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Technology Will Not Impoverish Us By Doing More For Us

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

In his April 24th review of Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, Howard French swallows Mr. Bremmer’s argument that automation will increase global poverty by destroying jobs. Indeed, Mr. French scolds Mr. Bremmer for not applying this argument more explicitly to Africa. Over the next 80 years, worries Mr. French, Africa’s population “could increase to as many as four billion, from one billion now. In an automated world, where will the additional jobs come from? And if there are no jobs for them, where will these people go?”

Forget that the development and implementation of labor-saving technology, rather than raining down on us randomly, largely occurs in response to rising wages – that is, to rising worker productivity combined with increasing job opportunities for workers. Instead, reflect that every unmet human need is a potential source of jobs. (After all, that’s what jobs are: opportunities for each of us to satisfy others’ needs, and to do so with enough skill that those whose needs we satisfy pay us for the satisfaction that we deliver.) Therefore, while no one can say just what tomorrow will bring, I can pinpoint one condition that we most assuredly won’t experience – namely, the combination of widespread poverty (that is, the widespread failure to satisfy many human needs) with such an abundance of labor-saving technologies that there are no jobs remaining to perform (that is, the complete satisfaction of all human 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