By Nicholas Mejia
“Good afternoon. Welcome to Red Robin. My name is Nick and I’ll be helping you today,” was a phrase I said to the point that it became instinctive. Usually, working behind the cashier would become unbearably monotonous, but what made it interesting was the endless diversity of guests that come through the doors, including a self-proclaimed “unionist” who refused to use the small computers for ordering items so I could “keep my job.”
I did what any good waiter would do. I smiled, suppressed my inner economist, and said “thank you.”
While I appreciate the well-meaning intentions of the luddite, I detest their means to a falsely perceived end i.e. opposing technology because machines supposedly steal jobs and make people poorer.
“A curse on machines! Every year, their increasing power relegates millions of workmen to pauperism, by depriving them of work, and therefore of wages and bread. A curse on machines!” is how the French liberal economist Claude-Frédéric Bastiat, known for his charming wit, satirized the luddite view 150 years ago in That Which is Seen, and That which is Not Seen.
Labor-saving technology has brought us prosperity
This basic idea of creating tools to save time and energy has occurred since the dawn of time. It has produced the world we live in. To oppose new time and effort saving technology, the luddite condemns society to stagnate at best, and decline at worst.
According to some research, 45% of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated using existing technology. However, less than 5% of occupations can be entirely automated; human ingenuity is still in high demand.
You have probably heard politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appeal to these sentiments with promises to “bring back jobs.” This make-work bias, as explained by Bryan Caplan in The Myth of the Rational Voter, or the idea that a nation is only wealthy when it has full employment, is another faulty line of thinking in these anti-technology sentiments.
Trump and Sanders measure wealth by employment instead of production. But when goods and services become cheaper, society becomes better off. An increase in production means an increase in the standard of living.
Embracing progress is the best way to tackle poverty
Work, or the expenditure of human labor, is a net loss, always done for some purpose or goal. Labor is not an end in itself. We work in order to have the resources and time to enjoy the good things in life: family, friends, community, security, and leisure.
Without a doubt, advocates of laissez-faire ought to be empathetic to individuals who become (even temporarily) worse off due to technological progress. But the alternative isn’t to enforce technological stagnation through policies that restrict competition and cooperation.
The question is how can we best help those negatively affected during the frictions inherent in market-tested betterment? The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity is doing just that in Austin, TX, and I suggest we follow their lead.
In 1760, 90% of America’s labor force was involved in farming, compared to only 2% today. That enormous change occurred because of the technological advancement of the Industrial Revolution.
Had 90% of the labor force not been freed to pursue other passions, it is safe to say the standard of living we enjoy today would not even be close to what it is. The resources that would have been expended in farming were judged more socially beneficial in other lines of work.
When these luddites cry, “You don’t have compassion for the poor!” — and they will — just remind them that history proves them wrong, and that they want to keep people poor.
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Updated by Joseph Simnett
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