Earlier this week, President Obama attempted to blame high unemployment on automation, specifically the rising popularity of ATMs and airline ticketing kiosks. The idea is that such machines wipe out jobs by making human bank tellers and ticket counter attendants obsolete.
In reality, such machines are among the tools that help us realize a level of wealth beyond the dreams of our forefathers. Enhanced productivity does not destroy jobs. It creates them, as new markets are opened, new occupations appear, and society gains more wealth to spend. Someone must build, program, install, and maintain the ATMs. People find better things to do with the time they used to spend standing in line at banks.
What is prosperity, and what drives its creation?
Prosperity is not simply a matter of full employment, or the basic needs of all citizens being met. Full employment can be accomplished through slavery. To work backward from Obama’s economic superstitions, there is a very high rate of employment in primitive societies that lack machinery, and must rely entirely on human and animal muscle. There is little surplus in such a system, so those who don’t work tend to die fairly quickly.
As for meeting basic needs, authoritarian power can distribute them in the short term, as in the case of people organized to survive a disaster. Over the long term, when the State allocates resources to the people, the result is poverty, not prosperity. No one thinks of the ugly purgatory of Soviet communes when they envision a “prosperous” nation.
Is prosperity a matter of luxury, then? Technology has given us fabulous wealth over the last century. The wealthiest man alive in 1911 did not have access to many of the luxuries that surround a poor American today. No amount of money could have provided Andrew Carnegie or J.P. Morgan with anything comparable to Internet access, a cellular phone, or global jet travel. A king of old would view the average modern apartment as a chamber of Heaven.
However, wealth is not only for the rich, and it’s not just measured in luxuries. Average people now have incredibly easy access to high-quality food and medicine, at very modest cost. Think of it this way: how many hours per day does the average American have to work, in order to afford the basic necessities of food and shelter? Our forefathers, in the very recent past, had to put in long and grueling hours of back-breaking labor just to stay alive. They could only dream of an eight-hour work day and vacation time.
Prosperity results when the value of our time, both working and leisure, is increased. Greater productivity and purchasing power allow us to meet our needs with fewer hours of labor, and improve the quality of our leisure time.
Another essential ingredient of prosperity is liberty. A highly productive person with lots of leisure time is not wealthy, if he must spend his private hours locked in a dreary cell. Money is less valuable when people don’t have a wide range of choices in how to spend it. Commerce produces less wealth when business partners cannot cooperate freely, and end that cooperation when they choose. Liberty is an essential component of competition, which requires consumers to have free choice between competing producers.
Liberty by itself doesn’t produce prosperity, though. A man living alone in a vast wilderness has a great deal of liberty, but would not live what most of us define as a prosperous life. No offense intended to those who voluntarily choose a simple, solitary existence, but a nation filled with people who live that way wouldn’t generate American levels of wealth and industry.
What brings liberty and productivity together, creating jobs and improving the value of our lives?
Ambition is the fountain of prosperity. The desire for a better life, for ourselves and our families, drives individuals to achievement. The hunger for profit and success compels businesses to expand, and create new markets. The drive to offer new products, at reduced cost, leads to innovation.
Government control brings stasis, because it is necessary to inform controlled citizens that their ambitions are invalid. Aspirations are transformed into greed. Achievement gives way to re-distribution. Virtue is assigned to the satisfied, while the restless become troublemakers. Need becomes vastly more important than desire, which central planners regard as a sin.
ATMs don’t destroy jobs, because the ambitions of a bank are better fulfilled by devoting its precious human resources to more exciting pursuits than processing small cash withdrawals. The ambitions of bank employees soar beyond the simple tasks a machine can handle.
No matter how much high-flying rhetoric of “dreams” and “audacity” it adopts, the Left’s philosophy has always been perfectly captured by the communal farm, where the needs of each are fulfilled by the means of others. There is full employment in the fields, and at the workbenches where crude tools are fashioned. You don’t want to live there. No one in their right mind does.