Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pre-Luddite Luddites

I was reading my old post "Against the Neo-Luddites and Anti-Automation Rhetoric" when it struck me that the Luddite error, though largely seen as a creation of the industrial revolution, actually predates that event, and by a number of centuries. In a number of sources from the ancient world, especially from the late Roman republic and early Empire, one heard a variation of the Luddite claim. In this case, not that machinery would destroy jobs, but rather that the proliferation of slaves would make free men, especially farmers, unemployed.

It is interesting to see this, as it is a combination of modern fears, the fear of imported labor combined with the fear of automation. But, since those two are related, and based on the same fallacy -- that there is a limited amount of "work" and if something removes some of that pool of jobs, people will be unemployed -- I suppose it is inevitable that we would see the two together.

Of course, as always, the fear was unfounded*. Rome suffered a number of economic problems -- mostly in the later Empire from price fixing and other meddling, though even the early empire had issues with the grain dole -- but there was no mass unemployment of farmers or craftsmen and, if anything, Rome suffered from deficits of grain, not surpluses, as one would expect if slaves were providing too much labor.

But, of course, none of this helped mankind learn the lesson that labor is in infinite demand, and that no matter how much labor is available uses can be found for it. Rather, we see the same error again and again, from the Luddites to the protestors against electrical machinery, against automation, against computer and robotics, against world trade, again immigration** and so on.

Eventually, perhaps, the majority of mankind will figure this out, but until then, I have a feeling we will be making this argument many times, trying to show that more labor enriches man, rather than impoverishes him.


* People often point to the growth of massive slave run estates and the unemployed of Rome as signs of unemployment, but neither was quite what it seemed. The consolidation of estates happened because the cost of land rose, allowing small holders to sell out in Italy and either move to a city, or buy better land farther from Rome. The wealthy simply bought out small holders, and they changed location, they did not suddenly become unemployed. As far as Rome is concerned, yes there were those who did not work, but they existed precisely because of the grain dole, they could live without work. As always, you get the unemployment you pay for.

** I am speaking entirely about immigration opposition based on job loss. (See "Cheap Labor Does Not Just Favor Big Business") There are any number of other objections, unrelated to jobs. I am not a supporter of most of these arguments, as I will explain in a future essay, believing most cultural objections are not supported by historical evidence or reason, for example. There are a few valid objections to specific aspects of immigration, and one or two reason our current environment may make some immigration hazardous, but  that is a complicated topic and will have to wait until I write an essay on the topic to examine it in detail.

No comments:

Post a Comment