Automation Could Set Us Free — If We Didn’t Live Under Capitalism

Under capitalism, automation destroys jobs. Under socialism, it would be an instrument of liberation.

As millions more jobs are eliminated, a process that could and should benefit workers will instead be one that makes their lives more difficult and insecure. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Last year, the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro debated Tucker Carlson on the question of automation. Ventriloquizing a very familiar market-conservative argument, Shapiro asked his guest point-blank whether he would support restrictions on the use of technology in order to protect jobs. In his reply, Carlson was nothing short of incredulous.

Shapiro: You talk in [your] book about technology and how it’s shifting and taking away jobs from folks, and you make specific reference to truck driving and the fact that there are going to be these automated cars on the roads. So would you, Tucker Carlson, be in favor of restrictions on the ability of trucking companies to use this sort of technology specifically to, sort of, artificially maintain the number of jobs that are available in the trucking industry?

Carlson: Are you joking? In a second. In a second. In other words, if I were president, would I say to the Department of Transportation, “We’re not letting driverless trucks on the road, period”? Why? Really simple. Driving for a living is the single most common job for high school–educated men in this country.

In this answer, there’s a hint at where Carlson’s argument is ultimately rooted. For him and other social conservatives, the question of automation is primarily about the stability of the traditional family unit, with the male breadwinner at its center. As far as his prescriptions went, Carlson even went as far as saying that the government should contrive a phony pretext for banning self-driving trucks altogether.

There is, of course, a third option that neither Shapiro’s market dogmatism nor Carlson’s reactionary luddism is willing to entertain. As conservatives, both clearly see some inherent good in people having to work. One might favor the “creative destruction” wrought by markets, and the other certain restrictions on them, but neither views technology as a potentially liberatory tool for workers.

And yet it should be. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many simply assumed new technology would eventually give rise to a leisure society in which people free from the necessity of toil would have all the time to explore the world and pursue their interests as they saw fit. Exactly one half of that equation turned out to be true. Technology has made all kinds of difficult tasks easier and less laborious while also making production more efficient. Between 1950 and 2020, America experienced a 299 percent increase in labor productivity, and jobs of all kinds became safer and easier.

Many, however, were also eliminated — and with them the livelihoods they once sustained.

Better telecommunications technology, after all, means you don’t need switchboard operators. Self-checkout units reduce opportunities in retail employment. Aided by machines, factories can now produce more with fewer workers involved. With the advent of artificial-intelligence technologies and self-driving vehicles, the same process will only unfold at an accelerated pace in the decades ahead.

The social consequences of this are frankly alarming to contemplate. Despite being more productive than ever, workers’ wages have long been stagnant, and punishingly long working hours are already causing a needless seven hundred thousand deaths per year, according to the International Labor Organization. As millions more jobs are eliminated and service work in particular becomes more precarious, a process that could and should benefit workers will instead be one that makes their lives more difficult and insecure.

That the current political climate precludes potential solutions to this problem doesn’t make those solutions any less obvious. Modernization presents a clear opportunity to legislate shorter working weeks — something for which there is already historical precedent. As Bernie Sanders put it recently: “In 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act reduced the workweek to 40 hours. Today, as a result of huge advances in technology and productivity, now is the time to lower the workweek to 32 hours — with no loss in pay.” (Iceland’s experiment to this effect, incidentally, has already yielded great results.)

During a recent interview with CBS’s Margaret Brennan, Sanders also raised the prospect of a robot tax that would compel companies to pay a premium for replacing workers. Though the idea remains underdeveloped at the level of detail, it’s one that’s been floating around in various forms since the 1980s as a potential response to automation and could help generate the revenue needed to fund new public goods and universal services.

In the end, it’s ultimately those public goods and services that represent the best solution to the problems of automation. Despite what some on the Right insist, there is no need to artificially limit technology in order to preserve jobs that can be performed by machines. With high-quality, universal services in place and an economy structured around the imperatives of social need rather than those of private profit, the importance of work in daily life would dramatically recede. Freed from the constant grind of tedious and unnecessary labor, countless millions would be able to spend their time however they chose without having to struggle to obtain the bare necessities of life.

Unless you’re wedded to retrograde ideas about work, gender, and the family, there is no reason not to welcome such a future with open arms.