My Mercatus Center colleague Rob Raffety sent to me this link with pictures of people years ago performing jobs that have been destroyed by technology. (The only one of these jobs that I’m old enough to remember, but only just barely, is milkman. This job was rapidly disappearing when I was a child in the 1960s, a decade in which household refrigerators had become quite common throughout the United States, even in working-class households of the sort that I grew up in.)
Fears of technology destroying most opportunities for gainful employment are, of course, ancient. Yesterday I offered one reason why I am quite confident that such fears are unwarranted – a reason that can be summarized by saying that, unless and until technology eliminates scarcity, technology will not eliminate the possibility of human beings working gainfully for each other (and, alternatively, if technology does eliminate scarcity, then we’ll have heaven on earth and there will be neither a need for paid human work nor a willingness of anyone to perform such work).
(It’s interesting that many religious people long to spend eternity in a place without scarcity and, hence, without the need for labor; that sublime place is commonly called “heaven.” Yet many of these same people also believe that technology now threatens to so reduce scarcity here on earth that there will no longer be a need for labor; that prospect is considered to be hell.)
Technology, as Deirdre McCloskey reminds us, is not only what we moderns think of as “technology.” A wheel embodies technology. So, too, do hand-held shovels and hoes. So does a bucket. So do working animals such as horses, mules, and shepherding dogs. So does a bridle. So do cement and bricks. So does a 15th-century printing press. So do levers and wedges. So does a hand-held saw. So do roads made even just of dirt. So does a candle. So do salting and pickling. Each of these innovations destroyed some jobs that would otherwise be performed by human beings.
Such job destruction has been going on since Adam first succumbed to the deliciousness of Eve’s apple. And while it’s certainly true that the pace of technological innovation has increased in the past few centuries – and while it might also be true that the pace of technological innovation has further increased in the past few decades – what’s also certainly true is that the quality of life for ordinary human beings continues to improve without causing any subsidence in the demands of us billions of humans for yet further improvements in our standards of living.
As the wise Charley Hooper e-mailed me yesterday, in response to this post:
Her [my e-mail correspondent Louise Lauderdale’s] fear [of technology] seems reasonable at first blush and, if she were queen for a day, who knows what kind of counterproductive laws should would impose. But then, when economic logic is applied, her fear seems silly.
The danger we face is not market-driven innovations and advances in technology; it is instead the hubris and poor analyses of those who would exercise sovereign power to suppress human creativity or to divert it from its market-driven pathways.