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Labor For The Future

Finding a Manufacturer (Image Courtesy Wikimedia

This is one of those half-baked blog posts that are the point of a blog but increasingly rare; after all, in the digital era everything seems to just get slicker and more centralized. There are only three sites to post to and you have to be on, and casual-Friday professional, you know?, for your brand. If you want to spitball you can just tweet. Anyway.

To build the future of our imaginings, labor must become more expensive. Necessity remains the mother of invention, and leisure is its father, and so, to repeat, you have to drive up labor costs—you have to pay people more—to usher in the world of technological marvels you’ve always wanted. “Labor shortage” is just libertarian for “more than titans of industry want to spend.” But what about a recession? As you read this working from home in the middle of one created entirely by government policy, look around. What about it?

Markets, being spaces not systems, do not self-perpetuate; they are fenced in (by politics), so Peter, Paul, and Mary can enter and set something up. The story of the last few decades has been, under the claim that fences look suspiciously like Soviet communism, the tearing down of barriers in the name of “free” markets and the “free” movement of people and capital. While it has made existing technology better and cheaper for us as consumers, it has been very expensive for us as American citizens.

We undercut labor politics to defeat a rival that claimed to be the champion of workers. We won, but failed to take much stock of where that put us (though our wealthiest certainly made much stock out of it). Now we have the chance to pivot. Decisions can have been right at some point in time and yet become wrong. A great weakness of liberal modernity is its assumption of binary procedure: Either the thing that has worked must always work or, if we are unable to convince ourselves of its goodness in the present, it was always bad, always a mistake; not historicist or relativist enough for all our historicism and relativism, every good thing about the present is evidence of an unbroken thread of good in the past, and each evil a sign of eternal wreckers. 

Today the great strides in logistics and information technology accomplished by the American-led liberal order, which have admittedly employed many destitute in the developing world, have supplanted strides in hardware technology at home. We have two-day delivery, drones, and faster smartphones with better cameras. We do not have local nuclear grids (“nuclear families for nuclear power!” a slogan for the future) or trains that can cross the continent in just a few hours. With our ever-more flashy “time-saving” devices, we have created the illusion of leisure rather than the thing itself. One does not need to automate a slavish process that can be done for pennies on the other side of the globe and digitally delivered or shipped here cheap.  

Technology is the application of human skill to the order we see in the natural world; law-like, it is an ordering of order that uses human effort and judgment once to replace or extend that effort and judgment going forward. When human labor remains inexpensive, in “private vice for public virtue” modernity, there is no motivation for most billionaires and corporations to invest the time and money—the second only the fungible representation of the first—needed to make genuine breakthroughs. Men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos invest in space projects because of overriding individual passions for it. Their imaginations are captured by the stars. It is not the kind of research, however, that is likely to trickle down to the benefit of the common American any time soon. 

If we want to live in space-age America, we must force capital both to invest in the research and development of true labor-saving technology and to pay American workers enough to have the leisure time in which to tinker. It is in this combination—of meeting clear needs with sufficient funding (i.e. time), and the thoughts that come in an unhurried stroll outdoors or a conversation with a friend—that we see breakthroughs of human ingenuity. If you’ll recall your introduction to economics, a decrease in supply paired with an inflexible demand drives up the price of something. To make American labor more expensive, we must restrict the supply of labor. If we want to live in space-age America, we need renewed private-sector unions, enforced immigration laws, and preferential trade and industrial policy. 

Surely you don’t mean we need to restrict high-skilled labor, too? Even setting aside the obvious negative dynamics of H-1Bs and American software development, yes. For all the freakout about American STEM there are probably too many scientists anyway. They spend most of their time writing grant proposals, inflating the value of tiny incremental adjustments to long-established protocols and theories so they can maintain funding. What’s the payoff? That is the question many of our brightest fellow citizens have to spend practically all their time pretending to know, so they can spend a little of their time doing science. Maybe the rest of us should ask that question, too. Maybe here, like everywhere, we are spending not enough money on too many people, rather than enough money on enough people for good work.

Cybernetics is a matter of governance. Right now we have all been turned into bits in the global thinking machine we call The Economy. Maybe there’s a ctrl-alt-delete combination of labor, policy, and borders that can make us citizens again. 

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Micah Meadowcroft

Micah Meadowcroft is the managing editor of The American Conservative. His essays and criticism have appeared in publications such as The New Atlantis, Wall Street Journal, and American Affairs.