Humans and Machines: Friends or Foes?

I recently had an interesting conversation with someone I met at a social function. This person strongly believes that automation and the use of production machinery in the modern economy is the main cause of unemployment and misery in the lower classes. This person also went on to assert that there should be “Make Work” laws against using machinery or robotics to perform jobs a human can do.

This is hardly a new idea. Since the 1770s, this has been a topic of discussion. Unofficially, anti-automation thought is called “Luddite” philosophy, named for a certain Ned Ludd of the late 1700s who, after discovering he might lose his job in a textile mill due to the introduction of the mechanical loom, flew into a destructive rage and attempted to destroy the machines. Luddite philosophy was a major tenet of Communist thought: Greedy and bourgeois factory owners were said to replace the working class with machines and doom them to a life of poverty.

Modern Luddites usually claim that encroaching automation across the economy is producing unemployment, destroying the quality-of-life for the working classes, and eroding the overall wealth of the nation. This idea is similar in-kind to Mercantilism, a widely discredited school of thought in which a government must subsidize its exports or face the same impacts listed above. They are both tenets of a mindset which I am officially coining as of right now: “Labor Nationalism”. Somebody call Merriam and Webster.

Luddite philosophy, despite being regarded as fallacious by economists across the spectrum, continues to persist (not unlike Mercantilism). Automation is not responsible for society’s woes. Quite the contrary; Automation has played a huge role in creating the fantastic living standards we take for granted today.

To begin with, Anti-automation thought carries a significant amount of philosophic baggage that must be claimed in order to remain consistent. For instance: A Luddite believes that technological enhancements which throw men out of work are immoral. By this logic, the Luddite should oppose almost any technological development at all. The refrigerator? Evil. It stole business from the small-town butchers people used to rely on for fresh meats. The automobile? Wicked. It threw horse-and-buggy designers, builders, and coachmen out of business. In fact, the horse itself is a demonic animal. Men should be paying other men to be carried around on their backs. Of course, this is all silliness.

This leads into my next point: Opposing advancements in production machinery now means that the consistent Luddite must retroactively oppose any automation advancement in the past as well. If it’s immoral to throw a man out of work with robotic automobile production lines now, then it must have been just as immoral to throw people out of work with the mechanical loom or motorized harvester in the past. There can only be one logical conclusion for the consistent Luddite: Society must return to a more primitive state in which all automation is banned where manual labor would suffice. Imagine the implications. This idea would be a tough sell to modern society.

Some might accuse me of painting anti-automation philosophy in a deliberately absurd light. My response would be, Are these not the logical and ultimate conclusions of consistent anti-automation thought? Does the modern Luddite admit that automation is good as currently exists in some industries, but shouldn’t be allowed to move any further? If so, that would imply that while the modern Luddite thinks of himself as correct right now, the Luddite 200 years ago must have been wrong; the mechanical loom WAS good for society. Why should that be so? What has changed to make the conditions of Luddite philosophy true in the modern day whereas it was untrue in the past, if this is the case?

The Age of Automation heralded the Age of Mass Production. Household items such as clothes or utensils that were once scarce were now relatively plentiful. As more is produced and available, prices fall. People that could only afford a few meager garments in the past can now boast at least a small wardrobe’s-worth; utensils which used to be carved or built from hand could now be produced en masse and sold for a trifling sum. Quality-of-life across the globe skyrocketed. The world saw the most transformative period in history from 1800 to now, when living standards reached an extent beyond the wildest dreams of humans a few centuries ago.

Luddite thinkers tend to focus on only two actors: the greedy owner of the means of production, and the displaced worker. “Do not lose sight of the worker”, they cry. Very well; let us hope nobody loses sight of the worker. However, the Luddites themselves seem to lose sight of the most important economic actor of all: the consumer.  As I discussed earlier, automation increases productive efficiency and output. This increases the range of options to consumers, and at lower prices due to increased quantities. The effect this has had on the quality-of-life for people across the globe has been obvious and staggering. The consumer (which is all of us in some form, mind you) benefits when production processes become more efficient, and people are able to more readily partake in a higher quality-of-life. I recommend an anti-automation enthusiast try explaining to people living in poverty why they should accept higher prices and lower availability so that somewhere a worker they don’t know can keep his job. They may have difficulty seeing the logic.  

This is not to say I don’t feel for a worker who may be displaced by automated production. Losing your job is surely a shame. They have my sympathies. However, human labor is the most versatile and useful tool on the face of the earth. A robot which can no longer perform its function is obsolete and good only for parts; when a human’s “function” is no longer necessary, a human can still adapt to an entirely different job, if need be. There is no robot or computer which can ultimately compare with the versatility and the problem solving capabilities of the human being. If a human being can be relieved from a mindless task by a robot, this is a good thing; it frees up the person to find work in an industry which can better utilize unique human talents.

Consider this: We take a number of available services for granted. Massage therapists, personal trainers, landscapers, interior designers, dieticians, doctors and nurses across the medical field… their services are offered in abundance nowadays, and are often available at prices the average consumer can afford. Why now, but not 200 years ago? It is partly because automation of industries and more efficient production has allowed humans to find and fill demand in lines of work previously considered marginal. That is what many Luddites fail to consider, or purposefully ignore: The blooming of the service industry is due to automation and how it has freed human capital to work where a human’s unique talents can be better utilized.  

Furthermore, if automation is truly as menacing to employment as Luddites claim, then unemployment rates should be far higher. Currently, we are at 7.6%. Considering how widespread automation has become, the number should be much, much higher if Luddite thought is to be believed. Clearly, that is not the case. That is because, as I mentioned earlier, humans adapt to changing conditions and find work elsewhere. That is what has happened. Each human who no longer welds metal in an auto-production line is now free to fill a different need somewhere else, one that was not being sufficiently supplied before. Maybe he is repairing basketball hoops, or reupholstering living room furniture. Maybe he is fixing the very machines that replaced him! He may or may not be able to make use of his welding skills, but skilled craftsman especially are often able to pick up new skills in many areas; even unskilled workers can at least learn basic skills in different areas.

“Labor Nationalism” is a pervasive idea, but easily deflated when confronted. I do not wish unemployment on anyone, but to say that everyone else must accept higher prices and lower availability of goods for the sake of one group’s employment is foolishness. The health of employment for one group of workers somewhere does not justify using coercive threats of violence against everyone else, which is the basis of anti-automation philosophy: They wish to wield the threat of violence against others in order to forcibly promote their ideas on what constitutes a good and just society. In a market of free people, free decisions and voluntary transactions, the world will not stop turning so the horse-and-buggy coachman can keep his job. Quite the contrary; the Free Market will welcome him to a new line of work with open arms, and all of society will be better off for it.

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