“Technological unemployment” is a new watchword in conservative circles including the American Enterprise Institute. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when working conditions in the mills were harsh but efficient enough to threaten the livelihoods of skilled artisans, movements like the English Luddites have raised fears about humans going the way of horses: put out to graze while their technologically advanced counterparts rule the market.
Emphasizing employment opportunities for human beings falls in the same category of economic policies as ‘buy local’: It’s fine when companies can make the choice, but terrible when government imposes it. Likewise, Walmart is great because it lets people buy things cheaply, while by and large the wealthier won’t deign to shop there. The important thing is to give people options.
Anti-robot movement or no movement, manual labor-type jobs, including most manufacturing jobs, will ultimately go the way of the buffalo; nothing will change that. Just as harpsichordists are no longer in much demand, neither are welders. This is bad for some folks who have made a string of poor decisions or are just unlucky in where their career options lead them, but for the vast majority of folks, it allows quality of life to remain extremely high.
The opportunity for more and more leisure time has some people worried. In “The Missing American Worker,” Michael Hendrix warns:
Idleness is a recipe for channel-surfing and video game-playing more than, say, devoting oneself to service or education. In fact, the farther down the economic ladder one goes the greater the likelihood that aimless hours will be poured into online browsing; households making $25,000 to $35,000 a year spend 92 more minutes a week online than households making more than $100,000 in income. For as enjoyable as binge-watching Netflix may be, it is hardly a route to life satisfaction.
No one is forcing anyone to watch Netflix. It’s understandable to be depressed when you’re unsure of the future or job hunting –it is one of the more unpleasant periods of life to be in. There is a difference between folks who choose to wallow and folks who force themselves to find a way, however. If this were just about finding a fulfilling way to live, those households making $25-35k could spend their time volunteering instead of binging on Netflix.
Here’s the thing: $15 minimum wage or not, automation will increase in the future. That isn’t something to fear but to embrace. For most of human history, brawn has been more valuable than the brain. Turn-about, it seems, is fair play. If we’re not stuck doing tedious labor, we can focus on other things instead, which leaves the market ripe for small artisan businesses. There is a reason it is now possible to earn a living as a video game player.
True conservatives shouldn’t be afraid of automation any more than they should be afraid of any technological advance. We don’t play in a zero-sum game where there is only so much pie to go around, and the robots are going to eat half of it. Start making more pies!