Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

The Lesson Applied

The Curse of Machinery

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AMONG THE MOST viable of all economic delusions is the belief that machines on net balance create unemployment. Destroyed a thousand times, it has risen a thousand times out of its own ashes as hardy and vigorous as ever. Whenever there is long-continued mass unemployment, machines get the blame anew. This fallacy is still the basis of many labor union practices. The public tolerates these practices because it either believes at bottom that the unions are right, or is too confused to see just why they are wrong.

The belief that machines cause unemployment, when held with any logical consistency, leads to preposterous conclusions. Not only must we be causing unemployment with every technological improvement we make today, but primitive man must have started causing it with the first efforts he made to save himself from needless toil and sweat.

To go no further back, let us turn to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. The first chapter of this remarkable book is called “Of the Division of Labor,” and on the second page of this first chapter the author tells us that a workman unacquainted with the use of machinery employed in pin-making “could scarce make one pin a day, and certainly could not make twenty,” but with the use of this machinery he can make 4,800 pins a day. So already, alas, in Adam Smith’s time, machinery had thrown from 240 to 4,800 pin-makers out of work for every one it kept. In the pin-making industry there was already, if machines merely throw men out of jobs, 99.98 percent unemployment. Could things be blacker?

Things could be blacker, for the Industrial Revolution was just in its infancy. Let us look at some of the incidents and aspects of that revolution. Let us see, for example, what happened in the stocking industry. New stocking frames as they were introduced were destroyed by the handicraft workmen (over 1000 in a single riot), houses were burned, the inventors were threatened and obliged to flee for their lives, and order was not finally restored until the military had been called out and the leading rioters had been either transported or hanged.

Now it is important to bear in mind that insofar as the rioters were thinking of their own immediate or even longer futures their opposition to the machine was rational. For William Felkin, in his History of the Machine-Wrought Hosiery Manufactures (1867), tells us (though the statement seems implausible) that the larger part of the 50,000 English stocking knitters and their families did not fully emerge from the hunger and misery entailed by the introduction of the machine for the next forty years. But insofar as the rioters believed, as most of them undoubtedly did, that the machine was permanently displacing men, they were mistaken, for before the end of the nineteenth century the stocking industry was employing at least a hundred men for every man it employed at the beginning of the century.

Arkwright invented his cotton-spinning machinery in 1760. At that time it was estimated that there were in England 5,200 spinners using spinning wheels, and 2,700 weavers—in all, 7,900 persons engaged in the production of cotton textiles. The introduction of Arkwright’s invention was opposed on the ground that it threatened the livelihood of the workers, and the opposition had to be put down by force. Yet in 1787—twenty-seven years after the invention appeared—a parliamentary inquiry showed that the number of persons actually engaged in the spinning and weaving of cotton had risen from 7,900 to 320,000, an increase of 4,400 percent.

If the reader will consult such a book as Recent Economic Changes, by David A. Wells, published in 1889, he will find passages that, except for the dates and absolute amounts involved, might have been written by our technophobes of today. Let me quote a few:

During the ten years from 1870 to 1880, inclusive, the British mercantile marine increased its movement, in the matter of foreign entries and clearances alone, to the extent of 22,000,000 tons... yet the number of men who were employed in effecting this great movement had decreased in 1880, as compared with 1870, to the extent of about three thousand (2,990 exactly). What did it? The introduction of steam-hoisting machines and grain elevators upon the wharves and docks, the employment of steam power, etc....

In 1873 Bessemer steel in England, where its price had not been enhanced by protective duties, commanded $80 per ton; in 1886 it was profitably manufactured and sold in the same country for less than $20 per ton. Within the same time the annual production capacity of a Bessemer converter has been increased fourfold, with no increase but rather a diminution of the involved labor.

The power capacity already being exerted by the steam engines of the world in existence and working in the year 1887 has been estimated by the Bureau of Statistics at Berlin as equivalent to that of 200,000,000 horses, representing approximately 1,000,000,000 men; or at least three times the working population of the earth....

One would think that this last figure would have caused Mr. Wells to pause, and wonder why there was any employment left in the world of 1889 at all; but he merely concluded, with restrained pessimism, that “under such circumstances industrial overproduction . . . may become chronic.”

In the depression of 1932, the game of blaming unemployment on the machines started all over again. Within a few months the doctrines of a group calling themselves the Technocrats had spread through the country like a forest fire. I shall not weary the reader with a recital of the fantastic figures put forward by this group or with corrections to show what the real facts were. It is enough to say that the Technocrats returned to the error in all its native purity that machines permanently displace men—except that, in their ignorance, they presented this error as a new and revolutionary discovery of their own. It was simply one more illustration of Santayana’s aphorism that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The Technocrats were finally laughed out of existence; but their doctrine, which preceded them, lingers on. It is reflected in hundreds of make-work rules and featherbed practices by labor unions; and these rules and practices are tolerated and even approved because of the confusion on this point in the public mind.

Testifying on behalf of the United States Department of Justice before the Temporary National Economic Committee (better known as the TNEC) in March 1941, Corwin Edwards cited innumerable examples of such practices. The electrical union in New York City was charged with refusal to install electrical equipment made outside of New York State unless the equipment was disassembled and reassembled at the job site. In Houston, Texas, master plumbers and the plumbing union agreed that piping prefabricated for installation would be installed by the union only if the thread were cut off one end of the pipe and new thread were cut at the job site. Various locals of the painters’ union imposed restrictions on the use of sprayguns, restrictions in many cases designed merely to make work by requiring the slower process of applying paint with a brush. A local of the teamsters’ union required that every truck entering the New York metropolitan area have a local driver in addition to the driver already employed. In various cities the electrical union required that if any temporary light or power was to be used on a construction job there must be a full-time maintenance electrician, who should not be permitted to do any electrical construction work. This rule, according to Mr. Edwards, “often involves the hiring of a man who spends his day reading or playing solitaire and does nothing except throw a switch at the beginning and end of the day.”

One could go on to cite such make-work practices in many other fields. In the railroad industry, the unions insist that firemen be employed on types of locomotives that do not need them. In the theaters unions insist on the use of scene shifters even in plays in which no scenery is used. The musicians’ union required so-called stand-in musicians or even whole orchestras to be employed in many cases where only phonograph records were needed.

By 1961 there was no sign that the fallacy had died. Not only union leaders but government officials talked solemnly of “automation” as a major cause of unemployment. Automation was discussed as if it were something entirely new in the world. It was in fact merely a new name for continued technological advance and further progress in labor-saving equipment.

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