being able to produce something tradeable) will become scarcity - and people will be forced to work for less, or revolt and force higher taxes on the rich (which they will resent, and will have resources to fight against, including swarms of robo-warriors). Interesting times ahead. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Dec 31 '14 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar: IMHO, the real definition of a "post-scarcity society" should be one in which the commonplace economics involved in people's day to day existence would interest neither the writer nor the audience. Simplifying some aspects of a fictional world may help an author focus on other aspects which are of much greater interest. That shouldn't be taken as implying that such simplification was in any way "realistic", or that resemblance to the simplified form would make a world a better place to live. $\endgroup$ – supercat Feb 26 '15 at 0:36
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There are a lot of examples of post-scarcity societies, some are dystopian but most are not.

For example you have Star Trek, The Culture (Ian M Banks), Voyage From Yesteryear (specifically looking at a conventional society interacting with a post scarcity one), and more.

The simple answer is that in a full post-scarcity example garbage pickup would be automated. You would have robots out doing that sort of thing, we're already close to having the technology for that now so it wouldn't take a huge leap.

An alternative approach might be through social convention. With the devaluing of material goods as status symbols (as everyone has anything they want) then people will want something else to use for that purpose. Perhaps being seen to serve society, to help clean the streets or repair the gutters, or whatever needs doing might become the new way to gain social status.

In other words people like bin men, doctors, nurses, etc would be seen as high status - while footballers and politicians are the lazy bums who can't be bothered to do something useful.

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  • $\begingroup$ Who repairs and cleans the garbage robots? Dirty Jobs will always be there. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 16 '14 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ Erm, repair robots? I was under the assumption that nobody would have to do jobs they don't want to do in a post scarcity society. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Dec 31 '14 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MarchHo That's correct. And in fact robot repair might well be something people do because they want to. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Dec 31 '14 at 18:12
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Can your world give everyone waterfront property on Hawaii? - Peter Masiar

In a truly post-scarcity world, yes you can. We simply re-arrange the climate, and re-arrange the landmasses, so everyone has a cove of beach-front property, that you can't see anyone else from. When you want to have an isolated / private desert island experience, you do. When you want to go to a crowded nude beach, you hop on a vacuum-tube high speed rail link to your nearest big locale where other people want to do that too.

And, that's only if you actually have to have the real deal. Many people are pretty happy with virtual stuff, and the wide-screen surround-sound technology, with scent additions, and wind & climate control experience is just going to get better. The infinite walkers and other tactile things that're in experimental versions now are looking to be amazing. Why bother with a beachfront property when you can experience superman-type flying, weightlessness, and magic (in a sealed pod, suspended in gel)?

But, only one person gets to be president. Humans are wired to compete for social status, and something will be the brass ring that everyone will compete for. As long as you have to compete in the real world. If you've got good AI, you could be virtual king and never know the difference between real and virtual peons.

However, I see no reason why a person needs to pick up garbage. Post-nano-tech, you'll toss your fecal matter right onto your farm-screen, and get caviar and champagne output in the next second (although real champagne will only come from France, cultivated the old way - ie: it's a status-thing and rightfully respected everywhere but in the US). Your roomba will pick up the dust, and turn it back into carpet or furniture.

There are some natural limits of scarcity: ie: the natural distribution of atoms. However with some good nanotech, most people won't even notice that their gold jewelry is only one or two atoms of gold deep, and the rest is filler. So we probably have enough of every atom for people do to anything they want to do. You only actually need the atoms you're touching or directly looking at - instead of currently, where we have to warehouse lots of spare atoms, to ensure our own access to them when we want them. And this is assuming we don't have the power to go get more atoms, or to run fission / colliders and start making heavier atoms.

Post scarcity is going to require a lot of power. But, as long as you've got that, and got enough tools (nanotech), you could do amazing things.

Of course that's going to lead to problems. Some people are just smarter and more creative than others. And absent the masking problems with money/status, that will become more and more apparent. And, when making the transition from monied to post-scarcity, you're going to make a number of people really mad. Right now, gold-diggers are a thing; so guys who're old and or not-cute have an opportunity to land women, by exploiting the monetary system. When that goes away, those guys are going to be SOL. Expect them to be pissed off about it. Expect them to have tools, and a lot of them - to do things with.

But I digress.

So, my question is, why would you do anything that's not glamorous? Why would there be anything to do that's not 'fun'? If the economy were set up correctly, we'd be working on that right now. And all of the non-fun jobs would be on their way out, without impoverishing whole swaths of the population.

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  • $\begingroup$ It stopped make sense as you said "simple rearrange the climate". I want (1) my own pacific island, (2) isolated mountain hut in every big mountain chain, nobody else in sight, (3) apartment in Paris with view of Eiffel Tower. Can your post-scarcity deliver this to one billion people who want the same? Holodeck or Matrix is not the same. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Dec 31 '14 at 17:02
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There are a couple options. I'm reading the book Brave New World, which talks about a false utopia society, which is similar to what you are talking about.

In the book all people had been conditioned to serve society. This conditioning consisted of affecting mental and physical capacities while the people were still an embryo, and affecting their minds as children. One of the parameters of the book was that children memorized anything said to them while they slept. So every child had little rhymes said to them every time the slept (no example was "Everybody is happy now"). Other conditioning included affecting what the children disliked and liked, adjusting them to what their jobs would be when they grew up. All this conditioning could help somewhat want to do things for "society." Ex. picking up the trash.

This brings me to my next point. While there is no scarcity of things, there could be a scarcity of services. So instead of trading money, people could trade time. For example, the garbage man goes around and picks up people's garbage, in return, the car mechanic fixing his truck whenever he needs it. In this sort of society, likely a central government would organize all the people to provide their services for free. Obviously everyone knows that if they don't provide their services, no one is obligated to provide services to them.

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  • $\begingroup$ It starts to fall down a slippery slope when you consider that some people get sick, some have disabilities, others have "diseases" like alcoholism or depression... There are plenty of valid ways out of doing your part. Will there be an investigation and enforcement bureau? Realistically, a traditional society did what you are saying with no money or governance: people took care of each other and evicted lazy people. We could go back to that any time we want to. $\endgroup$ – user17228 Jan 20 '16 at 2:35

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