What Do We Really Want?
We don’t think it’s quite right that people should have to toil for a living, at least not as alienated wage labor, but we get angry at those who live on welfare and make no attempt to work.
We think people should be able to work less, and take time to stop and smell the roses, but we fret about an increase in part-time jobs.
We want people to be able to work less, but want them to be paid more.
We want wages to go up, but not prices.
We want increasing standards of living through innovation, but we want to preserve existing jobs.
We want to boost employment, but we want to maintain a high wage floor.
We want more craft labor, but we want America to be internationally competitive.
We want everything, but Plato was wrong about commensurability.
I often say that hell is a place where people work all the time but gain no goods or services, while heaven is a place where people have all the goods and services they want but never work. Given a choice, we want the latter, and we may actually be able to achieve it, or at least move ever closer to it.
Jobs are going to disappear. The lights-out factory is already a reality. Autonomous vehicles may drastically reduce jobs in transportation, taxi services, and automobile production. Modular factory-built housing–perhaps built in lights-out factories–that are assembled on-site could decimate construction jobs. MOOCs and other distance education efforts could slash teaching jobs. Factory built Mini nuclear reactors could eliminate coal and gas mining jobs (coal mining is already dwindling as an occupation).
On the other side, Switzerland is going to hold a referendum on a guaranteed minimum income. It probably won’t pass, but suppose it does, and suppose it works. Even the pro-market Milton Friedman advanced the idea. If it does, work becomes an issue not of survival but a choice about living standards.
If you could have a 1970 level standard of living, while working only 12 hours a week, would you be willing to accept that in place of a 2020 standard of living while working 37 hours a week? For that matter, isn’t a 1970 level standard of living with 25 hours more free time a week actually a better than 1970 standard of living?
The automation that destroys our jobs also makes most of those goods incredibly cheap compared to 1970, so it’s almost unavoidable that we would have a greater-than-1970 standard of living as the price of goods moves ever closer to free.
Our standard of living will increase through diminished pollution and stress, too. Un or underemployment will no longer be so stress inducing because it will be more voluntary. Commuting will diminish, and will become easier, less stressful, with autonomous cars. Pollution will diminish as there are fewer cars on the road and those that are drive more smoothly (and with diminished demand for horsepower for acceleration, electric cars could become more widely accepted). Shifting away from coal will mean cleaner air and waters. Would you trade off fewer work hours for better health?
Will all this come to pass? I think it will. I don’t think it will come in my lifetime, but I think in my lifetime we have been and will continue to be on a trajectory toward it. In the short run, will all the people caught up in the transition benefit? No. There are policy solutions to help them, though, which don’t necessitate halting the trend (although they may slow it to some unknowable degree).
We want to work less, but we fret about the post-work economy. We want heaven…why not go for it?