Modern economies are increasingly based around information. Information "wants to be free"—as the saying goes—but free things are bad for capitalism, because capitalism is about competition and making profits.
Information goods aren't like physical goods. Intrinsically, a computer program is different from a car. Building each new BMW is as hard as the one before; creating another copy of a computer program is easy. Once you've got the recipe, each extra unit is essentially free. That's great for information giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple. It means that once they have a recipe, they can watch the money rush in. But maintaining the idea that what they're selling is valuable requires a certain inventiveness. They need to appeal to intellectual property principles (a notoriously messy area of the law). They need to maintain monopolies, like Google's de facto monopoly over search. Sorry Bing. Or they need to give the product away, then sell something else (Facebook sells your personal data to advertisers). None of these things are intrinsic to the main capitalistic exchange because the old law of supply and demand has broken down. We've moved from an era of scarcity to an era of abundance.
"The main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies."
In time, technology is likely to drive many things to "zero marginal cost." Energy, for example, won't be subject to market forces. We'll just have a solar panel on the roof and each kilowatt hour will essentially be free. When we need something for the house, we'll just print it with a 3-D printer. And when we have an Internet of Things, everyone will be connected, enabling unparalleled co-creation and collaboration.
"Today, the main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks, and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information," Mason says.
LIFE BEYOND CAPITALISM?
In looking beyond the current system, Mason stops short of providing a blueprint. But he says we should socialize aspects of the finance industry (to stop it from taking all the profits while leaving society with bail-out bills), socialize information (so Google and Facebook don't enjoy information asymmetry), encourage collaborative work and nonprofits, and nationalize utilities. In Mason's economy, we would "privilege the free Wi-Fi network in the mountain village over the rights of the telecoms monopoly."
A basic income is key in a non-market economy. It's what allows people to volunteer at nonprofit businesses, set up food co-ops, or design something using a 3-D design module. It wouldn't stop people from working—those with well-paying, satisfying jobs would continue to do them—but it would stop people from having to do things that machines can do more easily and more safely.
A basic income is a way to spread the rewards of work across socially useful activities, only some of which are currently rewarded, economically speaking. "A basic income says, in effect, there are too few work hours to go around, so we need to inject liquidity into the mechanism that allocates them," Mason writes. "The lawyer and the daycare worker would both need to be able to exchange hours of work at full pay, for hours of free time paid for by the state."