≡ Menu

Robots Are Nothing New

Here’s my response to Jonathan Story (who commented on this earlier post):

You write: “I wonder if, given growing roboticization of work, whether job loss among the least skilled is going to happen in any event.  Worrying over minimum wage is, it seems to me, trying to fight the previous war, when the real challenge will be what to do with the coming tsunami of displaced workers.”

It’s easy for those of us who are not at risk of being priced out of work by minimum wages to dismiss as pointless any concerns that others have over the job-destroying effects minimum wages.  But minimum wages aren’t why I write.  Instead, I write to suggest that it is mistaken to regard the “growing roboticization of work” as historically unprecedented.  It has happened before, with no calamitous “tsunami of displaced workers.”

In the U.S. in 1800 75 percent of jobs were on farms.  Since then, there’s been such a tremendous “roboticization” of agricultural jobs that today fewer than 1.5 percent of American workers work on farms.  Almost all agricultural work today is performed by robots – robots such as

– tractors and other motorized farm equipment

– chemical fertilizers and pesticides

– commercial and home refrigeration (which reduce food spoilage and, by allowing for long-distance shipment, encourage the use of more-productive economies of scale in farming and ranching)

– better packaging and storage (ditto)

– railroads, trucks, more and better roads, airplanes, and improved ocean shipping (which also encourage economies of scale in farming and ranching, as well as enable producers in the most ideal geographic locations for growing various foods to displace producers in less-ideal geographic locations).

Bags of ammonium nitrate, refrigerated railroad cars, and sturdier shipping crates might not be commonly called “robots,” but economically their functions and effects are identical to those of 3D printers, computerized assembly lines, and delivery drones.

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

With apologies to Deirdre McCloskey – from whom I think I steal the insight that all labor-saving devices are robots. The wheel is robot; a bucket is a robot; a spade and a hoe are each robots.  Today’s robots are more technologically advanced (and productive) than these old-fashioned devices, of course.  But so, too, was the robot “metal plough” more technologically advanced (and productive) than the robot “wooden plough.”

We must focus on the essence of arguments and not superficialities.  The essence of the argument today against robotics is that devices are now being created that increase worker productivity – that allow the same amount of output to be produced with fewer workers.  Yet the creation of such labor-saving devices has been going on for millennia.  And, moreover, when the rate at which the creation of such labor-saving devices greatly accelerated – starting about 200 years ago – the living standard of ordinary people did not fall for want of work; rather, they rose, magnificently, with no resulting secular increase in the rate of joblessness.