Scarcity. What is scarce and what isn’t? Is information scarce? Will 3D printers bring about an era of ‘post-scarcity’? Some say that air isn’t scarce and hydrogen isn’t scarce. We can all agree that platinum is pretty scarce, and in discussions about Bitcoin, one tends to hear the term ‘artificial scarcity’ fairly often.
Absolutely everything is scarce. Scarcity is an inescapable condition of existence and there is no possible way it can ever be avoided. It applies to everything. Additionally, scarcity is binary and cannot be mitigated. The colloquial definition of scarcity is what is referred to as “abundance”. How much ‘stuff’ there is available relative to the demand. There’s a huge demand for air but there’s just so much of it, it’s super-abundant.
The formal definition of scarcity in an economic context only refers to the aspect of limitation in reality. All human action comes down to a matter of choice – what means we choose to employ to reach our desired ends and when. But why do we need to choose in the first place? Simply put, it’s because we can’t have everything at the same time. Why? Scarcity.
All day, every day, we are at the mercy of the inherent limitation of reality. There is a finite amount of time in a day, and nothing happens instantly. We must make choices on how to spend this limited time to maximize our happiness. If we can have or do two things at once, we don’t need to make a choice between them. I don’t need to choose to read or chew gum, I can do them both at the same time (though I still must choose what to read and what to chew). If there was no scarcity, no choice at all would ever need to be made – humans would not act. There would be no reason to, we would have everything at the same time, do everything at the same time, and be everywhere at the same time. Nobody would have to make anything, everything would all exist everywhere needed simultaneously.
While resources may be abundant or rare, scarcity is not a property of certain things and not others, it refers to the general state of limitation and nothing is exempt. Information is no different. Some look at the fact that digital information is easily duplicated and transmitted and say that information is ‘post-scarce’ (a wholly meaningless term). There is still a finite amount of information that can be stored, information cannot instantly be copied, and only a certain amount can be processed at any time. Just because something may not be ‘material’ or ‘tangible’ does not mean scarcity has been avoided. The ‘artificial scarcity’ of Bitcoin is nothing more than limitation applied to Bitcoins to control how many may exist, making sure Bitcoins do not become overabundant so they maintain value – it’s not impossible to ‘make’ Bitcoins, but if 1,000 could be made in a second by anybody, the purpose would be defeated.
No technology, existing or theoretical has the possibly of changing any of this. 3D printers do not ‘solve’ scarcity for reasons that should be apparent – they take time, they can only print one thing at one time, and the materials used to make object A cannot make object B. Even if I had a magical box full of apples that never ran out, nothing would change. Scarcity is completely inescapable.
Nothing can be ‘post-scarce’, scarcity is an ever-present force in reality. We are mortal beings forever dealing with finite quantities of finite things in finite space with finite amounts of energy at finite speeds. To deny this or to believe this will ever change is to deny the most fundamental facts of existence.