Is the increasing automation of our economy a threat to American wages and jobs? Should the American worker fear the rise of the robots? No, not really.
Eighty years ago, John Maynard Keynes warned that society faced “a new disease” of “technological unemployment” in which the “means of economizing the use of labor [were] outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.” Much more recently, Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute wrote about how “robot workers could tear America’s social fabric.” Strain worries that machines could eliminate the livelihoods of millions of less-skilled workers.
These fears are misplaced. In reality, technological advances will improve living standards and working conditions for the vast majority of Americans.
Computers have certainly automated many tasks. From travel to banking to manufacturing to retail, machines now perform formerly human tasks quickly and reliably. Technology has eliminated countless jobs in the U.S. and around the world. Even Foxconn, famous for its vast iPhone-assembly lines in Taiwan, plans to install a million robots.
But almost as quickly as technology has eliminated some jobs, it has created new ones. Like developing smartphone apps. Or shuttling Uber passengers. Or moving inventory in Amazon warehouses. Contrary to Keynes’s prediction of 15-hour workweeks, the economy has always found new uses for displaced workers.
Why? Human wants have proved insatiable. Most Americans could work 15 hours a week and make as much as the average Joe in the 1930s did. But few Americans today would accept that standard of living — in a much smaller dwelling with no TV, no air conditioning, and certainly no smartphone. All these “extras” require workers to produce them.
Indeed, automation drives growth in living standards. In order for the average American to consume more, the average worker must produce more. Automation enables businesses to make more goods with less labor, which means more output and higher living standards.
A construction worker who can operate a backhoe will make much more than one using only a shovel. An economy with backhoes will also be able to build a lot more.
In a world with more automation, not only will work still exist, it’ll be safer. Computers have automated many of the more-demanding manual-labor jobs in the economy, and workplace injuries and deaths have fallen steadily as machines took over these more physically dangerous tasks. Labor-saving technology benefits society.
Of course some people will wind up worse off than before. Some whose jobs get automated will have difficulty finding work that pays as much. And higher demand for non-routine skills will put less-skilled workers at a relative disadvantage. But the vast majority of workers will almost certainly come out ahead.
Originally posted on National Review Online.