January 22, 2019 9:28AM

Will Technological Progress Impoverish the Poor and Working Classes?

This past weekend at LibertyCon, I debated Andrew Yang, a progressive candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, about whether the U.S. should adopt a Universal Basic Income.

Yang believes there is need for a UBI because future technological progress will gradually destroy jobs for people with limited skills. This forecast has arisen for millenia, but it has consistently been wrong:

Emperor Vespasian: The Roman historian Suetonius writes, of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD), that someone came to him with a new, cheaper technology for transporting heavy columns to Rome. The emperor rewarded the inventor but quashed the device on the grounds of displacing manual labor. Suetonius quotes Vespasian: “How will it be possible for me to feed the populace? You must allow my poor hauliers to earn their bread.”

The historian Arnold Toynbee writes of the Roman emperor to whom it had been reported, “as a piece of good news, that one of his subjects had invented a process for manufacturing unbreakable glass. The emperor gave orders that the inventor should be put to death and that the records of his invention should be destroyed. If the invention had been put on the market, the manufacturers of ordinary glass would have been put out of business; there would have been unemployment that would have caused political unrest, and perhaps revolution.”

William Lee/Queen Elizabeth I 1589: Invented the stocking frame knitting machine hoping that it would relieve workers of hand-knitting. Seeking patent protection for his invention, he travelled to London where he had rented a building for his machine to be viewed by Queen Elizabeth I. To his disappointment, the Queen was more concerned with the employment impact of his invention and refused to grant him a patent, claiming that: “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars”

Thomas Mortimer 1772: Wrote that he wished never to see machines such as saw mills and stamps as they would “exclude the labour of thousands of the human race, who are usefully employed . . .”

David Ricardo 1817: "I am convinced, that the substitution of machinery for human labour, is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers."

David Ricardo 1817: "All I wish to prove, is, that the discovery and use of machinery may be attended with a diminution of gross produce; and whenever that is the case, it will be injurious to the labouring class, as some of their number will be thrown out of employment, and population will become redundant, compared with the funds which are to employ it."

Thomas Carlyle 1839: “[T]he huge demon of Mechanism smokes and thunders, panting at his great task, in all sections of English land; changing his shape like a very Proteus; and infallibly, at every change of shape, oversetting whole multitudes of workmen, as if with the waving of his shadow from afar, hurling them asunder, this way and that, in their crowded march and course of work or traffic; so that the wisest no longer knows his whereabout[s].”

Evan Clark 1928: “the onward march of machines into every corner of our industrial life had driven men out of the factory and into the ranks of the unemployed”.

Keynes 1930: "We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another. The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption; the improvement in the standard of life has been a little too quick"

Ewan Clague 1935: A labor economist, “the present outlook is for the rate of displacement of labor to exceed the rate of reabsorption so that technological employment will continue to be large.”

TIME Magazine 1961: The number of jobs lost to more efficient machines is only part of the problem. What worries many job experts more is that automation may prevent the economy from creating enough new jobs. Says Pennsylvania's Democratic Congressman Elmer J. Holland, whose subcommittee is about to study the matter: "One of the greatest problems with automation is not the worker who is fired, but the worker who is not hired." 

John F. Kennedy 1962: “I regard it as the major domestic challenge, really, of the sixties, to maintain full employment at a time when automation, of course, is replacing men.”

Robert Heilbroner 1965: “As machines continue to invade society, duplicating greater and greater numbers of social tasks, it is human labor itself — at least, as we now think of ‘labor’ — that is gradually rendered redundant.”

Ian Turner 1978: Organized a symposium on the implications of the new technologies. The world, he predicted, was about to enter a period as significant as the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. “By 1988, at least a quarter of the Australian workforce would be made redundant by technological change…”

International Metalworkers Federation 1989: Forecasted that within 30 years, as little as 2 percent of the world's current labor force "will be needed to produce all the goods necessary for total demand."

Jeremy Rifkin 1996: “In the years ahead more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world.”

The failure of these predictions does not prove such concerns have no merit; perhaps the nature of technological progress will change.

But absent a reason why "this time is different," history argues against these "Luddite" concerns.

Not to mention that past technological progress has meant incredible improvements in living standards, for poor and rich alike.