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More Luddism

Adam Simpson sent to me this essay in today’s Taipei Times; here’s my letter to the editor in response:

Martin Ford fears that continuing automation will usher in a future where “virtually no one would have a job or an income; machines would do everything” (“How automation could cause wide-scale unemployment and sink the global economy,” Nov. 11).

Not only is he 200 years behind the times – the original Luddites began breaking machines in textile factories in 1811, playing on fears that the loss of jobs such as hand-weaving would cause ever-rising unemployment, stagnation, and misery – his argument also is internally inconsistent.  If it’s really true that machines will soon do “everything,” then all human wants will be met without anyone having to work.  Far from most of us being cast into poverty – which is a situation of too many human needs remaining unsatisfied – every last one of us will be fabulously rich because, by Mr. Ford’s assumption, all human needs will be satisfied automatically, by machines.

In fact, of course, no such nirvana awaits us.  As was true 200 years ago, the falling costs of satisfying some wants (such as those for food and clothing) enable us to turn our attention to satisfying other wants, many of which today were unimaginable to our 19th-century ancestors.  Indeed, it’s only because most of the jobs that existed in the past have been destroyed that we today have the luxury to fret about just how we’ll pay for junior’s college education, dad’s blood-pressure medicine, the mortgage on that 1,500 square-foot house with solid floors and a hard roof, and next summer’s family vacation to DisneyWorld.

Donald J. Boudreaux