First, majorities may vote against producing certain goods on the grounds that they endanger the consumer and/or other people. Examples might include guns for hunting, explosives for demolition, porn, and highly addictive substances (which might be made available only through treatment programmes). Conceivably, majorities might go too far and refuse to authorise some goods and services on vague and inadequate grounds such as being “inconsistent with socialist values.”
Second, the production of certain goods may be judged too unpleasant or dangerous, to producers or to local residents, even after all possible safety precautions have been taken. Consider bird’s nest soup, a delicacy treasured by gourmets for its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Collectors stand on bamboo scaffolding to harvest swifts’ nests from high up on cave walls, at considerable risk to their lives. Capitalism resolves such conflicts of interest in favour of the consumer because people will do just about anything to survive. But members of socialist society, like the wealthy of today, will be free of economic duress: their needs will be met as of right. This will not undermine their willingness to work, but they are likely to be rather picky in choosing the work they do.
Few miners (to take a more important example) will be keen to go on working underground. Whether or not society adopts a formal decision to abolish the most unpleasant kinds of work, people will “vote with their feet”. The issue is how society reacts. Unless people can be gently persuaded to continue temporarily with work they want to leave, society may have to accept the situation and adjust to the resulting change in the range of products available.
Free access to outer space?
What about goods that may not be dangerous to consume or produce but do incorporate large amounts of labour, energy, and materials, with a correspondingly large environmental impact? Will socialist society ensure free access to luxury goods like those currently consumed by the wealthy – for instance, the “off road vehicle” sold as a boys’ toy by Harrods?
It may be objected that the members of socialist society will not want to ape the lifestyle of the idle rich under capitalism. However, a demand for highly intricate products need have nothing to do with frivolous self-indulgence. It may arise from a spreading interest in artistic self-expression and scientific exploration. There may be numerous amateur scientists clamouring for the latest sophisticated equipment for their home labs. Will socialist society provide free access to electron microscopes? Or to space travel for the millions of people who dream of venturing into outer space? (At present the Russian Space Agency offers trips to the International Space Station for $1 million.)
There is also a class of “locational” goods that can never be supplied in abundance because they are tied to specific locations. Whatever precautions are taken, for example, the number of tourists allowed into nature reserves must be restricted if ecologically sensitive habitats are not to be degraded.
Another knotty question is how the principle of free access is to be applied in the sphere of housing. One of the top priorities when socialism is established will be to replace substandard housing stock so that everyone has access to spacious and comfortable housing. Presumably certain standards will be set for new residential construction – quite high ones, no doubt. But surely the new housing will not be as spacious and luxurious as the most expensive residences under capitalism. People will not have free access to their own marble palaces.