Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

The Lesson Applied

The Curse of Machinery

Section 4

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A warning is necessary before we leave this subject. It was precisely the great merit of the classical economists that they looked for secondary consequences, that they were concerned with the effects of a given economic policy or development in the long run and on the whole community. But it was also their defect that, in taking the long view and the broad view, they sometimes neglected to take also the short view and the narrow view. They were too often inclined to minimize or to forget altogether the immediate effects of developments on special groups. We have seen, for example, that many of the English stocking knitters suffered real tragedies as a result of the introduction of the new stocking frames, one of the earliest inventions of the Industrial Revolution.

But such facts and their modern counterparts have led some writers to the opposite extreme of looking only at the immediate effects on certain groups. Joe Smith is thrown out of a job by the introduction of some new machine. “Keep your eye on Joe Smith,” these writers insist. “Never lose track of Joe Smith.” But what they then proceed to do is to keep their eyes only on Joe Smith, and to forget Tom Jones, who has just got a new job in making the new machine, and Ted Brown, who has just got a job operating one, and Daisy Miller, who can now buy a coat for half what it used to cost her. And because they think only of Joe Smith, they end by advocating reactionary and nonsensical policies.

Yes, we should keep at least one eye on Joe Smith. He has been thrown out of a job by the new machine. Perhaps he can soon get another job, even a better one. But perhaps, also, he has devoted many years of his life to acquiring and improving a special skill for which the market no longer has any use. He has lost this investment in himself, in his old skill, just as his former employer, perhaps, has lost his investment in old machines or processes suddenly rendered obsolete. He was a skilled workman, and paid as a skilled workman. Now he has become overnight an unskilled workman again, and can hope, for the present, only for the wages of an unskilled workman, because the one skill he had is no longer needed. We cannot and must not forget Joe Smith. His is one of the personal tragedies that, as we shall see, are incident to nearly all industrial and economic progress.

To ask precisely what course we should follow with Joe Smith —whether we should let him make his own adjustment, give him separation pay or unemployment compensation, put him on relief, or train him at government expense for a new job—would carry us beyond the point that we are here trying to illustrate. The central lesson is that we should try to see all the main consequences of any economic policy or development—the immediate effects on special groups, and the long-run effects on all groups.

If we have devoted considerable space to this issue, it is because our conclusions regarding the effects of new machinery, inventions and discoveries on employment, production and welfare are crucial. If we are wrong about these, there are few things in economics about which we are likely to be right.

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