Could automation and wealth redistribution replace the 40-hour work week?

No. The answer is no. Let’s talk about that.

Last week, we discussed inflation and productivity in the workplace. Click here to read that post. Today, we’re continuing a series on the anti-work movement by talking about automation and wealth redistribution.

Automation

Something I’ve seen pop up time and time again in the anti-work community is the idea that automation is reducing the number of jobs, and that we might be able to automate pretty much everything at some point. This would free up a lot of people who were previously needed in the workforce, potentially leading to a society where people don’t have to work at all if they don’t want to. As you can probably tell, this train of logic is about as solid as paper mache. Let’s break it down.

The first point to tackle is automation. There are thousands of examples to draw on, but one that comes to mind is the lamplighter. We no longer need someone to go around town and light the lamps at the appropriate time each day. We now have an electrical grid that powers lights throughout our cities automatically. Does this mean we’ve eliminated the need for labor? You might say yes, at first. When the lights turn on, everything works and nobody needs to do anything, right? Wrong. Electric lights are machines. They break down and need repairing sometimes. They need power from a source in order to function. How is this done? With repairmen, electricians, and city leaders using taxpayer money to ensure local power plants are operational and feeding power to all the lamps at the right times. There are thousands of hardworking humans behind all of that infrastructure. By automating street lights, we haven’t removed labor at all. We’ve only shifted it into a more manageable and convenient form.

The Math Doesn’t Add Up

This brings to mind the first law of thermodynamics, which teaches us that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Much like energy, labor cannot be removed from a functional society, at least not without consequences. To remove labor removes the results of that labor. To replace the labor of a lamplighter with a fraction of labor across hundreds of engineers, maintenance workers, and politicians is not the same as removing it.

Therefore, the best automation can do is help us be more efficient with our labor. The industrial revolution has played a huge part in this. Instead of planting seed by hand, we use machines to do it very rapidly, for example. But this does not point to a future where our labor will be so efficient that it will disappear altogether. If anything, it reveals that our nation has grown rich and prosperous as a result of capitalism. After all, it takes many hours of difficult labor to create the machines that assemble the farm equipment that we use to plant seed. It also takes a lot of labor and valuable resources to fuel and maintain these machines. How on earth do we manage to pay for all of it? With our immense wealth, of course.

The Riches of Capitalism

One thing capitalism does very well is reward ingenuity with cold hard cash. Regardless of your opinion on trickle-down economics, the reality is that capitalism does lead to more prosperous nations overall. But that’s a topic for another post. My point is that the road to automation is paved with the gold of businessmen. Yet these are precisely the people the anti-work community wants to steal from in order to fund their utopia. They’re obsessed with revolting against the evil bourgeoisie and letting the government take care of everyone “equally” using their wealth. But is that feasible?

Surely, we don’t need the rich hoarding all their money away from us. If only we could take it from them and give it to the masses. We could live for a while on that, right? Well, that’s what the anti-work community seems to think. Let’s take a look at the numbers. Right now, the combined net worth of all American billionaires is about $5 trillion as of October 18, 2021.1 If we liquidate and divide this money equally among every U.S. household (roughly 128 million), how much would each household receive? The answer is just under $40k, assuming it’s tax-free. This allows all of America to live modestly for a year or so. After that, the money is gone. And remember, we liquidated the net worth of all our billionaires to get that money. This means all companies, products, jobs, investments, and innovations they’re responsible for are gone. In the act of giving everyone a year off work, we would cripple our economy. It’s not realistic, feasible, or ethical on any level.

Conclusion

The anti-work community seems intent on taking full advantage of the automation afforded to them by capitalism while rejecting the system entirely and feeding all wealth into a common pool for everyone. They believe that this will lead to a society where wealth is distributed equally, everyone can have a modest standard of living, and the vast majority of jobs are automated by machines and robots. They think the future is sipping tea on their porch playing board games with their buddies, writing blog posts in the evenings, and sucking the government teat to pay their bills and buy groceries delivered by self-driving cars.

The reality is that wealth redistribution doesn’t work long-term, automation doesn’t eliminate the need for labor, and removing all incentive to work or create value for society will, as a matter of fact, reduce the jobs being done and the value being created in our society, leading to our standard of living plummeting into the far reaches of the earth.

Next week, we’ll be taking a step back and looking at what the real underlying reason might be for the anti-work movement’s recent popularity. Enter your email below if you want to be notified when that goes live. Thanks for reading. Godspeed.

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  1. Chuck Collins, “Updates: Billionaire Wealth, U.S. Job Losses and Pandemic Profiteers,” Inequality.org, Institute for Policy Studies, October 18, 2021, https://inequality.org/great-divide/updates-billionaire-pandemic/.

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