Bread and Circuses

I never really understood the appeal of Universal Basic Income, but after reading the European parliament’s proposal for Robotic Civil Rights I think I finally get it.

See, Europe wants to give robots a form of electronic personhood. Robots will have basic legal rights, provided that “robots are and will remain in the service of humans.” (Is the 13th Amendment a basic legal right in Europe, or is that just an American thing?)

The report also proposes a universal basic income for humans, under the assumption that vassal robots will take all the jobs.

These are the same policies that were enacted in Ancient Rome! The Roman Republic had the exact same problem where robots took all the jobs and left unemployed masses in their wake. Roman robots weren’t like the robots we know and love today, but “machines of flesh and blood”, as Aristotle would say. Except that Aristotle was Greek. Instrumentum vocale, as Cicero would say. Talking tools.

Ancient Roman robot

Rome engaged in lots of warfare where they conquered new territory and took the inhabitants as slaves. By the time the Republic turned into an Empire, slaves made up 40% of Italy’s population and held all the farming and service jobs. Large numbers of landless proletarii had no jobs and no source of income. They were too poor to even serve in the military (early soldiers had to bring their own armor).

Being an agrarian society, Roman wealth came in the form of land ownership. Political populares suggested putting limits on land holdings and redistributing some property to the poor, but the ruling class opposed that idea. Nobody likes to share ownership of the means of production. The nobilis preferred to keep wealth out of the plebs’ control, and provide them with guaranteed grain rations instead. Later on, it was upped to free bread, free olive oil, free salt, pork, and wine.

There was just one problem with this scenario. The last thing the ruling class wants is a bunch of well-fed poor people lollygagging about. Idle poor tend to do unpleasant things like Storm the Bastille, or Occupy Wall Street, or start a revolution, or whatever.

Hence the Roman emperors established a policy of Bread and Circuses to provide the masses with both sustenance and entertainment so they could have nothing to complain about. The circuses held chariot races, gladiator fights, and wild beast hunts. Sometimes they were filled with water to reenact naval battles.

Mostly it worked, and the unemployed were successfully distracted from the massive wealth inequality. Eventually it was not the proletariat who revolted against the upper class, but the slaves who didn’t get any bread or circuses. The rebel slaves were annihilated in each of three separate wars, but after the third one the Romans figured that they should probably give slaves some basic legal rights.

I’m Spartacus, and so’s my wife! The third slave rebellion was led by escaped gladiators.

The European Parliament recognizes the same danger of robots mounting a populist uprising, which is why it’s important to establish basic robot rights now. Also the draft bill mandates kill switches — that’s an idea the Romans would have appreciated. The underclass is less worrisome because they can be placated with basic income and circuses. Sadly, last week Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced that they were shutting down. Say what you will about animal cruelty; that circus was the Greatest Show on Earth for people who can’t afford Cirque du Soleil.

We don’t have to have real circuses. Technology has the potential to be just as good a pacifier. Twitter is already a great lobotomy box, and when we get tired of that there’s always video games and porn. If VR improves, we can all live like the people in Wall-E and no one will give a damn where the wealth is.

When the robots finally do come for our jobs, mine will be one of the first to go. I sure hope the circuses are good.

5 thoughts on “Bread and Circuses

  1. I haven’t managed to form a coherent opinion on the matter myself, yet, saying that you “never really understood the appeal of Universal Basic Income” is probably just a slightly narcissistic reflection on your socio-economic background. Think about it as payoff for a wise investment into some crypto-project that affords you to focus on self actualization rather than survival.

    UBI is the early retirement for those whose (ancestors) decisions regarding their capital was ineffective.

    The roman analogy is a good one, but why go all the way to robots. Who’s eligible? Why not just have immigrants do the work and pay the citizens a divided?
    Also, financial engineering came a long way since antiquity, why not discount the cash flows and sell them off to the immigrant dispatching places like a MBS, as say, UBI-BS in exchange for commodities?
    – In a globalized world, one could get the labor and the raw materials while keeping the profits for being slightly less of a tyrant.

    1. I understand the appeal for someone who wants to invest in some crypto-project and focus on self-actualization. I don’t understand it for someone like myself who just wants a stable job with decent pay. I suspect that the group you describe makes up a small percentage of the population, while the latter group makes up the majority of workers. Which leads me to question why the appeal behind a *universal* basic income?

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