Study Slavery to Study the Impact of Robots on Workers

Posted by {"login"=>"dvollrath", "email"=>"[email protected]", "display_name"=>"dvollrath", "first_name"=>"", "last_name"=>""} on August 27, 2015 · 8 mins read

I started writing a post that was collecting several recent pieces about robots/technology and their impact on workers. Let me quick post those:

As I started trying to sketch out what to write, I realized that I was just barfing up a big pile of confirmation bias. I read the above articles and was able to convince myself that they supported my general "robo-optimistic" outlook. That is co-incident with my opinion that our fetish for manufacturing jobs and output is just that, a fetish.

There are, of course, lots of "robo-pessimists" out there who feel that technology is going to be very bad for labor. Low wages, or even mass unemployment are possible consequences. I've gone back and forth a little in the past with Richard Serlin, who generally falls into the robo-pessimist camp.

Rather than writing a post that says, essentially, "Those posts agree with my priors", let me try to switch gears. What would constitute a good argument for robo-pessimism? In other words, what kind of argument would make me change my mind about this?

A common analogy used by robo-pessimists is the horse. As engines, and particularly internal combustion engines come into use, horses were made obsolete. The absolute population of horses has declined dramatically over the last 100 years because they became costly relative to using an engine to drive your cart around. When robots can do what humans do, the analogy goes, humans will become costly relative to using robots, and so humans will become completely unemployable.

I don't think this is a particular good argument, mainly because horses have no ability to innovate for themselves. No horse ever looked around and said, "You know, I feel like there is more I could do." Horses didn't offer to become drivers of the new horseless carriages, nor did horses think to learn how to repair engines or build them so that they had something to do besides pull wagons around.

But people can innovate and invent entirely new jobs for themselves. If you tell me that people won't possibly be able to innovate new jobs when the robots arrive, then I think you have a ridiculously low opinion of people. And it isn't necessary that everyone innovates, just a few who invent new jobs and professions that we cannot possibly think of today. If we could, we would have invented them already.

In place of the horse analogy, let me suggest a line of reasoning to robo-pessimists that, to me, has a better chance of producing a convincing argument for that pessimism. Slavery. You want to give examples of when free people were put out of work by slaves. I'm not talking about the effect of being enslaved, that is clearly negative. I want to know the outcomes of those who remain free (small-time white farmers in the South) when workers are introduced who can exactly mimic the skills of the free workers (slaves). These are free humans being replaced by the equivalent of a living robot, and those free workers can still innovate new work for themselves. The story thus doesn't fall into the problem that the horse analogy has.

In addition, the slavery comparison doesn't require us to think about capital-labor complementarity, and it doesn't rely on the introduction of a new technology that both eliminated some tasks (hand weaving) but created others (monitoring weaving machines). Slaves effectively are robots, for the purposes of the economic discussion here. They can perfectly replace free labor, but do not necessarily create any kind of other work for free labor in their wake.

I haven't read it in a long time, but I think Gavin Wright's Old South, New South is where I'd start. Slavery ensured that wages were kept extremely low for free workers in the South. This may have created conditions that encouraged new businesses or industries to locate there, and this is in fact what Wright suggests happened in the early 20th century after slavery was abolished. But while slavery was in place, industry did not develop in the low wage South.

One reason for this is that that slave-owners were "labor-lords", not "land-lords" (Wright's terms). They had no incentive to build up the value of land, as they could simply relocate further west with their major asset and start over. Thus the improvements that helped make the North more prosperous for free workers - railroads, schools, dams, ports, etc.. - were not built. Without those improvements industry could not or would not relocate to the South.

So to use slaves as an analogy for robots in their effect on free workers, the causes for robo-pessimism are not that it leaves free workers with nothing to do, but that it frees the robot-owners from any incentives to invest. Since robot-owners are free to move their capital to new locations, what incentives do they have to agree to the equivalent to railroads or ports or infrastructure?

In addition, despite having decades to come up with something else to do, the free workers of the South never created a new set of jobs or activities that allowed them to keep up with the North. They remained poor farmers, and did not (could not?) coordinate to build the infrastructure themselves. They were left to essentially scrape out a living as subsistence farmers without many connections to the broader economy. What you'd want to do is present me with evidence that free white living standards were pushed down by the introduction of slavery. Perhaps wages in areas of the South prior to the arrival of cotton versus after?

Those last few paragraphs are the result of maybe thirty minutes of thinking about robots from this perspective. If you wanted to make a really compelling argument for robo-pessimism, I think taking this analogy and running with it would be the way to go. It's one avenue by which I think I could be convinced to switch from vaguely robo-optimistic to robo-pessmistic.

So consider this post a bleg. Are there good historical examples of the introduction of slaves into economies where we can observe the effect on the non-slave population?

As a last aside, I think this post is instantly #1 for "Titles that tell you everything important about a post".