Editor’s note: This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
Once again, a scholar with impressive credentials is broadcasting the gloomy notion that Americans face a job-poor future. The insufficient-jobs scenario appeared in George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen’s book “Average Is Over” a couple of years ago. It resurfaced again recently in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Vivek Wadhwa, “a fellow … director of research … and distinguished scholar” at several prestigious universities, wrote that we need “a new version of capitalism” for “dealing with our jobless future.”
The crux of Wadhwa’s argument is his belief that technological progress will result in a society divided between a technologically savvy elite, who will prosper mightily, and a larger number of Americans whose jobs will be rendered obsolete and won’t be able to find new jobs. There’s an obvious fallacy here: If technological progress reduces employment opportunities, then why are hundreds of millions of people still working in the technologically and economically advanced countries of the world? What is it with these intellectuals and the recurring nightmare that progress results in a dearth of jobs?
An incident that the late economist Milton Friedman related comes to mind: While visiting a populous but undeveloped Asian country several decades ago, Friedman saw a gang of workers using shovels to excavate a hole where a building’s foundation would be laid. Friedman noted that the job would be completed much more quickly if a modern excavating machine were used. His host replied that a deliberate decision had been made not to use such a machine because the government wanted to maximize employment. Friedman’s rejoinder was to the effect that if the goal were to maximize employment in the country, they should ban the use of shovels and equip a far larger number of laborers with spoons. It doesn’t require great vision to realize that a fully employed nation of spoon-wielding ditch diggers would remain a very poor place.
Can anyone doubt that technological progress has led to economic advancement? The economic principle is elementary: As worker productivity increases (that is, as more wealth is produced from fewer units of labor) prosperity rises, too. When improved agricultural productivity has bankrupted farmers and resulted in our food supply being produced by an ever-smaller percentage of Americans, what has happened to all those ex-farmers? They found employment in new fields, thereby increasing the number and variety of goods and services produced. In other words, more wealth was created, and that is how a society achieves higher standards of living for the masses.
What has just been described is Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction. Old jobs that produce things of less value become obsolete and new jobs producing things of higher value take their place. This is the natural evolutionary course of free markets.
Any notion that there is a ceiling to the number of potential jobs ignores an elementary and undeniable economic truth—namely, that there is no limit to the potential number of jobs because there is no limit to mankind’s wants. As technology makes it possible to produce what are considered the modern necessities of life (cars and cell phones in addition to the traditional necessities of food, clothing, and shelter) more workers will be available to produce and provide new goods and services that entrepreneurs are dreaming up every day of the year.
Is there anything that can inhibit or halt the natural tendency of entrepreneurs in market economies to generate new job opportunities? Yes, indeed. Government intervention—excessive and costly regulations, wealth-and capital-depleting taxation, misallocation of resources via government spending programs, depreciating currency, etc.—can stifle economic activity, discourage business formation, and cause job opportunities to dry up.
What is scary about Wadhwa’s thesis and related plans (such as Hillary Clinton’s proposal for government to lay a heavier, more controlling hand on American entrepreneurs and businesses) is that their ill-conceived policies will produce results opposite to what they claim to be seeking. There will be less employment instead of more.
When Wadhwa says we need a new “capitalism” that redistributes more wealth and provides everyone with a taxpayer-supported guaranteed income, he is doing two destructive things: First, he is perpetrating a pernicious lexicographical hoax, proposing a new form of statism that is a repudiation of free markets—i.e., that is anything but “capitalism.” A more honest statement would be “It is time to replace capitalism with greater government control of economic activity.” The second destructive aspect of his suggestion is his apparent blindness to the fact that maximum economic freedom—true capitalism—is the world’s best hope for expanding job opportunities. To jettison capitalism and replace it with a greater degree of statism will impede economic growth, squelch the growth of businesses, and consequently hinder job creation, to the economic detriment of those who are hoping for jobs.
There will be enough jobs for Americans only if the political planners surrender their mad ambition to direct the economy from Washington.