With Labor Day just around the corner, now is a good time to discuss (and, more than that, to take up the cudgels against) a bad idea popularized by leading figures in Silicon Valley.
It is really a two-part idea. It begins with the proposition that the robots are coming and they are about to take over the world. While the robots will make life a whole lot easier for most people (think self-driving trucks and other labor-saving devices), they will also cause massive unemployment. Says Tesla CEO Elon Musk, “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that robots can’t do better.”
The 19th Century Luddites had the same fear of automation. During the Industrial Revolution, with mechanization replacing manual labor on an unprecedented scale, their proposed solution was to smash the new machines that were taking jobs away from some people even if they were creating new jobs for many other people.
The 21st Century Luddites — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Musk, and other big names in Silicon Valley — have a different solution. Rather than smash their own machines, they are promoting a “universal basic income” (or UBI, for short) to take care of the people who are about to be permanently displaced by job-destroying robots capable of responding to almost any command – like, “Hey, Robot, build me a house.”
A UBI of, say, a couple thousand dollars a month for unemployed yet able-bodied adults would create a whole new “safe space” — freeing millions of people from the nasty necessity of having to go out and find work in order to enjoy life unencumbered by financial difficulty.
“We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but how many of us have a role that we find meaningful,” said Zuckerberg in a recent speech at Harvard. “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.” Really, the world would be a better place if people just had to make themselves happy? What a strange thing for one of the supposed titans of capitalism to say! Apparently, he doesn’t believe in the idea of having a marketplace where people compete with one another in order to satisfy the demands of others — the others being customers or employers.
Musk, who has long had his hand in taxpayer’s pockets, argues that unemployment and economic output will both rise as a result of greater automation, and that will leave society with “no choice but to distribute a portion of the money to everyone equally.”
Let’s try to talk a little sense here. Who is to pay the vast sum of money needed to create a new leisure class of non-workers if not the people who continue to work? Musk suggests that the robots will create more than enough new wealth to go around, but when — going back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution — have we ever seen the simultaneous occurrence of a rapid expansion in GDP and a severe contraction in total employment? The answer is never.
However, it is true, over time, that automation creates more employment than it destroys. During the Industrial Revolution, for instance, automation made weavers who worked on ancient looms obsolete. But the number of people working in textiles exploded. That is because capitalist investment in a multiplicity of labor-saving devices that raised productivity, lowered prices, improved quality, and left more money in people’s pockets to spend on other things besides the bare necessities.
The Silicon Valley superstars display a misunderstanding of how free-market capitalism works. It depends upon human motivation no less than technological innovation. Under free-market capitalism, people are incentivized to meet their own needs by meeting the needs of others. Rather than living off the sweat that comes from the brows of other people, they have the satisfaction that comes from earning their own way and living useful, purposeful lives.
Automation will go on doing what it has always done — making people more productive than they would otherwise be. That will free them up to pursue new jobs and occupations, including ones that require a good deal of sophisticated manual labor, like the kind of jobs you find in today’s bike shops, catering to the demands of people who ride high-tech mountain bikes and racing bikes costing several thousand dollars apiece.
There may be other motivations for a basic income that merit consideration (as a way, perhaps, of replacing welfare that costs less and gives people more freedom over spending decisions), but the need to protect people from the invasion of job-snatching robots is not one of them.
Andrew B. Wilson, a long-time contributor to The American Spectator, is resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute.