Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on April 30, 2014

in Growth, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen, Technology, Trade

… is from page 95 of the manuscript of Deirdre McCloskey‘s forthcoming volume, which is now titled Bourgeois Equality (original emphasis):

After all, a blast furnace and a spinning jenny, or for that matter an Acheulean hand ax or a chariot wheel are “robots,” that is, contrivances that abridge labor.  In Afrikaans the word “robot” means what it means elsewhere, following its coinage in Hungary, but is also the normal Afrikaans word for “traffic light.”  Precisely: any contrivance substitutes for raw labor, starting with the stick used by even our early hominid ancestors on the Serengeti to get termites out to eat – in the Afrikaans case for a policeman with white gloves on a pedestal.

Yes.  And therefore anyone who objects to foreign trade or immigration on the grounds that such trade or immigration are substitutes for (domestic) labor is obliged to explain how those particular sources of labor substitution – foreign trade and immigration – differ in economically or ethically relevant ways from the vast sources of other labor substitutes, such as city buses, automatic washing machines, indoor plumbing, and markets for antiques and for used cars.  Any such attempted explanation will fail.  I know that any such explanation will fail because such attempted explanations have been the stock in trade of protectionists for centuries, and every such attempted explanation has been exposed as mistaken.

(Updated in light of Jon Murphy’s excellent comment.)

UPDATE 2: Deirdre sent to me the paragraph as it now appears in the revised version of her manuscript:

The business profit that the left abhors is temporary.  The reward to venturing for example on robotization has been eroded time and again among improvers by their competition, leaving as fruits much cheaper cloth and steel and autos.  After all, a blast furnace and a spinning jenny, or for that matter an Acheulean hand ax or a chariot wheel, are all “robots,” that is, contrivances that abridge labor.  In Afrikaans the word “robot” means what it means elsewhere, following its coinage in Czech (the original meaning is “required work”).  But it also is the normal Afrikaans word for “traffic light.”  Any contrivance substitutes for raw labor, equivalent to a robot, starting with the stick used by our early great ape ancestors on the Serengeti to force termites out of their nests, or for that matter the cactus spine that the Galapagos finches use to dig grubs out of tree bark.  In the Afrikaans case the traffic light substitutes for the labor of a policeman with white gloves on a pedestal.  Good, and good for workers as a whole.

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