Humans have successfully developed laws and social institutions that allow us to gradually improve our welfare over time. These include wealth redistribution among families, close friends and countries coupled with self-ownership and free exchange among billions of humans through markets. Other apparent keys are the incentive to innovate and the ability to accumulate new knowledge in journals and communities of experts.

Unfortunately animals don’t fit into this system. Animals are not able to use property, language, technology, trade and so on to achieve high states of wellbeing on their own. This is not going to change. The lot of animals is therefore up to humans; they will never be able to save themselves from poverty as we are doing for ourselves.

Currently, with a few exceptions, humans do not treat animals as worthy of concern. Farm animals through most of the world have few or no protections and are often treated very badly in order to minimise the resources humans need to sacrifice to raise them. Even the minority of people who care about the welfare of farm animals are generally unconcerned with the suffering of wild animals, no matter how bad life may be for them. Animals we have personal relationships with, like pets, get the best deal, but they are only a small share of all the animals that exist.

What might we hope that humans will do for animals?

One option would be increased regulation of the treatment animals in the same way that we now regulate the upbringing of children. While parents have a great deal of freedom in how they treat their children, they do not have free reign. They don’t ‘own’ children in the way that people currently own animals – rather they are considered to be ‘stewards’ of children. Greater wealth and education in the future might lead people to be willing to make the sacrifices to treat animals this way, just as increased wealth has made many parts of the world willing to dedicate a lot of resources to ensuring children are not mistreated.

A second approach, obvious only to an economist, would be for the government or another group to set financial incentives for treating animals well. People and businesses would be allowed to treat animals badly but they would have to pay a price if they wanted to do so, just as your employer would have to pay you to make you tolerate things you didn’t enjoy. Animal owners could also be rewarded for treating animals well. This would leave it up to the market to determine how animals should be treated once the appropriate incentives had been provided – incentives reflecting the importance society placed on the welfare of animals. One way of looking at this would be as the animal welfare equivalent of a ‘carbon tax’, where the suffering of animals was a social ill like pollution. An alternative perspective would be that the regulator was standing in as a negotiator on behalf of the animals who were themselves unable to negotiate ‘work’ contracts with their owners. These pseudo-contracts would replace the current system of slavery.

A third approach would be to take animals out of the picture altogether. If humans are able to continuously improve their lot in life with technology while non-human animals are not, then eventually human welfare will far exceed animal welfare. At that point it may just be best for humans to replace animals altogether. There are already plans to make farm animals obsolete by growing artificial meat in labs rather than on farms. Humans are also progressively displacing animals from the wilderness by clearing land for human settlement and farming. Humans might find that eventually the only animals they want to keep around are pets, which they enjoy treating well. This scenario would require humans or their descendants to continue to flourish and expand, which is possible but far from certain.

In the short run a greater appetite for direct regulation of animal welfare is the the most I really see happening. In the long term though I am hopeful that humans will end up living much better lives than they currently do, and find that they have nothing to gain by having suffering animals living on Earth.