One consequence of reading Margaret Talbot's New Yorker piece on neuro-enhancing drugs is that it made we want some. (Indeed, the piece itself had a nice way of pulling this off, since my attention span is so addled by the Internet that it took me about three sittings to finish it.) But in addition to all sorts of ethical questions -- is the appropriate analogy steroids at the ballpark or plastic surgery at the beach? -- the existence of productivity enhancing drugs raises a variety of economic questions. Would we be better off with a world in which we can pop productivity enhancing drugs like they were Flintstones Vitamins?
I'm not sure we would be, though I think it depends on what, exactly, is at stake.
One possibility is that these drugs make people more efficient -- that is, they increase the amount of output from each hour of labor. If that's what these drugs do, then they're not altogether different from the cotton gin or the microchip: It's labor-enhancing technological progress. And Talbot's piece presents ample evidence that this is in fact how users view the drugs: They can get more done in an eight hour day than they otherwise would.
But a second possibility is that the drugs just increase the amount of hours people are capable of working -- that is, they increase the labor supply. And it's not obvious to me that this is a good thing. From Talbot:
Recently, an advice column in Wired featured a question from a reader worried about "a rising star at the firm" who was "using unprescribed modafinil to work crazy hours. Our boss has started getting on my case for not being as productive."
I share the anxiety. It's great for me if I can take one of these smart pills and work 80 hours a week. It is likewise great for me -- to take the econ 101 example -- if I can graze my sheep on the town common. But it's great only if I'm the only one doing it. When everyone grazes their sheep, we no longer have a common. And when everyone takes the smart pills and works 80 hours a week, we end up with a world in which no one has the competitive advantage and everyone has less free time.
Output would be higher, but I'm not sure that means life would be better. It would be question of weighing the increased output against the lost free time (if you took the pills) or lost wages (if you didn't).
One of the interesting claims in Greg Clark's A Farewell to Alms is that standards of living were equally high in hunter-gatherer societies as they were in 17th and 18th century pre-industrial societies. Productivity gains from agriculture and trade were dissipated by larger population sizes -- a Malthusian trap that was broken only by the industrial revolution -- even as the hours of labor steadily increased. I don't think the neuro-enhancer situation is perfectly analagous, but I do think it means there's no necessary reason to believe that a world in which we work longer hours is better than one in which we don't. But maybe I would come to a different conclusion if I had the smart pills.