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Must Any Job Necessarily Be Done by Human Labor?

Here’s a letter that I sent yesterday to the Baltimore Sun:

Labor-union official
Valerie Long asserts that office-cleaning jobs "have to be filled by
someone" (Letters, December 7).  This mistaken belief misleads many
persons, including Ms. Long, to suppose that employers have no choice
but to pay statutorily imposed higher wages.

In fact, no job
must be filled.  Each worker is hired only when an employer gains more
from hiring that worker than it costs that employer to make the hire.
Even for high-priority tasks, such as keeping office buildings clean
and smoothly operating, employers can substitute machines and other
technologies for workers.  For historical evidence, Ms. Long might
explore how a hike in the minimum-wage prompted building owners in the
1960s to speed up their substitution of automatic elevators for manual
ones operated by low-skilled workers.

Donald J. Boudreaux

[For the story of the minimum-wage and elevators, see David R. Henderson’s fine book The Joy of Freedom (2001).]

A friend of mine, commenting on this letter, said that it’s "hard to imagine" office cleaning being automated.  True enough.  It is hard to imagine.  That’s one of the marvelous things about entrepreneurship in markets: all it takes is one person to imagine something that no one else can, or at least does, imagine, and, voila!, that "unimaginable" something often comes into existence — indeed, in many cases becomes so commonplace that it is a banal piece of our everyday lives.  How many of us could have imagined (had we not encountered it) the microwave oven, wi-fi, MP3 players, a chainsaw, antibiotics, or the electric lightbulb?

I’m no building manager, so I’ve given very little thought to how janitorial services might be made more efficient or less necessary.  Still, using my (paltry and decidedly non-entrepreneurial imagination), I came up with this list of possible ways that building owners and managers might respond to rising wages of janitors:

– install more self-flush toilets and urinals;

– install bathroom-counter surfaces that contain anti-microbial agents;

– switch to electric floor scrubbers each of which covers a larger surface area than do currently used scrubbers;

– switch to larger, more powerful vacuum cleaners each of which covers a larger surface area than do currently used vacuum cleaners;

– install "robot" vacuum cleaners;

install flooring that cleans more easily (i.e., faster) than conventional
flooring — or even switch from carpet to hard floor (or vice-versa)
depending upon which surface requires less total cleaning time;

redesign trash-disposal methods so that that fewer worker-hours are required to empty
trash cans;

– install improved air-cleaning devices that extract and capture from the air more dirt and dust particles than do less-costly devices;

lock more restrooms – that is, more commonly require a key for entry into
restrooms, thereby reducing the frequency of restroom use, keeping them
more off-limits to visitors;

– increase the penalties on
tenants for undue wear and tear on rented spaces as well as for
slovenliness discovered in buildings’ public places.

Again, I’m no
building manager, so I’m certain that persons who deal with such issues
for a living could list, or discover, or imagine, dozens – perhaps even hundreds –
of other ways that would reduce over time the average number of hours
janitorial work is required each week.

True, it’s unlikely that
office cleaning can be completely automated.  But surely many steps are
possible that reduce the number of hours of janitorial services that a
building must hire.