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Many jobs have been lost to technology over the last few centuries, yet more people are employed today than ever before. Despite this favorable experience, politicians can’t help the temptation to cast aspersions at certain production technologies, constantly advocating intervention in markets to “save jobs”. Today, some serious anti-tech policy proposals and legislative efforts are underway: regional bans on autonomous vehicles, “robot taxes” (advocated by Bill Gates!!), and even continuing legal resistance to technology-enabled services such as ride sharing and home sharing. At the link above, James Pethokoukas expresses trepidation about one legislative proposal taking shape, sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), to create a federal review board with the potential to throttle innovation and the deployment of technology, particularly artificial intelligence.

Last week I mentioned the popular anxiety regarding automation and artificial intelligence in my post on the Universal Basic Income. This anxiety is based on an incomplete accounting of the “seen” and “unseen” effects of technological advance, to borrow the words of Frederic Bastiat, and of course it is unsupported by historical precedent. Dierdre McCloskey reviews the history of technological innovations and its positive impact on dynamic labor markets:

In 1910, one out of 20 of the American workforce was on the railways. In the late 1940s, 350,000 manual telephone operators worked for AT&T alone. In the 1950s, elevator operators by the hundreds of thousands lost their jobs to passengers pushing buttons. Typists have vanished from offices. But if blacksmiths unemployed by cars or TV repairmen unemployed by printed circuits never got another job, unemployment would not be 5 percent, or 10 percent in a bad year. It would be 50 percent and climbing.

Each month in the United States—a place with about 160 million civilian jobs—1.7 million of them vanish. Every 30 days, in a perfectly normal manifestation of creative destruction, over 1 percent of the jobs go the way of the parlor maids of 1910. Not because people quit. The positions are no longer available. The companies go out of business, or get merged or downsized, or just decide the extra salesperson on the floor of the big-box store isn’t worth the costs of employment.

Robert Samuelson discusses a recent study that found that technological advance consistently improves opportunities for labor income. This is caused by cost reductions in the innovating industries, which are subsequently passed through to consumers, business profits, and higher pay to retained workers whose productivity is enhanced by the improved technology inputs. These gains consistently outweigh losses to those who are displaced by the new capital. Ultimately, the gains diffuse throughout society, manifesting in an improved standard of living.

In a brief, favorable review of Samuelson’s piece, Don Boudreaux adds some interesting thoughts on the dynamics of technological advance and capital-labor substitution:

… innovations release real resources, including labor, to be used in other productive activities – activities that become profitable only because of this increased availability of resources.  Entrepreneurs, ever intent on seizing profitable opportunities, hire and buy these newly available resources to expand existing businesses and to create new ones.  Think of all the new industries made possible when motorized tractors, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, improved food-packaging, and other labor-saving innovations released all but a tiny fraction of the workforce from agriculture.

Labor-saving techniques promote economic growth not so much because they increase monetary profits that are then spent but, instead, because they release real resources that are then used to create and expand productive activities that would otherwise be too costly.”

Those released resources, having lower opportunity costs than in their former, now obsolete uses, can find new and profitable uses provided they are priced competitively. Some displaced resources might only justify use after undergoing dramatic transformations, such as recycling of raw components or, for workers, education in new fields or vocations. Indeed, some of  those transformations are unforeeeable prior to the innovations, and might well add more value than was lost via displacement. But that is how the process of creative destruction often unfolds.

A government that seeks to intervene in this process can do only harm to the long-run interests of its citizens. “Saving a job” from technological displacement surely appeals to the mental and emotive mindset of the populist, and it has obvious value as a progressive virtue-signalling tool. These reactions, however, demonstrate a perspective limited to first-order, “seen” changes. What is less obvious to these observers is the impact of politically-induced tech inertia on consumers’ standard of living. This is accompanied by a stultifying impact on market competition, long-run penalization of the most productive workers, and a degradation of freedom from restraints on private decision-makers. As each “visible” advance is impeded, the negative impact compounds with the loss of future, unseen, but path-dependent advances that cannot ever occur.