Supposing that there in island. The island is barren except for a machine that makes food. Let us suppose that people want for nothing else. At first the machine requires the whole population to maintain it and each is paid with food tokens.

But gradually the machine is updated until it requires only one person to run it. This person is paid in food tokens. He can use some of the tokens to buy security to stop other people stealing his food. Now it seems if the market is allowed to run its course, this will end up with half the country with no food and no jobs.

If nature takes its course, this half of the country will either die in a famine or simply decide they are too poor to support children and the population will drop.

But then the person who owns the machine needs less security, and so sacks them. Eventully it will just end up with him by himself.

The alternative would be to enforce giving free food to people without jobs.

Is there an economic solution to this in which the population is maintained but everyone is not on welfare? Basically giving everyone the same even though one person is doing the work.

Or are these the only alternatives:

  • Survival of the fitness, let the population die off
  • Give everyone free money even if they are not working.

These seem kind of like the left/right political spectrum but neither seems ideal.

(BTW. As I said the humans on this island are totally satisfied only by the food. And so there is no "solution" which involves things like becoming a masseuse or a poet or a comedian. One can assume that there could equally be a machine that could do these things.)

  • $\begingroup$ This is less of a question a more a strung-out story that is vaguely related to unemployment. For one, unemployment is necessary for people to move between occupations (frictional unemployment). What do you want to know? $\endgroup$
    – Brennan
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Brennan Does no-one understand allegory and metaphor these days? It's when you use a simpler example to illustrate a more general and complicated situation. The reason being that the simpler example may be more self-evident and easier to reason with than the more generalised framework. Obviously I'm not talking about a real island. Examples of allegory include the political novels Animal Farm, and the book 1984. One could also use a symbolic framework such as mathemtics to describe economics but that is not the only symbolic and metaphoric framework available for rhetorical use. $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 2:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes I understand but i think you have the notion that we rely too heavily on simplified situations and assumptions in economics. Ofcourse most of our theoretical models are derived from simple situations, but your example is simplified to the point that asking whether unemployment is possibly solved in a way other than the two you mentioned in the story you gave is not going to give you any intuition towards whether or not it is solvable in reality. I think this question was downvoted (not by me) because this just doesn’t seem to fit with the way we analyze situations... $\endgroup$
    – Brennan
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Brennan Fair enough. This is just how I annalyze situations. The reason being that if you start with a very complicated situation such as a whole country with multiple jobs, etc., one can create falsehoods by obfuscating things. e.g. "If someone is unemployed they can just get another job". Which seems reasonable and yet may obfuscate the fact that there may be a theoretical limit to jobs. Also sometimes economists treat a population as a continuum. Pointing out where my simplification is wrong is also very insightful. $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ "half the country will either die in a famine or simply decide they are too poor to support children" Why pretend the most likely eventual game theory outcome of this scenario doesn't exist, the 'unemployed' band together & wage war against the machines operator & his guards for control of the machine. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 1:33

1 Answer 1


Let me rephrase the question in my own words: in an environment where automation increasingly is taking over, are there alternatives besides leaving the have-nots behind or providing a basic income?

An (non-ideal) alternative is to pay people to do a job that is pointless (not related to food production in your analogy). If the point of this question is to confirm your belief that there is no other ideal alternative within your limited analogy, then you have a +1 from me.

I would also argue that basic income isn't necessarily politically left wing, but I'll just link you to Politics SE to debate that. And perhaps I am too left wing to see otherwise but if there is a magical machine as in your analogy that takes care of food for everyone, why not just distribute food unconditionally? How is that not ideal? I understand the argument that humans need to work to fulfill "higher needs" but I think that is a separate question from needing to work to fulfill physiological needs.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This has in fact happened in Prague, I believe, where the King paid people to build an (unnecassary) wall. He was hailed as a hero who saved them from poverty. I have had a theory that the pyramids served this purpose. As a non-essantial job that could be assigned to the unemployed in Egypt. I sometimes wonder if the unemployed in the Western world could be given a non-essential superfluous job to do. $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 2:34
  • $\begingroup$ I guess the free food answer is not ideal, because of human nature, and the innate desire to compete. Even if it is theoretically an ideal scenario I'm not sure it would be a stable scenario. But who knows, perhaps it would work and humans would find other ways to compete. And how would we choose the person to fix the machine? $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ Potentially the machine could fix itself. And if it only requires a small percentage of the population to fix, I'm sure there would be enough volunteers. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 6:24

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