Automation and its effect on labor was a key theme for one of America’s most famous authors, Kurt Vonnegut, in his first novel and one of my favorites, Player Piano (1952), where he presents a (potentially) dystopian America in which machines have almost completely taken over the function of productivity. This automation creates class stratification between elites, such as the engineers who maintain the machines, and lower class laborers, whose jobs have largely been eliminated by the machines. The disenfranchised workers are left with a stagnant existence and are prompted to foment a rebellion against the machines that govern their daily lives and that thereby present an ominous threat to humanity’s ability to achieve self-actualization. But is his portrayal of machine proliferation accurate? In a word, no. Thankfully for us, Vonnegut was a much better creative writer than he was an economist.
Vonnegut got the idea for Player Piano while working at General Electric Company (GE)—one of the largest and most influential corporations in the world—as a young man. He remembers how, in 1949, computerization was starting to emerge and workers were “foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes.”
Vonnegut’s representation of American industry’s demise at the hands of automation technology is rooted in classical economics. British economist David Ricardo, a predecessor of Karl Marx, first offered his theory on the dangers of automation several decades earlier. Ricardo’s 1817 work, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, explains the labor theory of value in connection with mechanization. Ricardo writes, “I am convinced that the substitution of machinery for human labor is often very injurious to the interests of the class of laborers.” He describes how an improvement in efficiency or production does not necessarily translate to an increase in value, which can, in turn, be detrimental to an economy. He also worries that while net production may increase, gross production may not, which ultimately leads to unemployment (379). Ricardo feared, ultimately, that an explosion in technology could create an economic atmosphere in which “population will become redundant, and the situation of the laborious classes will be that of distress and poverty” (381). Marx subsequently took Ricardo’s ideas much further by rooting all economic activity (and by extension political, social, cultural, etc.) in his (wildly flawed) principles of labor.
Those economists from the Austrian School, however, bring a decidedly different perspective to the question of mechanization and employment. Ludwig von Mises says, “The Ricardo effect is by and large stock-in-trade of popular economics. Nonetheless, the theorem involved is one of the worst economic fallacies. The confusion starts with the misinterpretation of the statement that machinery is ‘substituted’ for labor.” He explains that technological improvements are not designed and implemented as a means to reduce labor, but rather to increase production. If there were no potential for production efficiency, then technology would not be adopted. By maximizing efficiency in the production process, entirely new projects may then be undertaken that were previously unfeasible due to unfilled consumer demand. With more supply at hand, more consumption and, ultimately, more leisure time are possible, in turn opening up new kinds of demand, new kinds of production, and new kinds of employment. What those goods will be and how leisure is enjoyed is up to the individual, subjective values of the consumers. Understanding this relationship, Mises writes, “explodes all talk about ‘technological unemployment’” (Human Action 768).
The goal of an individual business, on a microeconomic level, or of a national economy, on a macro scale, is not to create jobs. The goal of all economic endeavors is create wealth, i.e. subjective value, for all involved—owners, employees, consumers, investors, and anyone else directly or indirectly affiliated. Jobs are not ends. It is only the accumulation of capital through effective production that creates jobs both now and in the future. Capital is the end goal. Jobs are the means, and, circularly, only exist by way of capital. Capital can exist without jobs; jobs cannot exist without capital. Therefore, hindering access to capital leads to a stagnation of job growth. We must remember that “[m]odern industrialism was not intent upon designedly increasing the joy of labor”—or even the amount of available labor. “It relied,” Mises writes, “upon the material improvement that it brought to the employees in their capacity as wage earners as well as in their capacity as consumers and buyers of the products” (Human Action 587). The number of jobs in an economy is not a signal of prosperity. Large nations such as the Soviet Union, India, and China have always had more access to labor, but they have always been poorer than the United States. Even those living in poverty in America tend to be richer than many who live in those other countries, and this is arguably because Americans have tended to create more economic wealth. Not much good comes from having a supposedly low-level, steady job while starving to death. On the other hand, having a low-level or blue-collar job can provide a very comfortable lifestyle in America. Mises writes, “The substitution of more efficient methods of production for less efficient ones does not render labor abundant…. On the contrary, it increases output and thereby the quantity of consumers’ goods. ‘Laborsaving’ devices reduce want. They do not bring about ‘technological unemployment’. Every product is the result of the employment both of labor and of material factors. Man economizes both labor and material factors” (Human Action 136-37).
The foundation of any discussion on the role of automation on production, however, has to do with the very definition of labor, primarily that it is inherently a form of disutility, or, in other words, is itself a form of adversity. Mises reminds us that “the real world is conditioned by the disutility of labor. Only theorems based on the assumption that labor is a source of uneasiness are applicable for the comprehension of what is going on in this world” (Human Action 65). By contrast, much of Player Piano offers characters that feel unfulfilled because they are not laboring in endeavors they love. In other words, they claim to enjoy and receive dignity from their jobs. However, since humans always act in an effort to remove uneasiness, according to definitions of labor, if we truly love our work, we would never cease working because the received joy would outweigh other options of pleasure. Concurrently, we would not tend to want to consume, which is the ultimate purpose of production in the first place. Furthermore, if we truly loved work, we would automatically do it for free. Therefore, labor or work, by definition, is an attempt to do something we dislike in an effort to achieve something we enjoy more at a later time, usually through the attainment of money or some other benefit. This is not to say that we cannot enjoy our jobs, but we always demand payment, which implies that we will use that payment to achieve an increase of happiness at a future time that is inherently worth more than our current laborious condition. The only way to attain the means for happiness is to do things that we find unhappy. This is the trade-off that leads to consumption of other activities. As an example, we may love the activity of university teaching. However, if we truly received ultimate satisfaction from that work, we would never leave the office or the classroom, because it would only be while at work that we achieve happiness. Additionally, we would gladly show up to school for free, because, again, our pleasure outweighs the need to obtain any other form of happiness.
On the contrary, we work so that we may eat, put shelter over our heads, keep children healthy, go on vacation, attend sporting events and concerts, buy new televisions, and the like. We inherently value those things more because that is what we set aside work for. By definition, then, work is less valuable to us than myriad other activities. We only do it to purchase other forms of happiness. Vonnegut’s hope that we should enjoy our labor for labor’s sake and to be part of an integrated social fabric simply does not fit with the realities of economics. “In our actual world things are different,” Mises writes. “The expenditure of labor is deemed painful. Not to work is considered a state of affairs more satisfactory than working. Leisure is, other things being equal, preferred to travail. People work only when they value the return of labor higher than the decrease in satisfaction brought about by the curtailment of leisure. To work involves disutility” (Human Action 131-32). Humans prefer non-work to work, despite the hopes of classical economists, and the accessibility of non-work is most available to the most amount of people (including the working classes) in a capitalistic economy that embraces technological advances.
In his work Singularity Rising, economist and technology expert James D. Miller offers a glimpse of what the technological possibilities for the future may hold. There is a distinct opportunity before us that technological improvements will continue to compound and humanity will continue to benefit with increasing speed and efficiency. “In the past, job-destroying machine production has overall greatly benefited workers,” Miller writes. “‘Destroying jobs’ sounds bad—like something that should harm an economy. But the benefits of job destruction become apparent when you realize that an economy’s most valuable resource is human brains” (131). The more our brains are employed in creative and enterprising activities, and less in menial and backbreaking labor, the more our lives and the world’s economies improve. This has already happened with American agriculture: “The obliteration of most agricultural jobs has been a huge source of economic growth for America,” Miller notes. “In 1900, farmers made up 38 percent of the American workforce, whereas now they constitute less than two percent of it…. Yet despite the massive decrease in farming jobs, the United States has steadily produced more and more food since 1900. Agricultural technology gave the American people… more food with less effort, making obesity a greater threat to American health than calorie deprivation” (132). The automation that has enhanced our lives exponentially over the last 150 years will surge forward until, at some point, machines might do almost all of our work and we might spend almost all of our time in leisure.
The ideas of Ricardo, Marx, and Vonnegut actually still exist today—and among very powerful people. In a 2011 interview in which he addressed the issue of sustained unemployment, Barack Obama stated, “There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.” In this specific case, and in much discussion about technology in general, it is clear that the president has elided the additional labor required for the innovation, construction, installation, and preservation of these machines. ATMs did not arrive out of thin air—laborers made them come into existence. It also does not further the president’s case that the number of bank teller jobs has dramatically increased since the development of ATMs. The fact remains that ATMs and other technological advancements make our lives better. We like having access to our bank accounts 24 hours a day, we like not having to stand in lines, and we like the improved personal control over our financial needs. Even if employment is affected in the short term, we as consumers prefer technology.
Writing in 1959, shortly after the publication of Player Piano and in the midst of the automation debates, Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard called for the truth about the evolution of technology to prevail: “Let us, therefore, put aside the old Luddite (machine-wrecking) bogey of technological unemployment, and hail modern developments of automation for what it is and will be: a superb method of greatly increasing the standards of living and the leisure hours, of all of us.”
So, if you’re worried about robots taking over all of our jobs and leaving us poor and without purpose, you’re in luck. Your beliefs align with Kurt Vonnegut, who was a great writer, but also an admitted socialist who knew next to nothing about real-world economics. Don’t fear emerging technology. More efficient production makes everything cheaper and allows for more free time to engage in fun activities—like reading interesting literature. Go read Player Piano, and bring on the machines!