Douwe Osinga's Blog: More's Utopia and Moore's Stupid White Men

Friday, January 2, 2004

Thomas More's Utopia is an old book - it's from 1517 - with a lot of modern sounding idea's. Often it reminds me of that other left wing guy with a similar name, Michael Moore. Moore has close to 500 year of social and economic thought on More, but still there arguments have a lot of similarities.

Thomas More’s leftwing radicalism must be seen in his time of course. More seems to be against private property and things scarcity value an ‘idiotic’ concept, but his radical ideas about the punishment of crimes would be seen as almost fascist nowadays, though they were completely left wing back then. More opposes the death-penalty for theft and proposes to condemn anyone caught as a thief lifelong slavery, which is more human and more just. Well, maybe.

But there are also similarities to the arguing of Moore. Take for example sheep. In Mores days, the rich landowners started to drive people of their lands in order to keep sheep for their wool. The people that were driven away ended up in the suddenly growing cities as vagabonds and paupers, which are then driven to theft and beggary. The people that are already rich make the poor poorer in order to have a few more sheep. It sounds all very modern and relevant. Apart from the third world where this very thing is taking place right now, this story could be told as a parable for the fate of the North American programmer, who is replaced by cheap Indian programmers, just to raise profits of already rich companies by just a little more. ‘Thus a few greedy people have converted one of our countries greatest resources into a national disaster’, says More about the sheep farming, but he could be talking about the fact that high tech expertise, the very fundament on which our current wealth seems to be based, is leaking by the bucket overseas.

There is of course another way to look at the situation. The Middle Ages had produced a number of agricultural innovations that had increased the yields of corn with quite a bit. In other words, less land was needed to feed the same number of people and fewer hands were needed to grow this food. The surplus of land could be used for sheep farming and the surplus of men went into the cities. Wool clothing, a luxury product, became in range of more and more people. And the standard of living in the cities was higher than in the countryside, if not always for the first generation.

People living in the slums of Third World cities would of course rather live somewhere better, but not usually in the countryside. Or maybe they would, but they see that they cannot earn money there. This workforce surplus shows up as mass-unemployment in the statistics, but holds the hope for future industrial riches. Sometimes this works, like in China, India and parts of South-East Asia. Sometimes it doesn’t, like in parts of South-America and most of Africa.
What about the downsized tech-workers? Is it much different? As I argued before this also can be seen as freeing up a surplus of workers. Farmers were replaced by sheep, US programmers by Indian wiz kids. In England it made woollen clothing affordable. In the US it might make software cheaper. But the trick is of course to make the surplus workers productive. The surplus workers in England formed the base of wool-industry which eventually evolved into the Industrial Revolution, which saw the greatest growth in income for the poor ever.

For the US economy as a whole to profit from moving programming work to India, the replaced programmer needs to find a job that adds more then the Indian that replaced him costs. For the programmer it is of course only a good deal if he makes more than in his old job, which is much less likely. More and Moore want to force the rich to behave, but this tends not to work and on the long run, things work out.

But sometimes this is a long run. In the 500 years since Utopia, a lot has changed. Among More’s radical proposals are the idea not to impose the death penalty on all thieves and the building of hospitals that actually cure illnesses, so that patients would go there voluntarily instead of being sent there to die. Would the implementation of More’s Utopia have cut short this long run?

More’s Utopia looks a lot like Mao’s China. There is no private property, people cannot move around at will, a very limited number of consumption good with unlimited access to them for all. People wear simple and standard clothing, eat simple and standard food and live in simple and standard houses. Compared to living standards in the West, this is hardly utopian, but it measures up well against the situation in England at the beginning of the sixteenth century. And it took Mao’s China a surprisingly short time to transform itself into an economic powerhouse with a growing affluent middle class. It took England more than 400 years.