Robots no threat to labor

There is an old joke that contains great wisdom not only about the media, but about a myth that continues to flourish even today.

It goes: If Dan Rather were to announce the invention of the light bulb on the evening news, he would begin, with eyebrows furrowed: "Today was a dark day for the candle-making industry."

Far too many people fall for the notion that technological advances are a threat to labor.  Today, the perceived threat is robots — and even some conservatives, who should know better, fall into the trap.

It is posited that robots will consume jobs, and workers will not be able to find new ones, leading us to another Great Depression.

History is a great instructor, and it is instructive in this case.

Early in 19th-century England, textile workers began revolting as machines were introduced that did their work better and at less cost.  They were called Luddites.

However, the machines made life better for everyone.  The technical explanation runs something like this: if a technological innovation results in a reduction of necessary labor inputs in a given sector, then the industry-wide cost of production falls, which lowers the competitive price and increases the equilibrium supply point.  This, theoretically, will require an increase in aggregate labor inputs.

In other words, increased productivity raises the standard of living for everyone.  That results in demand for more products, which results in more jobs for displaced workers and others among the unemployed.

Henry Hazlitt, in Economics in One Lesson, devoted Chapter 7 to the "curse of machinery."

He noted that 7,900 people were involved in spinning in 1790, when Richard Arkwright invented machinery to replace the spinning wheel.  In 27 years, the number of people engaged in the spinning and weaving of cotton was 320,000.

It will require labor to make the parts for robots, assemble robots, perform maintenance on robots, program robots, and perhaps to supervise robots to make sure they don't run wild, as some fear.

In addition, those who use the robots will realize increased profits, which inevitably will be used to increase employment either in the employer's own business or in businesses that supply the goods he will buy with his profits, Hazlitt says.

Machines, inventions, and discoveries increase real wages.

Robots are merely machines, and there is no reason to fear them.

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