Cody Boutilier: How to stop the robot revolution

Yesterday in National Review, James Sherk wrote a staggeringly disingenuous rebuttal to fellow economist Michael R. Strain’s automation jeremiad. The following exercise in flippancy shatters his argument: “almost as quickly as technology has eliminated some jobs, it has created new ones. Like developing smartphone apps (as if the average American worker were capable of mastering advanced computer science). Or shuttling Uber passengers (as if Google’s driverless car won’t complicate that prospect). Or moving inventory in Amazon warehouses (as if stocking and transport can’t go the way of manufacturing).” [italicized phrases mine]

The impending robot revolution places conservatism at a pivotal crossroads. Confronted with the dramatic social upheavals that will follow automation and mass unemployment, conservatives have to decide whether they are first libertarian free marketeers or communitarian social conservatives. Hitherto, capitalism has thrived on the collective benefits derived from Smith’s invisible hand, but when technology fails to replace the jobs it destroys, conservatives must either accept a pronounced degree of government regulation or embrace radical Randian individualism.

It’s true that a robotic workforce will drive down the cost of consumer products to practically nothing, but when most of the human workforce is unemployed, this silver lining is nugatory. Progressives, envisioning an unprecedented redistributive apparatus, herald the New Man to emerge in the wake of obsolesced labor. Considering that more Americans seem to watch the Kardashians than have a working knowledge of the Bible, let alone Shakespeare, a massive welfare regime will coarsen rather than elevate the human spirit. Our hellish, welfare-plagued inner cities should put such utopian speculation to rest. Just as man does not live by bread alone, so does the value of work exceed basic sustenance.

The solution is to ban technology whose steep social costs outweigh its limited benefits. I’m frankly surprised that I’m the first commentator I know of to tend this obvious proposal. If the government can regulate tanks and nuclear missiles, then driverless cars and robot waiters should be no exception.

Questioning laissez-faire economics unsettles some conservatives more than the looming death of human dignity. This is the natural consequence of disparaging social conservatism in favor of libertarian fiscal policy. As social conservatives cognize the adverse consequences of the new wave of automation, they will have to abandon the fiction that humanity can absorb an unlimited degree of technological progress without attendant radical damage to the social fabric. Without impugning the well-meaning Mr. Sherk, it’s worth noting how much libertarians, in their worship of the abstract Baal of Progress and disregard for human impact, echo communists with their omelets and eggs.

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