The Wall Street Journal today ran a story about gigantic touchscreens appearing in hundreds of McDonald’s in California, New York and Florida. The article was about the technology and the implication, of course, is that we free marketers should rejoice in progress even at the expense of jobs. My problem with this assumption is that much of today’s job-replacing technology is not a result of free market forces. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a bleeding-heart Elizabeth Warren-type when it comes to jobs (or when it comes to anything!), but I don’t want government action resulting in unemployment, which in itself is a terrible injustice to the eager-but-idle laborer, and more selfishly, I don’t want to increase government dependency at the expense of the taxpayer and to the detriment of a responsible populace capable of self-governance.
As a free marketer, I object to government expenditure on technology from the Department of Defense fostering driverless vehicles to research grants at universities subsidizing corporate R&D. I object not only because redistributing wealth in this way is stealing (Taxation is Theft!), but also because this practice accelerates the adoption of technology at the expense of available labor.
Private enterprise develops and employs new technology in direct response to the availability of labor, which is reflected in the cost of labor. If the cost of labor rises to the point where new technology is cost effective, the technology gets developed and employed and labor goes to its next best use. I am all for that. The process is continuous and organic and results in the constant redeployment of resources in response to the gorgeous efficiency of the pricing mechanism.
To the extent government-subsidized technology contributes to driverless technology or touchscreens* and results in a premature and systemic loss of jobs, it is a travesty in that we taxpayers are funding our own unemployment and dependency.
At the same time, the government’s attack on the price mechanism in wages is giving the corporate sector moral cover for adopting these technologies. The threat and reality of exorbitant minimum wages overall and especially in the restaurant industry is driving these shifts from labor to technology across industries–who can blame the long-suffering industrialist for responding to impossible labor laws? Some have even claimed that corrupt labor unions have also contributed to this phenomenon in decades past by intentionally conspiring to justify the flight of manufacturing oversees or adoption of labor-eliminating technology by pushing for industry-destroying wages and benefits.
As a proponent of free markets and limited government, I always strive to identify the government policies behind so-called market failures or other social ills. The phenomenon of automating jobs in the presence of low work-force participation rates is a case in point.
Here’s the article in today’s paper that brought this to my attention:
Long a Novelty, Gigantic Tablets Are Sneaking Into the Workplace
These devices create new ways for people to collaborate, whether in the office, a McDonald’s restaurant or on a cruise ship
* A quick investigation into the advent of touchscreens reveal they were invented at CERN and the Royal Radar Establishment, both government institutions, and by George Hurst who had a long history of working at government-funded institutions.