Will Boilerplate Kill the Invisible Hand?

Will Automation Kill Our Jobs? by Walter E. Williams appeared in the Gaston GazetteCharleston Gazette-Mail, Daily Tribune, Frontpage Mag, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Townhall, Holmes County Times-AdvertiserNational Interest, Rocky Mount Telegram and CNS News (not to mention the Dogpatch Völkischer-Beobachter). It features the following cutting edge (& pasting) analysis:

People always want more of something that will create a job for someone. To suggest that there are a finite number of jobs commits an error known as the “lump of labor fallacy.” That fallacy suggests that when automation or technology eliminates a job, there’s nothing that people want that would create employment for the person displaced by the automation.

Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. His column is syndicated by the Creators Syndicate. Apparently there is still a HUGE market for cuts ‘n pastes of well-aged boilerplate. The Trump-bots on twitter eat this shit up.

Let’s see what Professor Williams thinks of Adam Smith’s lump of labor fallacy:

Dear Professor Williams,

I was interested to read the other day your account of the “lump of labor fallacy” in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. As you pointed out, the number of jobs is unlimited as long as there are people who want more of something that requires work to be done.

I had previously read a statement by a famous economist claiming that the number of workers who can be employed cannot exceed a certain proportion of the capital of the particular society the workers live in. I am wondering if you can clarify for me whether that economist has committed a lump of labor fallacy by suggesting that the number of jobs is limited by something other than the demand for goods or services, which — for all intents and purposes — is unlimited, as you have pointed out.

Furthermore, I am intrigued by the idea that people contribute to the public good without intending to when they are only pursuing what they perceive as their own self-interest within a free and competitive system of market exchange. Would such a contribution to the public good result even if their notion of their self-interest was “erroneous,” as in the lump of labor fallacy?

For example, if truck drivers were afraid that self-driving vehicles would put them out of work, they would presumably be acting in their self-interest if they made campaign contributions to candidates who promised to ban such vehicles on the grounds that they would create unemployment. Such contributions would be free speech, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court. But wouldn’t such a ban, at least on those grounds, be based on a fallacious assumption?

Finally, I have been wondering who actually said that there is “a fixed amount of work to be done” or that “there is only a certain quantity of work to be done.” I have seen numerous rebuttals to such a view but no positive statements of it from representatives of organized labor. I would be grateful if you could identify sources who actually commit the lump of labor fallacy in plain words.

Sincerely,

Tom Walker

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