I dislike the fashion among economics writers to say that technology has rendered most laborers ‘obsolete.’ That I dislike it does not necessarily make it false. But I will make the case for my beliefs here, nonetheless.
In this post, I will hash out why the ideology of human equality floods labor markets with unqualified workers and ultimately undermines the market system by generating destructive political feedback loops.
The reason why debates about labor markets take on such urgency in the Western world is that so many people are in desperate or at least insecure states of personal economy. Savings rates are perilously low, particularly among young people. Labor markets are chaotic, with too many people in inappropriate jobs, and plenty of fields besides that have labor shortages that spike wages. This is all exacerbated by a diversity human resources regime that forbids effective filtering of employees and a social welfare system that seizes large portions of wages paid to labor.
First, it was a grievous mistake to purge the vestiges of feudal culture. While it is hard for me to make a positive argument for chattel slavery, assigning the exact same level of legal rights to all men and women over 18 rests on a lot of faulty assumptions about the intrinsic moral and intellectual capacities possessed by each person. It also neglects to provide people with individual choices about how many legal rights they ought to have.
While one might suppose based on a lifetime of propaganda that no one with the option would surrender their freedom in return for something, in practice, we have seen such arrangements take place throughout history and in the current day. Student loans permit you to indenture yourself to either the government or an authorized lender provided that you enroll within an accredited institution. Husbands and wives, even today, surrender some of their rights in return for a contract and certain soft privileges.
As this relates to the labor market, democratic courts forbid the restrictive apprenticeship contracts that were common even in the American colonies up until relatively recently. The need for skilled workers has not abetted (if anything, it has increased), but the historic legal framework that bonded apprentices to masters is no longer present.
Even in the construction trades, we see the consequences in the differences between pre and post-war architecture. The stonemasons that carved the ornate facades on New York City buildings built before the New Deal are no longer maintainable because that trade has shrunk to almost nothing. No one remembers the lost art. Skilled furniture makers have similarly been replaced by mass pulp manufacture, not necessarily because the latter produces better products.
It is my intuitive sense that it has more to do with the spiritual differences between mass-man and the old type of man that existed before the standardization of culture pushed through by the mandatory education system. IKEA would not appeal to a culture that still produced large numbers of skilled artisans capable of producing beautiful furniture at an affordable price.
Particularly as mass education has turned to promising a life of bureaucratic mind-work to everyone regardless of intrinsic capability, useful trades of all kinds need to be subsumed by automated substitutes.
Mass democracy has flooded labor markets in certain parts of society while either ignoring or heavily discouraging entrance into other segments, based on the temporary enthusiasms of education bureaucrats, mayors, and presidents. Markets equilibrate to the political system, outside of conscious design.
Second, the ochlocracy pushes far more people into the labor market than ought to be there. The frogmarching of women into the workplace throughout the 20th century, which became a high state priority in the late 1960s, is a key example of this. The state attempts to push as many people into work as possible because wage labor is easily taxed, whereas household labor is not.
It is entirely possible that there are many people who would be better off working as gardeners, maids, and nursemaids in a bonded servant relationship rather than in an expressly wage-labor relationship. But the state prefers to reward the 40-hour-a-week format for standardization, ease of taxation, and in a vain attempt to create a worker’s paradise on Earth. The notion that ‘full employment’ is even desirable rests on a set of strange quantity-before-quality assumptions about the nature of work and human society.
It is also a difficult frame to smash: it is shared by all the people of quality, and only rogues believe otherwise.
What it ultimately does is create a dispirited, demoralized, Soviet-like population of ugly, fat, slutty, and unhealthy people. The property of the middle class gets routinely redistributed through various tax-and-inflation policies, keeping them in the labor market for too long.
Idiots mix with the capable, destroying business productivity. Young people do not enter the skill-building relationships that they need to, because they are illegal. Shortages and gluts appear regularly, which generates political chaos, and because democracy is incapable of producing effective leadership, the solutions chosen only exacerbate the underlying structural problems.
Modern economics writers will almost never broach these topics. No one wants to tell a generation of ‘strong, independent women’ that they probably cause more chaos and damage to the business world than is warranted. A hardworking housewife reduces the amount of cash income that a man needs to bring in to provide for his family.
The technology argument here is, again, a lazy argument to make (partly because it is force-fed to Western students in the schools as an explanation for various enormous 20th century changes). You can always spend more time cooking a better meal, working on an art project with a child, beautifying a home, sewing a dress, or otherwise discovering new ‘jobs’ within the household that improve quality of life.
No one wants to tell mediocre people that they would be better off as bonded servants, monks, or enlisted soldiers than as skilled workers. It is easier for someone like Tyler Cowen to instead say that they ought to be all ‘taken care of’ by magic welfare fairies that will somehow not cause any negative effects (to say nothing of the dysgenic impact). It says a lot about the failure of imagination and historical memory that the only solutions that our famous fatheads can come up with involves handing out more magical debit cards filled with digits to any low-life with a pulse.
The Marxist slogan ‘to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability’ has been diluted to the point where no one expects ability from anyone, and the new needs claimed by everyone reach to infinity. Fortunately, the world has limits.
No one respectable wants to admit that in areas like the arts and the skilled trades, America has declined in a shocking way in the post-war era. The narrative that must be maintained at all costs that every chart that anyone be allowed to look at in any circumstance must always be going from the lower left to the upper right without exceptions.
By telling people that they are all equal, we guarantee a steady progression of failure. By banning most enforceable legal relationships that smack of hierarchy, we consign countless people to dull, unsatisfying, and increasingly insecure lives.
Joël Cuerrier says
An excellent post and a point I’ve regularly made in private.
Production is mostly automated. What are we all doing running all these programs, we are very rich and yet we produce nothing great.
My favorite example of a society producing beauty is France in the XIXth century. Building the State of Liberty, shipping it out, then turning back home to build the Eiffel Tower. That was a celebrating to the progress of industry.
What will our era leave behind? Not even our generation, but our general era? Something that last for centuries.
Even our most basic infrastructures. You watch old bridges and compare them with the monstrosities built in the 60′s and later. Everything turned ugly. I said it just about in the same words you did so many time.
Take the desk on which your computer is sitting. How does it look? If you were to watch an old movie from the 30′s and compare the desks they were using, which one would you prefer? Everywhere, in clothes, in the quality of our goods, in everything that surrounds us.We all trade cheap perishable throwaway goods of no intrinsic value. You buy a chair, you know it will have to be tossed in the garbage within a decade or so. There were a time when such things were passed down from one generation to the next.
Most people are also wholly unhappy with the type of work they do, seeing it as mostly irrelevant and unproductive. Wouldn’t people not rather take pride building things that has value, quality, beauty? My feelings is we’re all just meant to be turned into burned out consumers.
I think a whole lot of people would be better off as peasants and artisans. Not because this is a lesser position, but because this is the basis of the whole deal with human civilization since day 1.
Beautifully put. Our thinkers have permitted themselves to be baffled by charts showing ‘progress.’
Great post. This can’t be said strongly enough. Restrictive apprenticeship starting as children was the norm in every civilized society in every continent. That should explain itself. It’s the only way to keep civilization running.
The only reason Germany and Japan still have a working manufacturing sector is because they understand this. See this: http://www.autoblog.com/2014/04/12/toyota-retires-robots-replaces-with-humans/
Thanks. I did catch that piece on Bloomberg earlier this week.
The need for these sorts of apprenticeships is more acute now than it was in previous centuries, but instead kids just receive universal apprenticeships in progressivism. Even women don’t learn rudimentary cooking skills. People graduate only knowing how to commit activism, which they do in corporation after corporation, sapping productivity and blocking the development of virtuosity. People come out of the system increasingly ignorant and useless.
I see no fat women in the Toyota promotional photos. Only Japanese men.