The Industrial Revolution saw incredible advancements in technology that increased productivity, reduced prices and dramatically improved standards of living, while also liberating those crippled by abject poverty. But this was not the view that was shared by many at the time. Some saw automation, especially in stocking and textile, as a conspiracy by greedy industrialists to enlarge profits. They believed that new machines will create unemployment en masse, with a permanent underclass of workers who no longer have economic value. An extreme branch of this school of thought, the Luddites, thought that the only way to stop this was to destroy these evil machines. Laissez faire capitalism seemed antithetical to the workers’ progress, and intervention seemed the only remedy.
It goes without saying that the Luddites were wrong. Free markets and innovation led to more employment, not less, and even in the industries that they attempted to de-industrialise. This prediction is widely known as the Luddite fallacy.
However, the fallacy is alive and well. ‘Neo-luddism’ is growing in popularity, from tech tycoons such as Richard Branson, to television political pundits such as Tucker Carlson. Just like their ideological ancestors, they believe that some sort of protectionist measures should be placed on the market mechanism. Their current topic of obsession is the issue of self-driving vehicles, which is set to take over transport and delivery industries. Mr Carlson likely spoke for many techno-phobes when he said he would ban self-driving trucks “in a second” in order to protect the estimated 3.9 million U.S. truck drivers . Actions against self-driving vehicles are already being taken, such as a bill passed in San Francisco in late 2017 that limited the number of autonomous robots on the streets. Ordinary people are also raging against the machine, with reports of “human on robot assaults”.
Such concerns and actions are understandable, but overall are economically and historically illiterate. With regards to the historical indifference, it could be argued that just because automation has never killed jobs (on aggregate), it doesn’t mean that can’t happen. This argument is sound. However, the economic myopia employed by such influential ‘thought leaders’ is that they fail to understand basic economic theory. Automation leads to a short period of displacement and unemployment for workers but in the long run yields lower costs of production, meaning lower prices, higher incomes, and increased demand for labour.
In the case of self-driving cars, the benefits include safer and faster journeys, faster delivery times speeding up supply chains, more trade and higher growth . All of this requires more labour, as this is what will facilitate these growing incomes and lower costs of living.
In order for these benefits to materialise, we must abandon this hostility to technology. Rational discussions and debates should be had. However, we must remain staunch in our defence of free markets, as only this will permit progress. The future will be exciting and beautiful as a result.
Nim Etzioni is the runner-up of the under 18s category in the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition.