Self-driving vehicles are still in the somewhat early stages of development. Early, because the technology exists, and self-driving vehicles are generally able to go from Point A to Point B, but they still lack the versatility of a human driver. This last point being an inherent problem in any sort of automation: a robot is unable to deal with contingencies that go beyond its programming, because even though a robot operates based on the laws of logic, a robot is incapable of Reason.
A human driver may never have expected to see swarms of frogs on the highway, or to have been in the position to weigh his alternatives in that scenario, but should a robot truck encounter the same thing, it may turn out to be a bad day for the frogs, as well as for the truck.
The idea of self-driving trucks has created a lot of talk and a lot of controversy. On the one hand, this technology could be a huge benefit to the economy, while on the other, there is concern (quite understandably) over automation replacing the jobs of human beings. This concern is nothing new. People have long feared automation putting humans out of the job, and replacing human workers.
But are these fears justified given the laws of economics, and the history of automation?
A Short Background on Automation
In my previous article, Science, Economics, Politics, I talked about the invention of the Printing Press, and the fear that this would take jobs away from monks. But what was the end result? Human beings became capable of printing books on a large scale for a much cheaper price. More books could be written, and as the technology developed, books became widely available to ordinary people. And everyone became richer for it.
People now have access to affordable books so that they can go to medical school, learn how to operate a business, or simply for personal edification and enjoyment. Most people who are relatively low on the economic ladder could afford to buy a biology textbook, should they so choose. This was not the case during most of the Middle Ages.
Before the invention of the Printing Press, the idea that every family on Earth could own a Bible would have been unthinkable. Imagine telling someone from that time period that ministries on college campuses and street corners would hand out God’s Word for free, the price of producing a copy of the Good Book being negligible. Let alone, imagine telling them that children’s rooms would would have bookshelves filled with full color pages.
Whats more, thanks to the Digital Revolution, anyone can publish a book on Amazon, and eBooks are generally sold for a fraction of the price of their physical counterparts. When I bought my iPad for some $800 in college, it paid for itself in two semesters with textbook savings.
And yes, in all of this process, no doubt a lot of monks lost their jobs copying books by hand, while countless more jobs were created, along with an incredible revolution in how humans transmit and preserve knowledge.
Perhaps we should create laws outlawing the Printing Press in order to restore those jobs that the monks lost?
The ATM is another example. When the ATM was first introduced, people feared the loss of jobs for physical human tellers. But the end result was that the demand for tellers went up, and more people were needed for these jobs.
What was the reason for this? Basically, with the invention of the ATM, more people wanted to put more money into the bank. This also allowed tellers to focus on the human interaction, and to talk to customers about business loans and mortgages, instead of merely dispensing money all day.
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Shortly after writing my aforementioned article, I was offered a job in a medical laboratory that contained an incredible number of robots who’s function was to analyze blood, urine, and other fluids for the purpose of diagnosing patients. I found this ironic, since my article which was published only a few weeks before talked a lot about automation in laboratories.
I plan to write more about this experience in the near future, but I remember one of the employees in our lab getting frustrated one day and exclaiming something to the effect of “It seems like the more automated machines we get, the more workers we need!”
I had to smile at that, because contrary to the fears that people have, this has been the historical economic trend. Whenever machines come in to “replace” a human job, they always create the need for more jobs, usually elsewhere in the economy, but sometimes in that same area of the economy as well.
While doing my research, I have found no exception to this trend. Automation, it seems, may “replace” one job, but it always creates so many more. (Here is but one of many sources.)
In the case of the monks, I wonder if these men were then repurposed to operate the printing presses, and if the demand for operators exceeded the prior demand for hand-copiers? (The demand for the new low-priced books may have so greatly surpassed the demand for the older, extremely high-priced books that in the end more operators were needed to meet the new demands.)
A Technological Thought Experiment
At this time, there are a lot of technological challenges that would have to be met before robotic trucks could ever fully replace a human being. It is one thing to drive cross-country on an open highway. It is quite another to navigate crowded city streets.
Some have suggested truck “operators” who would stay in the driver’s seat should the truck need human assistance. Others have suggested having trucks drive cross-country and then having a human driver hop in to drive them the last few miles to their destination.
Perhaps automated trucks that are truly independent is not possible right now.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say we have the technology. Let’s say that we could completely replace human drivers. What would the logical outcome of that scenario be?
In short, it would revolutionize world economies, and possibly help millions of people to rise out of poverty.
That’s a bold statement, but when we look at economics, it is a statement that is fully justified in its expectation.
It is often lamented that in small inner-city ghetto grocery stores, a box of cereal costs more than the same box at a supermarket in an affluent suburb. Some people see this and want to cry “racism,” but as the famous economist Thomas Sowell (himself an African American who grew up in a poor neighborhood) has pointed out, it costs more money to deliver 5 boxes of cereal to 10 small grocery stores than it does to deliver 50 boxes to one large grocery store.
Dr. Sowell notes that crime, including shoplifting in many inner city stores also contributes to this price difference.
Now imagine a world where that cost of transportation has been reduced. Not only could that box of cereal be sold for less money, so could pretty much any physical item that is transported by truck, including groceries.
A lower grocery bill could help a lot of people.
The same concept would likely apply to people in mountainous regions. Historically, people living in the mountains tend to lag behind economically when compared to their counterparts on the coastlines. The reason being that people on the coast had more access to shipping, transportation, and trade than people in the mountains.
But if the cost of shipping were reduced by even a small margin, then this could provide a huge benefit to people in regions with limited accessibility. This could include poor regions here in the United States, but also mountainous and remote regions around the world.
The Moral Conclusion
While fear of job loss is often a concern when new technology comes into play, we have to weigh both the costs and the benefits.
If we were to pass legislation outlawing automation in one area, we may save a job for one person, but what about the twenty other people’s jobs we would be sacrificing in the process? What about those jobs that people could really use, but which were never created? What right does anyone have to use the government to forcibly take those jobs away from other people to protect the jobs of a few?
In a recent conversation I had with Cody Libolt and Jacob Brunton, Cody said this was like stealing from one group of people for the sake of an individual. But Jacob corrected him, pointing out that this was one group of people being favored over other groups of people.
That said, all of us reject Collectivism.
The fact that Free Markets serve the most good to mankind is not their primary justification for existence.
At the end of the day, men ought to be free, and if we are to err, let us err on the side of freedom.
Instead of coming in with guns and demanding that a man run his business a certain way, we should let a man be free to operate his business in any way he sees fit, as long as he is not violating the rights of other individuals.
What right does one man have to tell another that he cannot own and use a printing press, or a 3D printer, or an automated truck for fear that it might “replace” another man’s job?
Should we go back to the days of making all our clothes by hand and working twelve hour days six days a week, just so we could bake enough bread to survive?
Or do we move forward? Do we allow men to be free?
And do we allow Free Market Capitalism to continue raising billions of people out of poverty? Do we continue to allow automation to make men’s lives easier? Or do we condemn Man to once again scrape in the dirt for every ounce of his sustenance?
Most of human history consisted of hard labor in the dirt for basic sustenance. As beautiful as nature is, the planet will have no pity on our hungry stomachs if we choose to reject the blessing of modern industry and automation. We need to make no mistake about this.
The moral solution is clear. We ought to allow men to be free, and we ought to allow brilliant men to continue to move industry forward. Yes, there will be shifts in the economy, and that won’t always be easy for everybody, but that is no reason for us to stay still. If history has taught us anything, it’s that automation always creates more jobs. If we allow this automation, and we allow free markets overall, then some people may loose particular jobs, but for every one that is lost, many more will be created, resulting in great economic opportunity.
Some Further Thoughts
The idea that trucks could ever be fully automated may or may not be possible in the relevant future. But perhaps we see partially automated trucks, or a revival of railroad transportation. This means that we could at least see the economy move conceptually in that direction, and this would not be a bad thing.
In this day and age people have a lot of concerns about the economy, and it seems that everyone has an opinion. But sadly very few take the time to learn the empirical facts of economics. When I first started studying the work of Dr. Thomas Sowell after I graduated from college, I was surprised at how much can be empirically tested, and wasn’t merely open to subjective opinion or personal speculation. We actually do have clear data on things like Minimum Wage and Affirmative Action. By taking the time to clearly understand these topics, we can make better decisions for our lives, our businesses, and our nation’s political policies.
While I am not one of these people who wants to inherently “blame both sides” to sound fashionable, this is one of the areas where both the Right and the Left in the United States are failing.
Moving Towards A Brighter Future
Based on the facts, I do not think that robots will pose a threat to working class people. The nightmare idea of robots replacing all of our jobs and creating a class of super elites with millions of people unemployed and in poverty is not supported by the evidence of history or a proper understanding of economics.
I recently took a trip to Chicago. It was barely too far for me to drive, so I took a plane. If my car had even partial self-driving capability, I could have sat back and just enjoyed the ride. Instead of spending money on a plane ticket, and Ubers once I got to Chicago, I could have spent that money on other things that I’d like to enjoy. I still would have spent my money somewhere, but automation would have given me more bang for my buck.
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What I want to see is a future with a total Free Market: pure Capitalism, with widespread automation.
Imagine a world where machines allow farmers to produce crops for a fraction of the price and self-driving trucks can deliver food to grocery stores cheaper and faster than what we see today. No need for truck stops. Groceries could be sold to needy families for less than half of the cost of today.
With the money that is saved, families could buy books and online educational materials for their kids.
And imagine a young man, fresh out of college. He buys a piece of land, and thanks to automation, he can have a house built that is twice as large for a tenth of the price.
Thanks to automation, which allows him to produce more wealth for a fraction of the labor, he works 6 hours a day for 4 days a week, and earns a paycheck that is higher than anything his father could have ever imagined. This is by choice. While he is offered more hours due to the high demand for labor, he chooses to have more of a work-life balance.
He can afford to marry young, and he does.
His wife is able, by her own choice, to stay home and educate their children using tools that were not possible even a generation before. Small robots do most of the housework, while she does online work in the stock market, investing her money in companies that represent the forefront of technology and innovation.
A small greenhouse sits on the kitchen counter with an automated hydroponics system run by an AI with an easy interface, providing fresh vegetables that supplement the family groceries.
This is a world where automation, including automated trucks, have given people more freedom in their lives than ever before. Instead of scraping in the dirt for bread, they can routinely pursue hobbies, read widely printed books, and enjoy higher education.
This picture of the future might sound like a fantasy, but most of the technology described here exists in some form or another now.
No one can predict the future. But what we have seen from automation has been nothing short of incredible. Let’s take a logical step of rational faith, based on the facts that we know and embrace a future with a total free market and widespread automation allowing us to create more, and be more than we ever could have been otherwise.
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