Discussion on a recent post turned, not for the first time, to the economic implications of continued technological progress, especially technologies such as replicators. More generally, could a higher techlevel lead to a 'post-scarcity' economy?
First, a benchmark figure. In rough, round numbers the per capita GDP in the US is about 10 times greater than it was 200 years ago, at the dawn of the industrial revolution. The early US was already a rich country - all that cheap land, stolen from the Indians, but industrialization has made us, on average, some 10 times richer.
The figure for European countries is at least comparable. For Japan it might be somewhat more, Tokugawa era peasants probably having been poorer than contemporary European peasants, but still on the same broad order. The implication is that each century of rapid technological progress has made the most developed societies some three times richer. (The process is faster for newly industrialized countries, which can adopt technologies already invented.)
If that same rate continues into the midfuture, the economic level of 200 years from now should be about 10 times higher still, a per capita GDP equivalent to about $250,000 or $500,000.
There are obvious constraints and provisos. Natural resource prices, in real terms, trended downward through the 20th century, but the low-hanging fruit has arguably already been picked. Oil, at least, will not get cheaper in the long term, and post fossil fuel energy probably won't be cheaper at the plug than energy is today. Automobiles have become more efficient and safer in the last 50 years, and may soon be 'smart,' but not cheaper or faster - so their basic functionality is largely unchanged. People regard old cars as classics; no one thinks of old computers that way.
For that matter, the economic level of most 'Murricans has not increased much since the 1970s; the real GDP increase since that time has been funneled largely to economic elites. One popular dystopian future is a high techlevel, largely automated capitalism with practically no demand for labor, relegating most of the population to a marginal netherworld.
This is a distinctly modern dystopia. There are hints of it in Heinlein, especially Starman Jones, but it is very different from the capitalist dystopias of a century ago - in Wells' The Time Machine the Morlocks were workers; it was the upper class Eloi who were the useless unemployed.
But let's consider the possibilities of a high-techlevel economy.
The classical economics view is that human desires are unlimited. We want things, like tickets to Mars, that we can't get now at any price. We quickly learn to want things, like mobile Internet access, that we previously never even thought about.
On the other hand, our physical needs and comforts are in some sense biologically fixed. Dietary preferences vary culturally, but we can only eat so much. In much of the world, and certainly in industrialized countries, having plenty to eat is no longer a sign of wealth. As one consequence, putting on extravagant public feasts, like Bilbo's birthday party in Lord of the Rings, has pretty much died out as a custom. Even fancy society wedding banquets don't feature dozens of exotic dishes, or for that matter scores of liveried servants to bring them in.
Oversized houses are still a mark of wealth, because big houses remain beyond most people's reach - hence the proliferation of McMansions in the US and probably other industrialized countries. But even this is probably in relative decline; McMansions are the mark of the pretentious demi-rich. The super-rich do not make their houses an object of display - in fact, their estates tend to be secluded. I doubt that an Elizabethan noble would be impressed by Bill Gates' house, and he'd be puzzled by its obscurity.
Feasts and palaces are things people prized not for their 'creature comforts' (an appropriate phrase), but for the status and power they embodied. Once they cease to be effective as display the demand for them reaches its limit or even trails off. I'd suggest that a similar law of diminishing returns may apply to material goods in general, once the economic level is such to render them unimpressive.
On the other hand, the desire to impress does seem unlimited, because it is purely social and relative. If the Joneses own a planet, you want to own one as well, or even a whole planetary system. Throughout the agrarian age - the age of feasts and palaces - material wealth was a great way to impress people. Or more than impress: If you could afford hundreds of liveried servants you could also afford hundreds of troops.
But in a high-techlevel age, where mere display of material goods is no longer impressive, could people find other ways to impress? And what might those ways be?
One way is simply by becoming well known. This is not new. It is what the Latin world nobilis, root of our 'noble,' originally meant. Indeed, before there were chieftains or aristocracies there were 'big men,' who made themselves the center of attention - and did things like putting on feasts in order to remain the center of attention.
The modern rise of celebrity culture, people 'famous for being famous' might be a harbinger of things to come, hinting at the dynamics of a post-scarcity and post-capitalist economy. In such a world, capital resources might still be amassed, but only as one of multiple paths to eminence and status, and not the primary one.
How we would get there, or what it would lead to, I don't know, but I will throw it out for discussion.
Related link: For those who haven't come across links yet, here is the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy on my old website.
This painting by Botticelli, based on an episode in the Decameron, shows a Renaissance wedding feast.