John Stuart Mill on Luddism
GroundSwell, July-August 2004]
In 1879 George asked, "What is the effect (on employment) of
improvements in the arts (of production)?" (P&P, pp.
244-45). Today we'd say "technology," but it's the same
idea except that George includes more than machines and engineering.
He answers, "To save labor, and raise demand for land."
George's specter of technological unemployment, while imperfect, is
better thought out than the simple Luddite perception that "robot
replaces man." George thought in terms of three factors: land,
labor, and capital. If the landowner could use capital to displace
labor from the land, there was no place for labor to go. George
teaches us to take "displace" literally: labor is driven
from its place, from its land base. Landowners could live without as
many workers as before, and dump the rest on the streets. This has
obviously happened in farming after 1930, for example, forcing
displaced people off farmland into cities.
Now it is happening in cities, too. On industrial land, robots
displace many blue-collars. Computers displace many white and pink
collars, driving them out of office and retail space. Where shall
they go when landowners displace them with machines, short of all
the tax-exempt land reserved for cemeteries? George, by focusing on
the capture of land by capital, gives more substance to this
question than most techno-pessimists do. Techno-optimists say that
new machines create new jobs, too, but they get vague about
specifics. Where are these jobs? On whose land? When? If modern
capital devices really make as many jobs as they destroy, how do
they save money for those who buy and apply them? Techno-optimists
need to answer that question, with specifics. George is holding
their feet to the fire. The unemployed can't wait.
Mill, actually, had faced this question head-on, and answered it
better than most modern writers. Mill points out that there are also
land-saving arts. Anything that increases yields per acre (the "average
product of land") is land-saving, in economese. George gives
one such example, p. 241, "thousands of workers to the acre,
working tier on tier,..." but he attributes that entirely to
increased population. Credit is due rather to the arts of
architecture, construction, planning, and engineering that crafted
the elevators, ventilators, pumps, central heating, load-bearing
supports, plumbing and sanitation, etc. Men taught themselves these
arts, by the way, in deep mines before they used them to build
skyscrapers - we learned to build up by building down into our home,
The Earth. (May economic theorists profit by the example.)
George unconsciously gives another case, p. 243, in writing of "spaceship
earth" (yes, he coined that one) and its hatches. The arts of
mining let mineral energy substitute for animal energy, thus
releasing the pastureland once used for draft horses. That was 1/3
the land used in farming, thus allowing a 50% increase in land
growing food for humans. In addition, tractors can get into wet
fields earlier in the spring than horses could; they can pull plows
through claypans too tough for horses to handle; and otherwise
increase yields per acre.
One point George overlooked, in his doom scenario, was his own
influence, and that of people like him. The policies of George
himself, applied to finance irrigation in California, are
responsible for much of the increased yields that occur when dryland
farming gives way to, and is supplemented by, irrigation. The high
yields of California farmland have made fruits and vegetables so
cheap in the east as to have taken much eastern land out of
horticulture. California cotton has released much eastern land for
other uses. Much of this production comes from what was desert and
swamp before irrigation and drainage changed it. In some places men
have drained too much, jeopardizing wildlife and ecology, due to
unwise subsidies secured by land speculators, but you can't blame
George for that.
To stretch your mind, think of some more land saving arts. It is
hard at first, we are so brainwashed with the virtues of "labor-saving,"
but one soon gets the hang of it. Remember that George includes
government, police, manners and morals among the arts.
George's model and foil, J.S. Mill, thought of a few, too. Mill's
Principles has a chapter on "Influence of the Progress of
Industry and Population on Rents, Profits and Wages," in
Article 4 of which Mill stresses that progress may be land-saving,
not just land-using. George doesn't refer to this, but should have,
because he organized most of his Book IV around juxtaposing his
views with those of Mill. Mill, remember, said that growth of
population lowers wages, while progress in the arts is all that may
offset this, and may even raise wages. George says Mill got it
backwards, it is really the other way around. The symmetry makes for
good and memorable writing. However, he should have read Mill
closer, tedious as that may be, before writing that.
Mill's treatment is vexingly roundabout and obscure, because he
runs all his effects through the cost of food, and its presumed
effect on wage rates. (The idea is that if food costs less, the "working
classes" will accept lower money wages.) Still, George would
have strengthened his work by finding Mill's bottom line. When labor
is dear, capital goes into saving labor; when land is dear, capital
goes into saving land, and developing new lands. Thus the system is
more self-equilibrating than George feared in this apocalyptic
chapter. It is inconsistent that George, who repeatedly praises the
market's equilibrating powers, overlooks this kind of equilibration.
To be sure, that might have weakened his work's immediate impact,
because a doom forecast grabs attention and sells books. The fear of
technological unemployment is ever present - more so today than
ever. He would have silenced some of his later critics, however, who
have seized upon his doom forecast and used it to discredit him.
Until about 1975 they could dismiss George, and did, by claiming
that that real wages in the United States had been rising. Since
1975, though, real wages have been falling, and land prices
rocketing into orbit, so George's forecast looks more relevant today
than ever. Are the critics now lauding him for his foresight?
Dumbesilleh! They have another agenda, and, like fishermen trudging
home empty, the truth is not in them.
Is free trade the solution, or part of the problem? George
witnessed ably for free trade, but did "free trade" mean
to him what it means to its modern corporate supporters? Does it
foster outsourcing and make the problem worse? Is it just a ruse to
let polluters export their sins? Is it just a handmaiden of
neo-imperialism, of Pax Americana and plutocracy booted and spurred
in the saddle? Look for future issues of GroundSwell!