Scarcity, Regulation, and the Abundance Society
Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 572
17 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2022 Last revised: 26 Jan 2023
Date Written: June 30, 2022
New technologies continue to democratize, decentralize, and disrupt production, offering the possibility that scarcity will be a thing of the past for many industries. We call these technologies of abundance. But our economy and our legal institutions are based on scarcity.
Abundance lowers costs. When that happens, the elimination of scarcity changes the economics of how goods and services are produced and distributed. This doesn’t just follow a normal demand curve pattern – consumption increases as price declines. Rather, special things happen when costs approach zero.
Digitization and its effects on the production, organization, and distribution of information provide early examples of changes to markets and industries. Copyright industries went through upheaval and demands for new protections. But they are not alone. New technologies such as 3D printing, CRISPR, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and more are democratizing, decentralizing, and disrupting production in food and alcohol production, biotechnologies, and more, and even the production of innovation itself, opening the prospect of an abundance society in which people can print or otherwise obtain the things they want, including living organisms, on-demand.
Abundance changes the social as well as economic context of markets. How will markets and legal institutions based on scarcity react when it is gone? Will we try to replicate that scarcity by imposing legal rules, as IP law does? Will the abundance of some things just create new forms of scarcity in others – the raw materials that feed 3D printers, for instance, or the electricity needed to feed AIs and cryptocurrency? Will we come up with new forms of artificial scarcity, as brands and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) do? Or will we reorder our economics and our society to focus on things other than scarcity? If so, what will that look like? And how will abundance affect the distribution of resources in society? Will we reverse the long-standing trend towards greater income inequality? Or will society find new ways to distinguish the haves from the have-nots?
Society already has examples of each type of response. The copyright industries survived the end of scarcity, and indeed thrived, not by turning to the law but by changing business practices, leveraging the scarcity inherent to live performances and using streaming technology to remove the market structures that fed unauthorized copying, and by reorganizing around distribution networks rather than content creators. Newsgathering, reporting, and distribution face challenges flowing from democratized, decentralized, and disrupted production. Luxury brands and NFTs offer examples of artificial scarcity created to reinforce a sort of modern sumptuary code. And we have seen effective, decentralized production based on economics of abundance in examples ranging from open-source software to Wikipedia.
In this introductory essay, we survey the potential futures of a post-scarcity society and offer some thoughts as to more (and less) socially productive ways to respond to the death of scarcity.
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