Friday, September 20, 2013

The end of work?

Tim Worstall writes in the UK Register that he isn’t worried about technology replacing people in the marketplace.

The basic claim by the rage against the machine guys is that the AIs, software and robots are just about to become better than human beings at doing everything. Therefore there will be nothing left for humans to do and, erm, something and then we all die, I think.

I’ll fill in the blank for him: With nothing left for humans to do, the worker will have no skills to barter for food, shelter, etc. He will want the necessary things to survive.

That will never happen. Even in a state economy, demand will rise to meet increasing supply. Nothing will be free, and so competition for wages, for work, will continue into perpetuity.

Worstall anticipates a time when supply will be infinite, when the level of comfort and well-being the economy offers is “enough,” allowing the human race to retire and spend eternity in leisure activities, a la Marx. If you’re wondering why we haven’t reached that point yet, you just identified the main flaw in Marxist theory. The diminishing returns of some technologies and the great leaps of the Information Age lead one to wrongly conclude that we have realized most, if not all, that can be gained from human industry. But, just as Marx couldn’t foresee pesticides or the Internet; just as cavemen couldn’t foresee bronze tools or the wheel; we cannot predict what the next hundred years hold in store.

In reality, mankind’s retirement will not result in permanent stasis, but rather a slow decline as technological utility and knowledge fade further into the past. Man will never run out of ways to increase his knowledge of the world around him and to improve the lives of others. There is always work to do. Always. Machines might be able to repair themselves—but, lacking self-awareness, the consciousness that only God can bestow on His creation, they’re not able to act on human needs they’re not programmed to detect. At the very least, there will always be programmers. (Training people for work in new economies presents unique challenges, breaking through the bureaucratized education apparatus being one of them.)

Worstall can’t wait to retire. He claims “work, a job, is a cost, not a benefit of our lives.” This view of work as a necessary evil is a Marxist one and, as you’d expect, wrong. Work is not merely necessary for humans to do until robots take over. Work as a transaction creates value. It feeds families. It improves the human condition. The profits of work connect workers’ skills and industriousness to acquiring wealth to meet their goals.

Furthermore, work is a social good. Work teaches responsibility and self-reliance, worthy traits in members of a body politic. It keeps us busy and out of trouble. It creates social bonds that further weave together civil society. Leisure, or inactivity, is fine for the elderly in the twilights of their lives, but not for young men, bustling with energy, who look upon the world with their own objects and desires in mind. The recent Swedish riots were the effects of excess leisure, of socialism, on young men.

The end of work is not the blessing Worstall says it is. Fortunately the economic realities baked into human nature forbid the end of work from happening.


  1. "Work as a transaction creates value. It feeds families. It improves the human condition. The profits of work connect workers’ skills and industriousness to acquiring wealth to meet their goals. "

    Indeed, work is all these things. But it is a cost of all these things. Work is a cost of creating value, work is the cost that must be paid to feed families, work is a cost of acquiring wealth.

    Jobs, work, they really are costs. That's why people have to bribe us with cash money to get us to come and do them.

    1. Thanks for replying, Tim.

      My pov is work as the only means to create value cannot possibly be called anything but a benefit. We want to work because it helps us achieve our goals. Don't think of it as bribing. We don't "bribe" the grocer to give us a block of cheese, do we?