Lord Byron defended the Luddites

On February 27th 1812, two week before the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage brought him instant fame and considerably more wealth, Lord Byron delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords at the age of 24. It was a stirring defence of the Luddites, the machine-breakers who smashed the textile machinery that threatened their jobs. They were an oath-based group who met at night, masked and in numbers, to break into Midlands textile factories and destroy the machines they housed.

Byron was opposing Perceval’s Frame Work Bill, which introduced the death penalty for that and related offences. His case was that the men who did this had no alternative but starvation. He said:

“But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress.” And that:

 “nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.”

Byron claimed that the machines destroyed the livelihood of the poor, simply in order to make the mill owners more rich.

He was right to spot that new technology often causes distress to those whose practices it makes outdated and unnecessary, but he did not realize that it also creates new jobs, together with increased productivity and wealth. The Industrial Revolution greatly boosted the standard of living of working people, and created the wealth that enabled medical advances and improved sanitation to better their lives. The machines whose destroyers he defended enabled goods to be produced more cheaply, to become more affordable, and to sell in wider markets.

The typewriter greatly reduced the demand for scribes, but it made vastly more new jobs possible. The word processor and the computer also outdated some jobs but created more. People today worry that Artificial Intelligence will make many jobs redundant, which it will, but it will also create new jobs. It will increase productivity and the wealth of society, and will generate new jobs from the augmented spending power it will sustain.

No masked and armed gangs are yet breaking into premises to smash computers like modern age Luddites, but if they did, no doubt some latter-day Byrons would rise up to defend them. And if they did, they would be just as wrong and short-sighted as the original Byron was.