Walter E. Williams – February 21, 2018
A recent article in The Guardian dons the foreboding title “Robots will destroy our jobs — and we’re not ready for it.” The article claims, “For every job created by robotic automation, several more will be eliminated entirely. … This disruption will have a devastating impact on our workforce.” According to an article in MIT Technology Review, business researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States.
If technology is destroying jobs faster than it’s creating them, it is the first time in human history that it’s done so. Actually, the number of jobs is unlimited, for the simple reason that human wants are unlimited — or they don’t frequently reveal their bounds. People always want more of something that will create a job for someone. To suggest that there are a finite number of jobs commits an error known as the “lump of labor fallacy.” That fallacy suggests that when automation or technology eliminates a job, there’s nothing that people want that would create employment for the person displaced by the automation. In other words, all human wants have been satisfied.
Let’s look at a few examples. In 1790, farmers were 90 percent of the U.S. labor force. By 1900, only about 41 percent of our workers were employed in agriculture. Today less than 3 percent of Americans are employed in agriculture. And it’s a good thing. If 90 percent or 41 percent of our labor force were still employed in agriculture, where in the world would we find the workforce to produce all those goods and services that weren’t around in 1790 or 1900, such as cars, aircraft, TVs, computers, aircraft carriers, etc.? Indeed, if technology had not destroyed all of those agricultural jobs, we would be a much, much poorer nation.