In 1776, an auspicious year on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Adam Smith published “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” a hefty treatise that outlined the basic principles of what we would now call “free trade” and “capitalism.” His articulation of why certain nations thrive while others falter in a globalized economy dealt a fatal blow to mercantilism, setting the stage for the proliferation of laissez-faire politics in the 19th century. In “The Wealth of Nations,” Smith recalls the story of the first steam engines. Originally, he says, young boys were employed to manually open and shut the valve between the boiler and cylinder. This must have been an intensely boring and menial job. One of the boys, however, realized that by tying the movement of the piston to the valve, the machine would open and shut itself without human intervention—a discovery which would “leave him at liberty to divert himself with his playfellows.” According to Smith, the labor-saving boy is an example of how self-interest naturally generates technological advancement and liberates humans from drudgery.
Now imagine the reaction of the boy’s boss. He has just discovered that he can operate his engine without having to pay the boy’s wages. Instead of “diverting himself with his playfellows,” the boy is unemployed and struggling in an era when families very much depended on child labor. This is what happened to the handloom weavers of Nottingham a mere 30 years after Smith published “The Wealth of Nations.” Owners discovered that mechanical looms could do the same work as humans without demanding pay or other human comforts. The reaction of the dispossessed weavers was to fight back, triggering a wholescale revolt in the English Midlands. Inspired by a semi-mythical, anti-technological crusader called Ned Ludd, the “Luddites” raided factories, tearing apart mechanical looms. Their name later became synonymous with resistance to technological advancement.
The phenomenon of automation-driven unemployment continues. Over the past 50 years, the American labor force has shed telephone operators, travel agents and coal miners en masse, causing social dislocation in many communities. Pretty soon, accountants, waiters and even truck drivers could find themselves out of a job thanks to “robots.” Exemplifying this trend is the decline of the coal industry. Thanks to advances in natural gas extraction and renewable electricity generation, coal and the Appalachian communities which have traditionally mined it simply cannot compete. The Luddites, therefore, have returned. President Donald Trump has declared that “coal is back” as he rolls out measures that intend to protect America’s obsolete industries while actually costing Americans billions in tariffs and externalities.
But we don’t need coal, and by and large we don’t want coal. So why do we have to pick between hamstringing innovation and callously hanging West Virginia out to dry, as some prominent liberals have seemed willing to do? Really, technological advancement should benefit all of us. In a world in which our current level of productivity can provide a reasonable standard of living for pretty much everybody, we should welcome innovation as our workweek becomes gradually shorter, enabling us to focus on those activities which truly excite us. A century ago, John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek by 2028. Why hasn’t this happened?
The answer lies in the structure of work itself. The office and factory floor alike are management’s absolute fiefdoms. Although we depend on work to survive, our bosses reserve the right to dispose of us in pursuit of greater profits. When we are rendered idle by technological advances, we must seek new jobs that are more precarious and often lower paying. While technology “creates” jobs in that more computer programmers and engineers are needed, I would argue that growth in those spheres has been accompanied by an even greater growth of jobs related to rent-seeking, optimization and induced demand. Our economy chugs along but has increasingly little to show for it other than a rise in needless consumption and a sneaking sense of meaninglessness while we’re at work.
The reason why technological unemployment is such an issue, then, is because of ownership. Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang has proposed an ambitious solution to this problem in the form of a universal basic income. 1,000 dollars per month is a good step forward, but it would not fundamentally undermine the system which makes us beholden to owners. We must have a stake in a new society liberated from the desperation of work we don’t really care about or need. Only then can we truly enjoy the benefits of technology, i.e. divert ourselves with our playfellows.
Archer Thomas is a member of the Class of 2021.