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There are so many talented individuals in this world, people who can do many things well. In fact, they can probably do everything better than most other people in an absolute sense. In other words, they can produce more of everything at a given cost than most others. Yet amazingly, they still find it advantageous to trade with others. How can that be?

It is due to the law of comparative advantage, one of the most important lessons in economics. It’s why we specialize and trade with others for almost all of ours needs and wants, even if we are capable of doing all things better than them. Here’s a simple numerical example… don’t bail out on me (!):

  • Let’s say that you can produce either 1,000 bushels of barley or 500 bushels of hops in a year, or any combination of the two in those proportions. Each extra bushel of hops you produce involves the sacrifice of two bushels of barley.
  • Suppose that I can produce only 500 bushels of barley and 400 bushels of hops in a year, or any combination in those proportions. It costs me only 1.25 bushels of barley to produce an extra bushel of hops.
  • You can produce more hops than I can, but hops are costlier for you at the margin: 2 bushels of barley to get an extra bushel of hops, more than the 1.25 bushels it costs me.
  • That means you can probably obtain a better combination (for you) of barley and hops by specializing in barley and trading some of it to me for hops. You don’t have to do everything yourself. It’s just not in your self-interest even if you have an absolute advantage over me in everything!

This is not a coincidental outcome. Exploiting opportunities for trade with those who face lower marginal costs effectively increases our real income. In production, we tend to specialize — to do what we do — because we have a comparative advantage. We specialize because our costs are lower at the margin in those activities. And that’s also what motivates trade with others. That’s why nations should trade with others. And, as I mentioned about one week ago here, that’s why we have less to fear from automation than many assume.

Certain tasks will be automated as increasingly productive “robots” (or their equivalents) justify the costs of the resources required to produce and deploy them. This process will be accelerated to the extent that government makes it appear as if robots have a comparative advantage over humans via minimum wage laws and other labor market regulations. As a general rule, employment will be less vulnerable to automation if wages are flexible. 

What if one day, as Elon Musk has asserted, robots can do everything better than us? Will humans have anywhere to work? Yes, if human labor is less costly at the margin. Once deployed, a robot in any application has other potential uses, and even a robot has just 24 hours in a day. Diverting a robot into another line of production involves the sacrifice of its original purpose. There will always be uses in which human labor is less costly at the margin, even with lower absolute productivity, than repurposing a robot or the resources needed to produce a new robot. That’s comparative advantage! That will be true for many of the familiar roles we have today, to say nothing of the unimagined new roles for humans that more advanced technology will bring.

Some have convinced themselves that a fully-automated economy will bring an end to scarcity itself. Were that to occur, there would be no tradeoffs except one kind: how you use your time (barring immortality). Superabundance would cause the prices of goods and services to fall to zero; real incomes would approach infinity. In fact, income as a concept would become meaningless. Of course, you will still be free to perform whatever “work” you enjoy, physical or mental, as long as you assign it a greater value than leisure at the margin.

Do I believe that superabundance is realistic? Not at all. To appreciate the contradictions inherent in the last paragraph, think only of the scarcity of talented human performers and their creativity. Perhaps people will actually enjoy watching other humans “perform” work. They always have! If the worker’s time has any other value (and it is scarce to them), what can they collect in return for their “performance”? Adulation and pure enjoyment of their “work”? Some other form of payment? Not everything can be free, even in an age of superabundance.

Scarcity will always exist to one extent or another as long as our wants are insatiable and our time is limited. As technology solves essential problems, we turn our attention to higher-order needs and desires, including various forms of risk reduction. These pursuits are likely to be increasingly resource intensive. For example, interplanetary or interstellar travel will be massively expensive, but they are viewed as desirable pursuits precisely because resources are, and will be, scarce. Discussions of the transition of civilizations across the Kardashev scale, from “Type 0” (today’s Earth) up to “Type III” civilizations, capable of harnessing the energy equivalent of the luminosity of its home galaxy, are fundamentally based on presumed efforts to overcome scarcity. Type III is a long way off, at best. The upshot of ongoing scarcity is that opportunity costs of lines of employment will remain positive for both robots and humans, and humans will often have a comparative advantage.