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Don’t Surrender to the Robots

Rarely has any prospect so divided policymakers as the growing sense that technology will soon make many jobs obsolete. Few disagree that advances in robotics, software design, 3-D printing, and other automation technologies will disrupt employment in both the industrial and service sectors, but what this means for the average worker is the subject of an increasingly polarized debate.

For the Left, labor-saving technology has actually emerged as a promising way to eliminate income inequality: Those few knowledge workers who are needed to maintain the machinery can keep laboring at what they do best, while the vast majority of Americans enjoy perpetual leisure. A widely publicized Atlantic cover story last year, “A World Without Work” by Derek Thompson, foresaw a post-employment society where everyone has the same opportunity to fill their days with creative hobbies, social service, or whatever else they choose. More recently, the book Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, argued that the time has come for people to get over the antiquated idea that work confers self-worth.

For the Right, automation only adds urgency to the need for education reforms that can better prepare people for technologically demanding jobs: specifically, more competition for students among K-12 schools, greater use of online resources, and reorganizing community colleges to more effectively retrain laid-off workers. Researchers such as Erik Brynjolfsson at MIT’s Center for Digital Business argue that tomorrow’s real unemployment problem will not be a lack of jobs as much as a lack of competent people to fill them.

Interestingly, both sides have flirted with the idea of a “universal basic income” (UBI)—that is, a government cash subsidy—for every American, although for very different reasons. For progressives, the UBI is seen as the first step toward a mass aristocracy, where automation makes it possible for all to do as they wish. Conservatives, on the other hand, regard the basic income as a way to phase out wasteful welfare programs and provide the unemployed with sufficient means to learn new skills that could raise their standard of living.

On first reflection, many are undoubtedly more attracted to the progressive vision of a leisure-oriented society. Those born with a natural aptitude for building robots or writing complex software could go right on doing what they enjoy, while everyone else is free to find meaning as an artist, a caretaker for the sick and disabled, or perhaps a crusader for some worthy cause. In his forthcoming book World After Capital, author Albert Wenger paints an enticing picture of the day when everyone will have “100 percent of their time to use as they wish.”

By contrast, the conservative ambition to essentially upgrade human capital with a far more rigorous educational system sounds, at the very least, harder. Not only will teachers’ unions and others who benefit from the status quo resist the challenge, but both students and their parents will have to embrace the virtues of discipline and persistence. That is a lot to ask of a relatively permissive culture, especially with progressives suggesting that such efforts are unnecessary.

What should nevertheless win the debate for conservatives is the realization that worker obsolescence is not just an economic challenge, but an evolutionary one as well. With the jobs of the future requiring ever-greater cognitive skills, humanity is confronting the kind of crisis that until now has only been experienced by lesser species—when some cataclysmic event such as a volcanic eruption, a large meteor strike, or a tsunami severely challenges everyone’s capacity to survive. That this particular crisis is being created by the smartest members of the very species that must suffer it does not alter the fact that, without a substantial educational remedy, most humans may become incapable of prospering on their own.

The Left’s solution to this crisis—simply trusting that the most talented workers will gladly enable everyone else to live like untroubled aristocrats—has long been anticipated by science-fiction writers, although rarely with the enthusiasm of today’s liberal intellectual. Ever since H.G. Wells published The Time Machine, the fate of those enjoying a work-free utopia has typically been to end up as perverse entertainment, a source of spare body parts, or even food for their betters.

While such plot lines are over-the-top, what the novelist has always understood far better than the modern progressive is this: there is little from history to suggest that industrious talent has much interest in subsidizing those who choose not to work for themselves.

All elites have a tendency to take care of their own, ignoring or even disdaining the interests of those they believe intellectually or professionally inferior. This is just as true of the successful liberals inhabiting America’s coastal cities and the university enclaves in between as it is of country-club Republicans. Indeed, if the current populist revolt in both political parties should have taught us anything by now, it is that trusting in a system that depends on the care and generosity of those in charge does not end well for the majority.

The conservative ambition to ensure that people’s work skills keep pace with coming waves of technical innovation may strike progressive policymakers as both difficult and unnecessary. But until the day when genetic engineering endows everyone with the cerebral cortex of a genius, it may prove the only way to preserve a truly humane society.

Lewis M. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009. He is the author of To Thine Own Self Be True: the Relationship between Spiritual Values and Emotional Health (Doubleday).

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