Paul Krugman writes in his most recent column:
Mechanization eventually — that is, after a couple of generations — led to a broad rise in British living standards. But it’s far from clear whether typical workers reaped any benefits during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; many workers were clearly hurt.
This is similar to arguments he’s previously made, such as in this column late last year, where he wrote:
[M]achines may soon be ready to perform many tasks that currently require large amounts of human labor. This will mean rapid productivity growth and, therefore, high overall economic growth.
But — and this is the crucial question — who will benefit from that growth? Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to make the case that most Americans will be left behind, because smart machines will end up devaluing the contribution of workers, including highly skilled workers whose skills suddenly become redundant.
So advances in technology result in increases in unemployment, and therefore, according to Krugman, for humanitarian reasons, government must intervene to correct this situation. Returning to his column from yesterday, he argues:
If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?
So what would conservatives propose instead of the government using force to expropriate the wealth of productive individuals to be redistributed to less productive members of society? Um, a free market, maybe?
Real conservatives–not to be confused with members of the Republican party–might begin by pointing out the central problem with Krugman’s argument, which is this notion that the free market is somehow bad and advances in technology harm the working class. As I’ve noted before, in response to that 2012 column of his (this time with bold emphasis added):
Henry Hazlitt deals with this fallacy in Economics in One Lesson (buy it through that link and help a fella out; it won’t cost you a penny more and I’ll get a referral commission fee). Hazlitt comments facetiously in detail in his chapter, “The Curse of Machinery”:
If it were indeed true that the introduction of labor-saving machinery is a cause of constantly mounting unemployment and misery, the logical conclusions to be drawn would be revolutionary, not only in the technical field but for our whole concept of civilization. Not only should we have to regard all further technical progress as a calamity; we should have to regard all past technical progress with equal horror.
Using the example of a clothing manufacturer, Hazlitt explains the fallacy
After the machine has produced economies sufficient to offset its cost, the clothing manufacturer has more profits than before. (We shall assume that he merely sells his coats for the same price as his competitors, and makes no effort to undersell them.) At this point, it may seem, labor has suffered a net loss of employment, while it is only the manufacturer, the capitalist, who has gained. But it is precisely out of these extra profits that the subsequent social gains must come. The manufacturer must use these extra profits in at least one of three ways, and possibly he will use part of them in all three: (1) he will use the extra profits to expand his operations by buying more machines to make more coats; or (2) he will invest the extra profits in some other industry; or (3) he will spend the extra profits on increasing his own consumption. Whichever of these three courses he takes, he will increase employment.
In other words, the manufacturer, as a result of his economies, has profits that he did not have before. Every dollar of the amount he has saved in direct wages to former coat makers, he now has to pay out in indirect wages to the makers of the new machine, or to the workers in another capital industry, or to the makers of a new house or motor car for himself, or of jewelry and furs for his wife. In any case (unless he is a pointless hoarder) he gives indirectly as many jobs as he ceased to give directly.
But the matter does not and cannot rest at this stage. If this enterprising manufacturer effects great economies as compared with his competitors, either he will begin to expand his operations at their expense, or they will start buying the machines too. Again more work will be given to the makers of the machines. But competition and production will then also begin to force down the price of overcoats. There will no longer be as great profits for those who adopt the new machines. The rate of profit of the manufacturers using the new machine will begin to drop, while the manufacturers who have still not adopted the machine may now make no profit at all. The savings, in other words, will begin to be passed along to the buyers of overcoats—to the consumers.
But as overcoats are now cheaper, more people will buy them. This means that, though it takes fewer people to make the same number of overcoats as before, more overcoats are now being made than before. If the demand for overcoats is what economists call “elastic”—that is, if a fall in the price of overcoats causes a larger total amount of money to be spent on overcoats than previously—then more people may be employed even in making overcoats than before the new labor-saving machine was introduced. We have already seen how this actually happened historically with stockings and other textiles.
But the new employment does not depend on the elasticity of demand for the particular product involved. Suppose that, though the price of overcoats was almost cut in half—from a former price, say, of $50 to a new price of $30—not a single additional coat was sold. The result would be that while consumers were as well provided with new overcoats as before, each buyer would now have $20 left over that he would not have had left over before. He will therefore spend this $20 for something else, and so provide increased employment in other lines….
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 three 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. Two out of every three 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, back-breaking 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 voluntary 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.
But never mind Hazlitt. We aren’t supposed to have an answer to Krugman’s question of what else we should do besides having government interfere in the market through the use of force to expropriate wealth and redirect resources to reward non-productivity. I mean, obviously, having a free market where individuals engage in voluntary exchanges for mutual benefit, along with the accompanying incentives to reward the productivity that helps increase the entire society’s standard of living, is a really bad idea. Surely, only heartless “conservatives” could dare offer the evil “free market” as an answer to Krugman’s conundrum. We must not even consider this alternative possibility! It is unfathomable. Inconceivable!