The Curse of Machinery
Not all inventions and discoveries, of course, are “labor-saving” machines. Some of them, like precision instruments, like nylon, lucite, plywood and plastics of all kinds, simply improve the quality of products. Others, like the telephone or the airplane, perform operations that direct human labor could not perform at all. Still others bring into existence objects and services, such as X-ray machines, radios, TV sets, air-conditioners and computers, that would otherwise not even exist. But in the foregoing illustration we have taken precisely the kind of machine that has been the special object of modern technophobia.
It is possible, of course, to push too far the argument that machines do not on net balance throw men out of work. It is sometimes argued, for example, that machines create more jobs than would otherwise have existed. Under certain conditions this may be true. They can certainly create enormously more jobs in particular trades. The eighteenth century figures for the textile industries are a case in point. Their modern counterparts are certainly no less striking. In 1910, 140,000 persons were employed in the United States in the newly created automobile industry. In 1920, as the product was improved and its cost reduced, the industry employed 250,000 In 1930, as this product improvement and cost reduction continued, employment in the industry was 380,000. In 1973 it had risen to 941,000. By 1973, 514,000 people were employed in making aircraft and aircraft parts, and 393,000 were engaged in making electronic components. So it has been in one newly created trade after another, as the invention was improved and the cost reduced.
There is also an absolute sense in which machines may be said to have enormously increased the number of jobs. The population of the world today is four times as great as in the middle of the eighteenth century, before the Industrial Revolution had got well under way. Machines may be said to have given birth to this increased population; for without the machines, the world would not have been able to support it. Three out of every four of us, therefore, may be said to owe not only our jobs but our very lives to machines.
Yet it is a misconception to think of the function or result of machines as primarily one of creating jobs. The real result of the machine is to increase production, to raise the standard of living, to increase economic welfare. It is no trick to employ everybody, even (or especially) in the most primitive economy. Full employment—very full employment; long, weary, backbreaking employment—is characteristic of precisely the nations that are most retarded industrially. Where full employment already exists, new machines, inventions and discoveries cannot—until there has been time for an increase in population — bring more employment. They are likely to bring more unemployment (but this time I am speaking of voluntaiy and not involuntary unemployment) because people can now afford to work fewer hours, while children and the overaged no longer need to work.
What machines do, to repeat, is to bring an increase in production and an increase in the standard of living. They may do this in either of two ways. They do it by making goods cheaper for consumers (as in our illustration of the overcoats), or they do it by increasing wages because they increase the productivity of the workers. In other words, they either increase money wages or, by reducing prices, they increase the goods and services that the same money wages will buy. Sometimes they do both. What actually happens will depend in large part upon the monetary policy pursued in a country. But in any case, machines, inventions and discoveries increase real wages.
Economics in One Lesson
Economics in One Lesson