industrial revolution robots forge

The Robots are Coming! The Robots are Coming!

“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!

Author: Virginia Phillips

Virginia Phillips has a M.A. in Religious Studies and an enduring interest in history and politics. In her spare time she writes opinion pieces on current events and theology. She enjoys speculative fiction, martial arts, dancing, and both consuming and preparing food and beverage pairings.

One Reply to “The Robots are Coming! The Robots are Coming!”

  1. Good article, Virginia! I agree in part, but also disagree in part. I’m with you in that automation is going to phase out the unskilled laborer. However, I disagree with the corollary that skilled labor will also lose demand. You gave welding as an example of a job for which there is little demand, but the fact is that welding, as well as other labor-intensive jobs that require advanced training and skill, are in immense demand. Mike Rowe, of old from Dirty Jobs and currently running the charity mikeroweWORKS, has gone on record in Congressional testimony that there are 5.6 million unfilled jobs that require skilled workers, and for the most part do not require a bachelor’s degree. Welders can earn over six figures in the oil and machining industries. We should not be too attached to the way things were, but neither should we be too quick to throw them away.

    I agree with Hendrix that increased leisure time makes for idleness and indolence, and I agree with you that nobody is forcing people to be lazy, but they are choosing to ignore the opportunities present in life. I would propose that the remedy for sloth comes not just through labor, but through cultivating a culture of self-improvement. People must learn to love learning and activity for its own sake, not just for how it can advance their career.

    Overall, I enjoyed your article, but took issue with a couple of your points. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on what I said. Keep writing! 🙂

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