Economist Donald J. Boudreaux has written a letter to the editor of the New York Times to make the point that all known examples of labour-saving technology have lead to greater well being for the masses, not mass suffering. So why do people think this time will be different?
Warning that modern labor-saving technology is making humans expendable, Zeynep Tufekci writes that “[o]ptimists insist that we’ve been here before, during the Industrial Revolution, when machinery replaced manual labor, and all we need is a little more education and better skills. But that is not a sufficient answer. One historical example is no guarantee of future events, and we won’t be able to compete by trying to stay one step ahead in a losing battle” (“The Machines are Coming,” April 19).
Ms. Tufekci is mistaken to insist that the Industrial Revolution is the lone historical example of humans having had to adjust to labor-saving technology. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey notes, while the introduction of such technological improvements greatly accelerated since the Industrial Revolution, these have occurred throughout all of human history.
Examples of labor-saving technology that were created before the Industrial Revolution include the wheel, the lever, the pulley, the bucket, the barrel, the knife, the domesticated ox and horse, the fishing net, and moveable type. Examples of such technology created after that revolution are even more numerous; they include the harnessing of electricity, the internal-combustion engine, the assembly line, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, refrigeration, and, of course, today’s many IT marvels. Yet history knows no example of the introduction of labor-saving technology that caused permanent and widespread increases in involuntary human idleness. And at least since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, all advances in such technology in market economies have been followed by improvements in the living standards of the masses - including (contrary to Ms. Tufekci’s suggestion) those advances introduced during the past few decades.