This is part of a series describing questions I have for the supporters of the Venus Project that were raised in the discussion following my review of Zeitgeist: Moving Forward.
Venus Project supporters deny that what they propose is Utopian. Fresco writes, “We do not believe in the erroneous notion of a Utopian society. There is no such thing.” Ok, let’s start there. I’ll let you know what sounds Utopian to me about your project you can let me know what I have wrong.
As I showed in the previous section, the Venus Project proposes a voluntary monopoly. Fresco writes, “It is doubtful that people play any significant role in decision-making.” The central computer governs all natural resources, all automated production and all distribution centers, so it is a monopoly. And everyone has claimed that the society is completely voluntary.
When I have asked if I was free to import unique resources, or grow my own vegetables, or trade with people off the grid I was told that this would be unnecessary or systemically impossible, because if the system is working properly it should fulfil all demand. If the assertion of the Venus Project is that this system will be able to satisfy 100% of demand for 100% of the population 100% of the time, then you are talking about a Utopia by definition. However, if the system is imperfect, as some have admitted, then there is going to be some percentage of demand that is not satisfied by the system, and that has some economic ramifications.
Most monopolies are maintained through coercion. Either the state prohibits competition, as in most municipal services, or large providers establish partial monopolies by lobbying the state to increase regulations on their own industries to push smaller providers out of the market.
A voluntary monopoly is a much more difficult thing to sustain. It can really only exist if the value of unmet demand stays below the economic barriers to starting a competing service. Otherwise competitors will self-organize spontaneously. But you’re talking about a system where there are no economic barriers. There is no money. Production is autmated. So, if even 1% of demand goes unsatisfied that creates an incentive for people to explore decentralized methods to meet demand.
So which is it? Are you describing a Utopia where all demand is satisfied by a voluntary monopoly, or will some coercion be utilized to prevent competition? Or, as I suspect, will there always and forever be barter trying to supply whatever demand is not met by the system?
The film and the FAQ expend considerable effort trying to distance the Resource-Based Economy from Communism, but Fresco seems unclear about the distinction between historical attempts to transition to Communism, and what Pure Communism actually proposed.
He writes that the Resource-Based Economy is different because, “Communism used money and labor, had social stratification, and elected officials.” But that’s not entirely accurate. Pure Communism called for a classless, stateless society without currency or private property. In Marxist theory the advancement of production capabilities leads to a “superabundance” of goods and free access to all consumables.
This is virtually identical to what Fresco proposes, with the exception perhaps that Fresco is able to imagine grander technology than Marx. But even Fresco admits that some amount of human maintenance will be necessary.
The currency and the state were only part of the transitional stage on the way to Pure Communism. But Fresco also proposes that a currency and interim government are necessary during the transition. We’ll talk more about the transition in a future segment.
Bottom line, we don’t have to call it Communism if you don’t want to call it Communism. But for Fresco to praise Communism, Socialism and Marx specifically, with out any reference to their historic failures makes him appear economically illiterate. To attempt to achieve nearly identical goals, by nearly identical means, without discussing why they failed and how he intends to succeed is irresponsible.
Scarcity and Abundance
Fresco rightly points out that Communism did not eliminate scarcity, but neither will the Venus Project. Here’s why.
Our current system occasionally produces an abundance of something. For example ballpoint pens. There’s a profit motive. There’s a price tag. But for all intents and purposes the production of your basic ballpoint pen is entirely mechanized, and as a result they are essentially abundant. I have never known anyone from any socioeconomic status who could not find access to a ballpoint pen. I have, on more than one occasion, found a pen faster than I could buy a pen.
I have a favorite pen. It’s the blue Paper Mate ballpoint pen. To me, it’s the perfect pen. I don’t know why, but I’ve always loved them. I found a 12 pack of them listed at OfficeMax.com for $1.79. That’s about 15 cents per pen. Today I was shipping something and filed out the forms with a pen I brought from home. I handed it to the clerk who used it to fill out his portion of the form. He handed it back to me to sign the receipt. And as I prepared to leave he said to me, “I think that is our pen.” So, we had a disagreement about ownership. But you know what I did. I handed it back to him without a word spoken. Because from my perspective ballpoint pens are abundant. The cost-benefit of keeping another blue pen is less than even disputing his claim. So I left without a pen.
If I understand correctly, this is how you imagine dispute resolution occurring in the Resource-Based Economy. And you are absolutely correct. As technology advances and mechanization reduces the cost of production the market value of many products will approach zero. This phenomena will only increase as automation increases. Stephan Molyneux has already proved that it is profitable to give away books for free in the market system. Radiohead has already shown that it is more profitable to release an album with no retails price. Panera Bread has already proved that it is more profitable to let the customer decide what they want to pay for bread. Abundance is already enevitable under the market paradigm, but that still doesn’t eliminate scarcity.
After I left the office I went to the ATM to make a deposit. Unfortunately the bank had already closed, and this particular ATM did not have a tethered pen. I searched my pockets. I searched my car. I searched the ground. Instant scarcity, and no computer could have prevented it.
Here’s another example. In addition to my ballpoint pens, I also possess one classic dip pen. I use this for calligraphy. It was difficult for me to find because there is almost no demand for such a tool. Most calligraphers prefer the slightly more advanced fountain pen, because of the internal reservoir, but I like using an inefficient inkwell. It is a very fragile instrument, and I take meticulous care of it. I would not even lend it to a person if I could not trust that they would use it responsibly. This one is hand crafted, but there would never be enough demand in one city to warrent automated production. That means shipping. That means time. That means scarcity.
Even in an environment of abundance, scarcity will always exist because fundamentally resources are finite and time is scarce.
Fresco imagines that technological unemployment is going to collapse the system. The only thing that is going to collapse a fiat monetary system is insurmountable national debt. Increased automation will only produce increased demand for hand crafted items. The ballpoint pen is cheap, but the handcrafted pen with all the accoutrements earned one worthy entrepreneur over $60. The Internet makes the economic barriers to starting an entrepreneurial endeavor virtually nothing. If you want to solve the unemployment problem just abolish the education model that was designed by industrialists to pump out factory workers and start teaching people valuable skills.
If mechanized farming produced an abundance of food similar to our abundance of ballpoint pens the price would approach zero. If automated production of electric cars, GPS systems, and iPhones illiminated the cost of production the market value of those items would also approach zero. That's how supply and demand works.
I guess I just don't see this whole paradigm shift as necessary to your overall goal. If the technology currently exists to produce this kind of abundance, just do it. You'd corner the market. If it is possible to dramatically increase access to resources in a radically more efficient way than anything currently available that would not only be affordable to the consumer it would be outrageously profitable in the current system. So, what’s stopping you? Why isn’t your movement focused on applying this technology, even on a small scale, to bank roll your project?
Instead of fund raising for Peter Joseph's next movie, and Fresco’s amusement park why aren’t you calculating the carrying capacity of the 22 acres of land the Venus Project already has? If you can show, scientifically, that you know a more efficient way to utilize that land I'm sure Fresco would graciously reliquish ownership of it for the greater good.