My Response to Luddism

by Don Boudreaux on July 20, 2015

in Growth, Innovation, Myths and Fallacies, Reality Is Not Optional, Seen and Unseen, Standard of Living, Technology, The Future

Here’s a letter to a home-schooling mom in Colorado (who e-mailed me to object to the Per Bylund article that I linked to earlier today at Some Links):

Ms. Louise Lauderdale

Dear Ms. Lauderdale:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You wonder why I don’t share your “fear that robots and technology will make only the 1% richer and make the rest of us poor by wiping out all the jobs….  [If technology continues to advance at this pace] there won’t be a thing left for human workers to do.”

Your fear, which is widely shared, makes no sense when you think about it.  A society in which most people are poor and yet is also a society that contains no opportunities for people to engage in productive, gainful work for each other is difficult even to conceive, and in reality is an impossibility.

The essence of being poor is having an unusually large number of unmet economic needs and wants.  Poor people suffer the likes of too little clothing, cramped and poorly furnished housing, transportation vehicles that are dangerous and that frequently break down, untreated illnesses – the list is long.  So a society with many poor people is a society with an especially large number of jobs to be done rather than one with not “a thing left for human workers to do.”

Now you’ll interject here by saying “Yes, but all those jobs will be done by robots and other technologies” – to which I respond: If all of those jobs can indeed be done by robots and other technologies at prices that everyone can afford, then everyone is very rich and no one is poor.  The reason is that, by your assumption, everyone can afford to use robots and other technologies to satisfy all of their economic needs and wants.  There are no jobs for humans in this fantastic world only because robots and other technologies are the most affordable options for every person to use to satisfy each and every one of his or her economic desires.  In contrast, if all of those jobs cannot be done by robots and other technologies at prices that everyone can afford, then the robots and other technologies have not achieved what your scenario assumes they achieve, namely, the wiping out of all opportunities for humans to work gainfully for each other.

In short, a society in which robots and other technologies are so advanced and inexpensive to use that they are the least-costly way to satisfy all human economic desires cannot possibly also be a society with lots of poor people (that is, a society with lots people who cannot afford to satisfy many of their economic needs).

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

I, personally, would love to live in such a fantastical world of “post-scarcity” – a world, by the way, in which (contrary to Ms. Lauderdale’s fears) there would be no economic inequality whatsoever.  Alas, though, I’m quite confident that such a fantasy world will never be achieved.  We might continue to approach it, as we’ve been doing now for a couple of centuries at an especially rapid pace.  But I doubt seriously that we’ll ever actually reach that worldly heaven (although I sincerely hope that I’m wrong in this prediction).  Human society will continue forever, I fear, to suffer the constraints and trade-offs required by the reality of scarcity – which means that human society will always have members who are relatively rich, those who are relatively middlin’, and those who are relatively poor, even if (as is the case today in America) nearly everyone is astonishingly rich in comparison with ordinary people of a few generations earlier.


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