The original Ned Ludd was, as legend seems to have it, just a chap who got mad and smashed a weaving machine one day back in 1779. Ned may not have had any coherent political intentions. But, of course, his impulse struck a chord in industrial workers, and a couple of decades later there was a widespread movement of machine-smashers, calling themselves Luddites, and naming Ned Ludd as their founding hero.
This tendency for workers to resent the contraptions that allow them to work less yet accomplish more has been with us for a long time. I came across this quote the other day on Facebook:
"The writing is clearly on the wall. In what is increasingly becoming a low-wage service economy, it's obviously not a question of 'if' tens of millions of Americans are rendered permanently unemployable by advanced robots, but when..."
Well, I mean, it is concerning, isn't it? People getting thrown out of their jobs in favor of machines that don't need feeding, or breaks, or health coverage?
For me the word that stands out in the above statement is "unemployable." I'm not sure we should accept that without some scrutiny. What, after all, would it take to render a person unemployable? Well, I suppose that would happen if there were no jobs available for which that person could get paid enough to buy life's necessities.
Economics teaches us that when something (like, let's say, basic human labor) is plentifully supplied, but only grudgingly demanded, its price (wages) will fall. And if abundant workers are chasing scarce jobs (being made even more scarce by those infernal machines!), those who have jobs will hang on to them for dear life.
Yet why would an unemployed worker be an unemployable worker? Because no one else will give that worker a job. Why, then, can he not work for himself? Because there's no place for him to work or nothing for him to do.
But why, or why not? Human desires are unlimited and people always think of more things to do, explore, try, want, etc. And the problem certainly can't be any lack of tools and equipment; this whole discussion started with our worries about how better tools and equipment makes workers able to create more wealth every year!
But, of course, there is one other thing we need: land. We need the materials out of which and the locations on which this gainful work is to be done.
Yet there is no shortage of land, neither! We look around in every city and see patches of highly valuable land, amply provisioned with services and infrastructure, sitting idle, or only being put to a fraction of its potential use.
What keeps labor, land, and capital from productively coming together, to put every unemployed worker to work and create a prosperous society?
That is the main mystery that our course, Understanding Economics, seeks to solve.
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LINDY DAVIES was Program Director of the Henry George Institute and Editor of the Georgist Journal. He was the author of The Alodia Scrapbook, the fictitious story of how a struggling African nation used Geoism to set itself on the path to prosperity, and of the novel The Sassafras Crossing. He managed a successful campaign to get the Henry George Institute's distance-learning program approved by the National College Credit Recommendation Service. He passed away in 2019, and is lovingly remembered by the many people whose lives he touched.