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.

Let the Robots Dig Coal Mines

Bad robot! That's what you get for taking our jobs!
Bad robot! That’s what you get for taking our jobs!

Another week, another proclamation that the robots will take our jobs. Why is future-President Trump denouncing overseas outsourcing? Trump should be railing against robots.

John Maynard Keynes predicted an impending mass unemployment 85 years ago. And before Keynes, technological unemployment was similarly forewarned by prescient thinkers like Karl Marx, Paul Krugman, and Mao Zedong. Even in 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote about the end of human labor due to the invention of watermills and levers and vending machines.

None of those predictions came to pass, but this time is different. This time, we have ROBOTS.

Previously, Keynes proposed a solution to mass unemployment in his General Theory [1]:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.

Actually Keynes went on to suggest that houses and roads and pyramids might be a better use of human labor, but infrastructure development is politically fraught. And we have robots for that stuff.

So let the hyperproductive robots bury banknotes in coalmines, and have the unemployed masses dig them out.

The nation has no shortage of abandoned coalmines now that the largest coal companies have all filed for bankruptcy. The robots didn’t take the coalminers’ jobs, but they can certainly appropriate the coalmines!


As government agents, the robots will need to undergo certification and background checks. Robots will need occupational licenses, work permits, microchips, and NTSB-approved safety wire. We’ll also need robot compliance officers, certified robot mechanics, and people to certify the certified mechanics. We can use bureaucrat-robots to supervise some of the worker-robots, but it can’t just be robots all the way up, because Quis custodiet ipsos custodes and such.

There will inevitably come a day when a robot malfunctions. A minor software glitch or a malicious hack, and maybe a robot causes some damage. Robots will thereafter need to be insured, they’ll need routine audits and health & safety examinations to check for viruses. We’ll see a proliferation of attorneys specializing in robot litigation. Maybe they’ll demand rights for their clients.

And lest you think I’m being ridiculous, just refer to the sequence of events that transformed general aviation in the past century. What began as a hobby for self-taught mechanics is now an industry where you to have your anus digitally inspected by an FAA-authorized medical examiner before you can legally pilot a Cessna 152 (FAR Part § 61.23).

There’s gonna be a lot of work to do, is the point I’m trying to make.

But we’re not asking for banknotes in coalmines, and we don’t actually want to do work. We really just want free money. That is, a Universal Basic Income.


I get the impression that the loudest advocates of UBI are also the people least likely to have their jobs displaced by automata. How come I don’t hear manual laborers calling for Basic Income? Probably because I don’t follow any on Twitter, but still.

The technologically-elite don’t really believe that robots will destroy all the jobs. They just want to seem like they’re not only looking out for themselves for once.

But this is Silicon Valley, and that’s never the case. Silicon Valley progressives want a social safety net so that they can explore world-changing ideas without incurring any real risk. They want the grown-up world to be more like college.

Great, I would love to get paid for not working. Unfortunately, the ruling class knows better than to let large numbers of smart and educated people have too much free time on their hands. That’s exactly how we end up with anti-establishment movements like the Beat Generation and 60s Counterculture and Occupy Wall Street. Do you think Satoshi Nakamoto* could have created Bitcoin while chained to a desk job?

Academia used to be the most effective way to keep a lot of smart, ambitious narcissists from doing any real harm. But the government no longer provides sufficient funds to keep these people institutionalized. The academic world has become a bureaucratic politicized mess, and there is no place left in society for those who want a life of intellectual freedom.

So what do you do when you have the soul of Socrates and the Lyceum of America’s underfunded academic institutions?

You say some stuff about robots taking our jobs and make the case for Basic Income. Maybe with enough social security, Silicon Valley can become a safe-haven for aspiring tech leaders to pursue challenging projects without worrying about an immediate return. UBI won’t be cheap, but if we eliminate all existing welfare programs, we can redistribute funds from the needy to the lazy [2].

If we’re honest about what we want, we can see that there are other ways to get there. The domain of solutions to Robots are taking our jobs is different from the domain of solutions to Smart people want a safe space in which to be academic.

Do we want a return to the Golden Age of Athens? Ancient Greece didn’t achieve economic and cultural growth by instituting UBI, they did it by funding public works programs. There are other possible solutions. More funding for research and the arts. Government think tanks. Intellectual safe spaces. Whatever. But to blame the robots for automating our jobs away is disingenuous and grossly misinforms the entire conversation.

*But what if Satoshi was a bot?

See Also:
1. John Maynard Keynes. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936.
2. Charles Murray. In Our Hands: A Plan To Replace The Welfare State. AEI Press, 2006.