Damn All this Progress!

by Don Boudreaux on October 16, 2011

in Country Problems, Creative destruction, Hubris and humility, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen, Technology

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)
Capitol Hill

Dear Ms. Lee:

Fred Barnes reports in the Weekly Standard that you refuse to use computerized checkout lanes at supermarkets (“Boneheaded Economics,” Oct. 24).  As you – who are described on your website as “progressive” – explain, “I refuse to do that.  I know that’s a job or two or three that’s gone.”

Overlooking the fact that you overlook the lower prices on groceries made possible by this labor-saving technology, I’ve some questions for you:

Do you also avoid using computerized (“automatic”) elevators, riding only in those few that still use manual elevator operators?

Do you steer clear of newer automobiles equipped with technologies that enable them to go for 100,000 miles before needing a tune-up?  I’m sure I can find for you, say, a 1972 Chevy Vega that will oblige you to employ countless mechanics.

Do you shun tubeless steel-belted radial tires on your car – you know, the kind that go flat far less often than do old-fashioned tires?  No telling how many tire-repairing jobs have been destroyed by modern technology-infused tires.

Do you and your family refuse flu shots in order to increase your chances of requiring the services of nurses and M.D.s – and, if the economy gets lucky and you and yours get seriously ill, also of hospital orderlies and administrators?  Someone as aware as you are of the full ramifications of your consumption choices surely takes account of the ill effects that flu shots have on the jobs of health-care providers.

You must, indeed, be distressed as you observe the appalling amount of labor-saving technologies in use throughout our economy.  It is, alas, a disturbing trend that has been around for quite some time – since, really, the invention of the spear which destroyed the jobs of some hunters.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


(HT my buddy Lyle Albaugh)

UPDATE: My friend Wilson Mixon, from over at Division of Labour, e-mails to me this reaction to my letter to Rep. Lee:

The spear didn’t just destroy jobs. It (and even worse, the bow and arrow) dehumanized the whole process. How much more fulfilling it must have been to take on a boar mano a mano (or mano a colmillo). Think of the empathy and respect  between predator and prey that the old fashioned way must have generated. No wonder we’re losing touch with nature and with our deeper, truer, fuller self. Ah, the (in)humanity!


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