The Luddites were a group of English textile workers who violently destroyed machines. They broke up power looms because they feared that these new machines were taking their jobs and livelihoods.
Against the backdrop of the economic hardship following the Napoleonic wars, new automated looms meant clothing could be made with fewer lower skilled workers. The new machines were more productive, but some workers lost their relatively highly paid jobs as a result. It was this unemployment of former skilled workers which led to the industrial unrest and direct action.
A Luddite is also a term used (usually pejoratively) to describe people who oppose the introduction of new technology. Yet, the idea that new technology leads to job losses has persisted, despite the fact that economists are almost universally united in stating that new technology will not increase the long-term unemployment rate (though there may be temporary structural unemployment).
The Luddite fallacy is the simple observation that new technology does not lead to higher overall unemployment in the economy. New technology doesn’t destroy jobs – it only changes the composition of jobs in the economy.
Why do Economists say that new technology does not cause unemployment?
Firstly, rapid technological change may cause some short-term temporary unemployment. However, economic theory suggests that jobs lost as a result of technological change will be created in different, new industries.
- When automated looms were built, it became cheaper to manufacturer clothes. Therefore, consumers buying clothes would have experienced lower prices, and therefore, after buying the same amount of clothes, they would have more disposable income to buy other goods. For example, they may now be able to afford a train ticket to go and buy a silk scarf in town.
- With technological change, we see increased demand for new products; therefore new jobs are created on the railways and shops selling more luxury items, such as scarves and hats.
- Also, there will be some jobs created in the building of the automated looms.
- With new technology, firms selling clothes will also be more profitable. This profit may be used to fund future investment and job creation.
- Over time, improved technology would mean that even automated looms become outdated. New technology may enable clothes to be mass produced with even fewer workers. Again, this would cause a relative fall in the price of clothes, and consumers would have more disposable income to buy goods, but also spend on labour intensive services.
- This is what has happened over the past 100 – 200 years – new Technology has enabled the economy to move towards a more service sector based economy. Lower costs of manufactured goods, enables us to be able to afford a wider range of goods and services.
But, what happens when robots are created that can do service sector jobs?
Suppose we can build robots which are able to cut hair, serve coffee and clean. Will this not finally cause technological unemployment?
The principle will be the same. If robots can cut our hair, the price of haircuts, will fall – leading to higher disposable income. We can spend money on other services which require human service or we can use the higher disposable income to work less hours, but sill maintain the living standards.
To some extent, we could say we could already build robots to serve coffee and serve meals at restaurants. But, which would you prefer being served by a robot or a human? But, in a sense it doesn’t matter, improved technology which enables lower costs, enables us to have higher disposable income and better living standards.
Can technological change occur quicker than our ability to create and fill new jobs?
In the long-term, there has never been any evidence that technological advances have increased the overall unemployment rate. Despite the rapid technological change of the past 20 years, we can’t say that technology has left thousands of unemployed skilled weavers. In 1920, there were 1.3 million coal miners, now there are less than 6,000. That doesn’t mean we have 1.3 million unemployed coal miners. Those jobs get absorbed into new areas of the economy. (See: Decline of UK coal industry)
However, technological change can cause fairly significant levels of unemployment, especially amongst unskilled workers.
For example, technological improvements led to the relative decline of heavy British manufacturing (e.g. coal industry). Many unskilled manual workers lost their jobs. At the same time, new jobs were being created in the service sector, and for more high tech skilled jobs. However, because coal miners and steel workers were often concentrated in certain geographical areas and had limited skills, it was often very difficult for them to get a new job.
The coal miners who lost their job because of technological change found themselves unemployed because of:
- occupational immobilities (lack of skills to work in service sector)
- geographical immobilities (difficulties of moving to areas where new jobs are created)
In the long-term, the unemployed should be able to take new jobs which are created. But, if the labour market is inflexible, then this time period may be quite considerable.
Therefore, if workers are threatened with job losses as a result of new technology, the solution is not to stop technological change, but to overcome market failure in removing labour market inflexibilities. Education and retraining to help the unemployed find new jobs.
Technological change and Pareto Improvement
Technological change leads to higher economic welfare, however it is not necessarily a Pareto improvement. The mass of the population see a small rise in living standards. But, some workers may see a dramatic drop in living standards, whilst they seek to to find a new job.
Therefore, to attain an overall Pareto improvement, there is a strong case for a government providing unemployment insurance relief and free training to the unemployed.
In one sense, the Luddites were wrong. But, the total laissez faire approach of the government was also misplaced. It was wrong to smash the machines, but it was also wrong for the government to completely ignore the plight of skilled artisans finding themselves without any income.