The "Curse" Of Labor-Saving Machinery Is Nothing New

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Brittany Hunter via The Mises Institute,

At the end of last year, Amazon unveiled, “Amazon Go,” a futuristic, fully-automated convenience store set to open its doors in Seattle, Washington, within the next few months. While this exciting new venture promises to make quick-stop shopping trips easier for busy consumers, critics are wary of this type of advanced automation, and fear its widespread use could jeopardize a vast amount of jobs.

Amazon Go is a truly unique shopping experience free of lines, registers, and checkouts of any kind. Instead, the store utilizes its customers’ smartphones and “grab and go technology,” which allows the consumer to simply walk in, grab desired items, and then get on with the rest of their day.

However, since this modern convenience store does not require human employees, labor activists fear the negative implications Amazon Go could potentially have on employment rates, especially if more companies begin moving toward automation.

These concerns in regards to employment are not necessarily unwarranted, nor are they specific to our modern world. In fact, mankind actually has a long track record of fearing mechanical progress and blaming it for high unemployment rates throughout history.

During the Industrial Revolution, many workers resented mechanical innovation, believing it would result in mass unemployment across sectors which traditionally relied on manual labor. In the stocking industry, for example, fear of machines was so intense, massive riots erupted as soon as workers were introduced to the new mechanical knitting machines known as, “stocking frames.” In the midst of all the chaos, new machines were destroyed, houses were burned, inventors were threatened, and peace was not restored until the military eventually intervened.

Unfortunately, the stocking industry example is not an isolated instance of machines causing mass hysteria over employment concerns. In fact, similar outrage was experienced across the globe throughout the entire Industrial Revolution. In the United States, the Great Depression caused another wave of mechanical skepticism, when a group calling themselves the “Technocrats” blamed mechanical advancements for high unemployment rates.

So widely-held was this fear of machines, economist Henry Hazlitt felt compelled to dedicate an entire chapter to debunking the myth that machines cause mass unemployment in his economic manifesto, Economics in One Lesson. In his chapter entitled, The Curse of The Machinery he writes:

The belief that machines cause unemployment, when held with any logical consistency, leads to preposterous conclusions. Not only must we be causing unemployment with every technological improvement we make today, but primitive man must have started causing it with the first efforts he made to save himself from needless toil and sweat.

To the credit of these mechanical skeptics Hazlitt called, “technophobes,” their fears of unemployment were not entirely incorrect.

In the case of the British stocking knitters, it is true that as many as 50,000 were left jobless in the wake of mechanical stocking frames. However, as Hazlitt points out, “But in so far as the rioters believed, as most of them undoubtedly did, that the machine was permanently displacing men, they were mistaken, for before the end of the nineteenth century the stocking industry was employing at least 100 men for every man it employed at the beginning of the century.”

Likewise, 27 years after the invention of the cotton-spinning machine, which was met with similar hostility as the mechanical stocking frame, the number of workers employed in the industry had grown from 7,900 to 320,000, a rate of 4,400 percent.

Yet, no matter how applicable Hazlitt’s words of wisdom may be in our modern world, there are still those who fear technological progress, rather than celebrate it.

Unfortunately for the naysayers, automation is likely to play a greater role in our lives in the very near future. Already, several fast food companies have begun replacing human cashiers with automated kiosks in order to cut back on costs. Additionally, Uber began piloting its fleet of self-driving cars last year and plans to eventually use these autonomous vehicles to replace its human drivers.

However, there is no need to fear this change. As the great Frédéric Bastiat reminds us, there are positive market elements which may be unseen to many, especially critics of automation.

Uber, for example, may soon be significantly decreasing its need for human Uber drivers, but that does not mean these drivers will be left destitute or jobless. Instead, Uber has simultaneously been expanding its delivery services. From flu shots, meals, and even puppies, Uber offers a variety of services that, at this point in time, still require human employees. If, in the future, drones are capable of replacing human delivery services, it will only be a matter of time before new opportunities become available on the market.

Many may be surprised to learn that despite the advanced weaponry available today, there are more blacksmiths now than at any other point in history. Progress does not come without an initial shakeup of traditional norms as the market adjusts to new technology, but this change should be embraced. As the stocking makers and cotton spinners have taught us, innovation should never be discouraged because with technological progress comes more opportunities for the human race.


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GreatUncle's picture

Net loss of work hours though.

Croesus's picture

Didn't some other Mises clown have an article just recently, about how great robotics will be, when it takes over?

The Saint's picture
The Saint (not verified) Croesus Jan 11, 2017 5:27 PM

We've had machines and animals that replaced workers for a couple hundred years.

But, we've never had machines that can replace a person.  When we get there, businesses won't need the expense of people.


XqWretch's picture

Hell, almost 100 million people out of the labor force, I'd say were there.

Stuck on Zero's picture

Machines do not take anyone out of the labor force except on a temporary basis. The greatest destroyer of jobs in history was the farm tractor.  It rendered 60% of all the jobs in the U.S. obsolete between 1915 and 1925 i.e. farm jobs. The only permanent destroyer of jobs is the government. Through rules, regulations, welfare, licensing, corruption, and money maniupulation the government is 90% responsible for all unemployment.

Oldwood's picture

Damn! So it was the TRACTOR that caused the great depression? Oh, that's right, that was durring one of our massive economic expansion periods.

That which destroys ECONOMIES is DEBT.  It is massive low interest debt being pushed into our economy that is fueling malinvestments in job killing technology. 

We have always had tech growth but as it could only be financially balanced with people with enough earned income to pay for its production, it never became massively destructive.

Today we create massive debt to fund this automation including government subsidies, and then create massive public debt to fund the unemployed to continue consuming. If these people who were losing their jobs to automation were starving in the streets rather than using easy credit and EBT cards to subsidize the purchase of the very production that replaced them, NONE of this would be happening.

Our economy is being destroyed by debt. NOT from its liability or interest burden, but because it is being used to PAY for our destruction. And after this destruction is complete, WHO do we recon we will find owing this massive debt?

two hoots's picture

We are experiencing a mechanical/robitic explosion that has no historical comparison, not even counting AI.

This writer is on dog food. 

As soon as robots replace journalist she'll get it.

Itinerant's picture

Just more of this soothing libertard clap trap -- it's always been like this.

Garbage. Industiralization is only a couple of generations old, and is a rather new experiment. Along the way millions of people have seen their lives and livelihood wrecked and been displaced because of waves of unemployment. The idea that beyond automation there will be even more jobs available, without being able to specify what kinds of jobs, shows there is every reason to doubt that the unemployed will not share in the benefits and may never find a decent job. After manufacturing came the services economy. After the services economy comes automation, and after automation comes unemployment. These phases are getting shorter each time.

Verniercaliper's picture

Teh machines add and create value....the real question is who gets that value. We'll have to distribute it more or less evenly to preserve social order. Starving masses tend toward revolution. Pitchfork in one hand, cell phone in the other.

Notveryamused's picture

Article is WRONG.

If an alien race brought a machine to earth that could instantly create and deliver any product anywhere in the world for 50% cheaper than humans.
Would employment benefit?

Massively higher unemployment and bigger wealth gaps resolved by protectionist policies and subsidised/token labour.

While kept for a while out of compassion, ultimately the majority of non genetically modified and machine inter-connected humans will be killed as they would be largely obsolete.

This is the future of automation and AI.

Oldwood's picture

First off, there has BEEN no alien invasion.

Secondly, are we to suppose that technological advancements are inevitable and as such should simply accept that millions must die?

Jesus Christ!

There has ALWAYS been tech advancement from Fire to the wheel on onward, but they did not threaten our extinction. We have a fucking CHOICE as to IF we are going to purchase goods produced by automation, importation or illegal immigration. We simply must be made AWARE of the cost of those choices...the ONE thing that has NOT happened. We have been constantly deluded by governments and corporations that NAFTA and AMAZON were GOOD...unquestionably. How CHEAP and CONVENIENT they all are. How could they harm us??? After all, WHO the fuck needs a job when we can simply be subsidized by debt and printed money?


N2OJoe's picture


Employment may or may not benefit but your standard of living absolutely would, and that is why everyone who fears robots taking their job is getting all worked up over nothing.

Are ATM's bad because they eliminate banking jobs?

Are power tools bad because they reduce the number of men(jobs) required to do that labor?

Are hand tools bad for the same reason?

Are clothes bad because they reduce the amount of energy that must be burned(and produced with jobs) to keep warm?

Oldwood's picture

How many people are dependent upon debt and or entitlements in order to survive AND remain in the consumption circle?

Is this sustainable? Is there ANY economy without debt today? People have lived on this rock for thousands of years EARNING their living. Today, increasingly those still employed are carrying those who are not on their backs.

We know we have survived technological advancement in the past, but it was NEVER based on the level of distortion and malinvestment that we see today. Remove all redistribution subsidies and lets see how long our technology miracle lasts. Lets allow wages to float to meet demand without government intervention and see how it goes.


N2OJoe's picture

So you're saying we would have a higher standard of living if there was no debt enabled technological advancement?

IMO the only issue with generic debt(meaning money-as-debt is still always bad) is when governments intervene by not allowing bad debt to clear itself out.

stewie's picture

Agreed.  Although I would put he blame on central banks since governments are debt slaves too.

juangrande's picture

ZH is populated by middle aged and old white dudes. The new paradigm created by over population and automation will elude most of them until they die.

Oldwood's picture

And exactly WHO do you think is immune to the tech onslaught?

Verniercaliper's picture

I doubt we'll have overpopulation....we'll max out well within the carrying capacity of the planet, then probably go down. Families get smaller as countries get richer

Notveryamused's picture

You have to focus on whether employment would benefit. It wouldn't. So there would be more social disorder as the wealth gap and unemployment rate climbs as a smaller and smaller percentage of the human species are able to be and feel like a productive part of society.

You would be relying on tax (theft) from the top 20% to subsidise everyone else. They will do this via various measures initially but ultimately especially once genetically modified and machine interconnected humans exist, regular humans will be more of an inferior and obsolete sub species & they will become extinct.

Notveryamused's picture

I think people will make the choice you suggest, Brexit and Trump are examples of that in a way. However ultimately the March of progress can't be stopped and in addition genetically modified humans (already allowed in UK law) and machine interconnected humans will make regular humans largely obsolete.

Watch the movie Gattaca, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke, very similar to a world 60 years from now, but beyond that it gets even worse.

Suleyman's picture

No, he said the government, which is true.


A Nanny Moose's picture

100 million are not out of work because of automation. They are out of work because of regulation. Regulation always produces shortages.

Shortages of $15/hr burger flipping jobs. Shortages of qualified high tech workers.

"Put the government in charge of the desert, and in 5 years, there will be a shortage of sand." - Uncle Milt.

Oldwood's picture

Automation is a response to labor costs. If labor is artificially kept high, either through public resistance to allow their labor value to fluctuate relative to market demands or government intervention, then automation WILL replace us as it becomes available.

Funding automation with debt is equivalent to open borders where wage competition is artificially created, FORCING labor values DOWN. We live on a planet that so far has proven a "closed market" given no other intelligent life has seen fit to enter our markets, so why IS all of this unavoidable. What I find interesting is that we pretend we have no choice but accept automation, immigration and importation, when ALL of these are choices. We are not forced to buy imports, hire illegals or purchase from suppliers we know are using technology to eliminate employment.

Instead we must listen to this tripe about the inevitability of it all and how we must accept and BELIEVE that it will all work out fine even though we see our employment base shrinking daily, standards of living falling, and greater and greater dependence upon debt and entitlements.

stewie's picture

Globalization requires evening out wealth.  This means out of the richest country (West) to the poorest countries (the rest of the world).  This is required for the globalist agenda as well as diluting nationalism to ease in the populace blending process.  The rest is a side show.  Automation is the last of our worries.  If you look at what is happening in the world through this prism, it all makes sense and nothing is surprising anymore.  I figured it out in '08 and have been intellectually vindicated since then.  Not bragging here btw, I didn't come up with it.  Just read on it for your own sake and try to disprove it.  It's illuminating and at some level cathartic.  So is commenting on ZH :o)  

Oldwood's picture

Automation, immigration, globalization are all components, but there is only ONE common factor and that is DEBT. None of it would be tolerated if debt was not anesthetizing our population against the obvious destruction. Globalization is another weapon used to weaken us and make us dependent upon a financial system that uses debt as a means of addiction dependency, just as any narcotic dependency would provide (and they are using that as well). Anything to weaken us and make us dependent, compliant and acceptant.

Croesus's picture

@ Saint:

The whole thing reminds me of "The Terminator" & "The Matrix".

Intellectual hubris will be our undoing, imo.

We remain the only species on the planet that cannot exist within Nature's parameters, and be happy doing so.

The Indians had it right: Take only what you need, and don't be wasteful; be grateful for what you're provided with.

Technology is useful, but beyond a certain point, its developers will be unleashing a demon.

City_Of_Champyinz's picture

And nobody will be able to buy the stupid trinkets produced without human labor.  How anyone believes that this will not effect the economy is beyond me.

Croesus's picture

The thing that gets me is that these people "sell" "the great robotic revolution" partly on the idea that it will drive down costs for consumer goods...

You know, that "Trickle down" theory...

Something's 'trickling down', alright. Right down our legs, as these jokers try to convince us that it's raining.

Implied Violins's picture

Those are not the golden showers I was hoping for...

Verniercaliper's picture

We'll need a guaranteed minimum income from the Gov't.

two hoots's picture

or the inexperience of people.

Bluntly Put's picture

And lower pay as everyone's skills are automated, our value to the market decreases. The author also wants us to believe there are never any diminishing returns. The diminishing returns for automation are, it replaces our labor. Our labor is what we do to earn, or exchange the labor for something tangible.

Maybe the future is so great we don't have to work, but then again we may be living in pods hooked to a machine.

XqWretch's picture

You know what I just had a thought. Let them have their machines. Fuck labor, fuck a job, let's get back to what we are supposed to be doing like PRODUCING THINGS. Grow your own garden, get some livestock, trade shit with your neighbors. Maybe we can finally get away from all these fucking useless jobs people are holding down.

orelius's picture

So how are you and your neighbors going to pay for electricity, fuel, taxes etc? With chickens?

XqWretch's picture

We will just get the Mexicans to run on human hamster wheels to power things.

Adahy's picture

Farm waste products are easily tuned into energy.

Bluntly Put's picture

It's either that or get out into space. But if we sit on this rock with increasing population, and diminishing opportunities for work we'll end up eating each other.

lucitanian's picture

You're absolutely right. Nobody I know is against technological progress and the elimination of drudgery or mindless tasks. The questions must be; 1, how will we value humanity. 2, how will it benefit us when our livelihood is directly linked to our labour. 3, How will the earnings/savings accrued by the robots and computers be shifted to people. Who, how many, and for what employment will people be needed?   And who is paying? The idea that more people will be employed rather than less at the end of the day in any given industry is farcical to say the least relative to the scope of this transition. We're not talking about mechanization in the 18th C. or moving from the horse and carriage to the motor car. This is robotization plus artificial intelligence (AI), our brains, our hands. 

As I wrote before, this presents fundamental philosophical questions which cannot be answered in purely economic terms alone. It goes to the core of how we define ourselves as humans. Do we live to work or work to live. We live for what, once robots and AI remove from us the need to work our brains and hands. What do we use our lives for? Do we use them to create? Do we become artist, and gods or just technicians servicing the bots and computers?

Social, political, economic, and philosophic questions are at hand which will define the future of humanity. If we face these questions as purely economic animals only, we we are doomed to slavery or worse.

Oldwood's picture

You are suggesting that we can defeat or subvert the rules of natural existence that have prevailed form the first amoeba by simply applying philosophy. How will we justify our own existence on this planet when all we do is consume and all we contribute is waste?

We must recognize the nature of life. For us to abandon our own self sufficiency for a life of ease....that if you would consider, has been insatiable in its degree of sloth, would be the epitome of slavery, even IF labor is not involved. After all, slavery is not about labor, it about choices, or lack thereof.

How much easier does our life need to be? And what liberty will we surrender for that ease? And will we be able to get our liberty BACK if we find it completely unsatisfactory living in our gilded cage.

Ultimately those who own our means of production, fully automated, WHAT purpose would THEY consider as justifiable to maintain our existence?

Verniercaliper's picture

Nonsense. We won't be truly free until we can eliminate work and replace it with leisure or tasks we enjoy. Many will do useful things, some will not. And if robots provide for us we're still self-sufficient. Sloth? Who wouldn't like to have time to spend with children/grandkids, learn an instrument, play golf, write a novel, etc? The creative will still produce art. The scientists will still make discoveries. Athletes will still compete. Those who want more material things will work. That's slavery? Bring it on, I say.

Adahy's picture

Marching full speed to the real-life version of 'Idiocracy'.  Be sure to stock up on Brawndo.

Surging Chaos's picture

And why is this an issue?

People worked more hours during the Industrial Revolution and had a lower standard of living back then than we do today. We work to live; not the other way around.

Consuelo's picture



And by what means did we fund our way to this glorious standard of living today that you speak of...?   

And would it be as 'high' as it is without that method of pulling the future forward for sake of gratification today?

lucitanian's picture

Hunter gatherers spent less time "working" than the average worker does today. But in those days he was working for him/her self not the banks, as in the case of the industrial revolution and today.

1980XLS's picture

The negroes have been partying since Eli Whitney.



bestiae fame's picture

Right. Those clerks that can't speak English are going to have to work somewhere else. 


Intoxicologist's picture

I dream of doing menial shit all day, lol