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The Humans Are Coming!

Here’s a letter to a new reader of Cafe Hayek:

Ms. Valerie Konski

Ms. Konski:

Thanks for your e-mail.

I don’t share your fear of robots, and I’m skeptical of empirical findings that the introduction of robots is lately responsible for permanently ratcheting down the number of jobs in the economy.  At Café Hayek I’ve addressed this matter in a number of different ways.  Let me here, though, offer another angle.

You and others fear robots because robots substitute for human workers.  And your fear intensifies because, in your words, “robots which are more human-like are becoming more common.”  But what’s more human-like than humans?  Since 1950 the number of humans in the American workforce has increased by nearly 160 percent (from 62 million to 160 million).*  Yet not only is today’s U.S. unemployment rate of 4.5 percent lower than was 1950’s unemployment rate of 5.3 percent, today’s labor-force-participation rate of 63.0 percent is higher than the 59.2 percent rate in 1950.  If an increased supply of human-like workers displaces existing human workers, the number of unemployed human workers would, over the past seven decades, have been driven to sky-high levels by the greatly increased number of extraordinarily human-like workers – actual humans! – in the labor force.  Yet no such displacement happened.

In presenting this example I don’t mean to imply that no significant differences separate humans from robots.  Differences there certainly are, some of which might indeed justify your anxiety.  But too much of today’s fear of robots and innovation (and, also, of trade and immigration) – including your fear – rests on the historically and economically incorrect presumption that the number of productive tasks that we humans can perform gainfully for each other is limited.  I, in contrast, believe that this number is practically unlimited.

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

* See here and here.