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February 19th, 2008 by Edward Miller

A majority of unskilled jobs are completely unnecessary even with current technology. We are already very much a Robotic Nation; ATM Machines, industrial robots, automated checkouts, e-commerce, computerized help desks, and vending machines have replaced millions of workers. The burden of most unskilled labor can and will be shifted to machines, and the same is true for even a great deal of skilled labor. Yet, currently, it is as if human beings are taking on the role of machines, grinding away day-in and day-out in dead end jobs, all the while, the middle class is shrinking and unemployment is growing. If something isn’t done, there will be some major class warfare.

Leisure is a good thing! Even for our economies it is a good thing. If it wasn’t for the norms and government regulations in our society that produce more leisure time such as weekends, holidays, child labor laws, minimum wage, overtime laws, and so forth, there wouldn’t be nearly as much demand to fuel the enormous industries surrounding music, art, sports, movies, entertainment, etc.

Couple in Hammock | Reuben Maltsberger
Couple in Hammock | Reuben Maltsberger
Unfortunately, we have been infected by the Protestant Ethic meme which sanctifies work. This sort of mentality is prevalent among most of society, from CEOs to workers’ unions. Unions fight for the “right to work” and are deeply fearful of their jobs becoming automated. Ironically, many of the policies they push for make human labor more expensive, which gives further incentive for automation. I argue that workers should rejoice at the possibilities created by human labor becoming obsolete. We should speed up the process. Screw the right to work, we need the Right to be Lazy!

Employment is only valuable if it is performing a necessary service. If we can get our basic needs taken care of sufficiently, unemployment could be a perfectly reasonable option. There are plenty of worse things in the world than doing nothing. Being a marketing executive or politician, for example.I would argue, though, that under conditions of abundance, we should seek to find joy in ways that benefit others as well. Volunteering one’s time to nonprofit charitable endeavors would certainly be one example. Creating art, music, comedy, poetry, movies, video games, and so forth would also be valid ways of contributing to the world.

Thus, as automation progresses, we should gradually and continually strengthen laws regarding overtime, retirement, minimum wage, welfare, universal healthcare, importation from sweat-shop-ridden countries, and so forth, all in the name of making human labor more expensive, and compensating for the displacement caused by mechanization of labor. We should consider simultaneously giving positive incentives, such as tax breaks, for businesses that make strides toward automation, and fund research in that area.

I would go so far to say that once a sufficient amount of our production of basic necessities is automated, unemployment would be a good thing. We shouldn’t just have welfare, but a Guaranteed Minimum Income system. (even Hayek would agree)

Once liberated from needless toil, we will be free to spend more time enjoying the fruits of our material abundance by creating art, playing sports, and loving one another. Maybe our GDP won’t be growing quite as quickly at first, but some things are more important than the quantity of stuff we produced this financial quarter. Feel free to share your thoughts. Is the End of Work near? If so, what should be done about it?

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5 Responses to “Is Wage Labor Becoming Obsolete?”

  1. The Wages of Whiteness by David R Roediger talks about the formation of the Protestant Ethic meme during the 19th century and how the formation of the “white worker” was always defined by blacks. The “white worker” had to use a lot of doublethink to define himself – blacks were both “lazy” and “hard working.” Roediger reasons that the common perception of a black lifestyle was actually what white people longed for and secretly despised themselves for longing for it – a preindustrial society.

    I still see this relevant today as blacks (especially blacks on welfare) are commonly perceived as being “lazy.” Paradoxically, hispanics are also seen as lazy despite them working much harder and lower paying jobs.

    The white worker would love to be lazy but the Protestant Ethic meme is extremely powerful.

    The best part about the automation of society is that it benefits both worker and employer. The employer would love for robots to do all the menial labor – they only have to pay them once (when they bought the robots) and there are no pesky labor unions demanding higher wages or better working conditions.

    The worker, too, greatly benefits from automation which you have outlined in your post.

  2. The idea of a guaranteed income has to overcome this irrational touchiness about individual “productivity.” We hear all the time that progressive taxation “punishes” the most “productive” individuals and rewards the less “productive,” even though the ability to earn absurd amounts of money in an American-style economy usually has no connection with producing something extraordinarily useful. For the record, I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for over 17 years now, and I most emphatically deny that I do anything “productive” at all, even though I earn a paycheck for just showing up for “work.”

  3. After writing this post, I quickly became aware of how old this argument is. Some more resources for y’all:

    http://effortlesseconomy.com/

    http://anarchotranshumanism.com/2007/05/01/will-robots-spark-the-revolution/

    http://www.deepleafproductions.com/wilsonlibrary/texts/raw-RICH.html

  4. Another by the illustrious James Hughes.

    http://www.usbig.net/papers/081-Hughes-Beyond-Luddism.doc

    And a debate between Hughes and Robin Hanson

    http://jetpress.org/v16/hanson.html

  5. The new Wages of Whiteness fails to acknowledge the Puritan Ethic as the result of collective fear by American Settlers who were anxious about being saved which was the basis of the compensatory superiority complex to their otherwise trash common inferiority complex. The latter 19th century Euro-American immigrants adopted this complex of “American exceptionality ” to compensate for their homeland inferiority
    in particularly in supremacy and exclusion of the pariah Black workers who were social constructs for exploitation. Now the new Puritanism is that God desires us to consume his bles-sings and no longer do we have to work inorder to show that we are saved. whites no longer identify as “working class” but “middle Class”. But the Superiority complex continues.
    “Wages of whiteness” is very inadequate to explain the
    continuing inferiority-superiority complex of white americans .
    Kovel was too quick to denounce his earliar Freudian ideas for explaining whiteness. More application of Adler and Fanon should be used to develop the whiteness theory as a social construct to compensate for white inferiority.

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