When the Robots Rise
IN LEVIATHAN, Thomas Hobbes observes:
“Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of the body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend as well as he.”
This peculiar thought—that, in the most important respects, and despite their manifest differences, all men are equal—has laid the intellectual foundation for democracy’s unlikely triumph. But will society retain its belief in equality when it is no longer just man against man? Can democracy thrive when more and more benefits accrue to machines that are stronger in body, and quicker in mind, than any mere mortal? And will the machines’ owners remain willing to honor the claims of their social inferiors when they no longer need them to make their food, or to staff their companies, or to fight their wars?
Machines are about to get very good at doing a range of tasks that human beings have historically been paid to perform. By some estimates, half of current jobs are in danger of being replaced. If anything close to this happens, a smaller and smaller share of the human population will possess skills that make them more productive than machines. As a larger supply of labor competes for fewer jobs, wages will fall for most, or dry up entirely. The owners of capital and property, physical and intellectual, will triumph. “With less need for human labor and judgment,” venture capitalist Vinod Khosla predicts, “labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to ideas and machine learning technology.”
Advanced democracies like the United States would then be transformed by the rise of two wildly different strata of society, with very little to keep them connected: A small upper class will largely rely on technology to serve its needs. Meanwhile, a large lower class will have very little of value to offer a shrinking labor market.
In light of this momentous transformation, it is only natural that most writing about automation has been focused on the economic realm. And yet, the rise of the machines is likely to have even more radical consequences in the political arena.
Devoid of the middle class that has historically sustained it, democracy is unlikely to survive. At some point, deep inequality will undermine elites’ support for democracy. They will simply have too much to lose from policies that help the growing ranks of the poor. Given elites’ considerable resources, and their dwindling need for the human labor (or force) that the masses provide, they are likely to coopt the democratic process to serve their own ends in an even more radical way than they do now—or to dispense with the pretense of democracy altogether. Without a middle class between the rich and the poor, it seems unlikely that popular democratic institutions can survive. As the sociologist Barrington Moore put it, “no bourgeois, no democracy.”
This antidemocratic dystopia can be averted if elected leaders preserve the middle class through some form of redistribution. But the more unequal society becomes, and the more elites have to lose from redistribution, the more aggressively they will try to block any such effort. If the material plenty created by the machines of the future is going to benefit the bulk of humanity, someone needs to solve the political challenges of the automation age before a small cadre of economic elites amasses too much power. Rendering a future automated economy safe for the shared prosperity that democracy requires will take a lot of foresight, an extraordinary amount of enlightened self-interest and some very clever political maneuvering. That is a lot to hope for, especially in the light of current political inequalities.
This challenge is compounded by the fact that neither of the two dominant political parties in the United States has an adequate framework for thinking about the challenges that a new, automation-heavy economy poses to a society already tottering on the brink of unsustainable inequalities. One party is likely to conclude that the automation revolution can be confronted with small-bore measures like education reform or more investment in training the American workforce. The other party argues that government is always part of the problem, never part of the solution. In their respective ways, both Democrats and Republicans are peddling evasive and backward-looking responses to a problem that requires a forward-thinking strategy.
Finding the right response to automation is both an economic and a political necessity. At stake is not only the broad-based prosperity to which society has long grown accustomed, but also the continued viability of the democratic system itself. Science fiction writers have imagined a dystopian future in which robots have freed themselves from the domination of their masters, enslaving the human race. From the perspective of political science, the more likely—and equally scary—scenario is that robots will indeed subjugate the mass of the population, but at the behest of a narrow elite of human masters.
OVER THE last decades, the American economy has produced rapidly rising inequality—an inequality that has become even starker in the aftermath of the most recent recession. Since 2008, the overwhelming share of the country’s economic gains has accrued to a select few: to holders of advanced degrees; to people who work in management or finance; and to people who already own property, both physical and intellectual. Meanwhile, the wages of average citizens have continued to stagnate. Americans without highly valued skills or elite educations are finding fewer job opportunities. The jobs they do find are likely to be part-time, temporary and poorly compensated. Unemployment rates may be down, but the more telling statistic is that participation in the labor force has sunk to its lowest levels since the late 1970s. Now, only about 62 percent of working age people are in the labor force.
Recent economic policy explains part of this divergence of fortunes: marginal tax rates for top incomes have decreased, regulation of the financial sector remains lax and intellectual property enjoys excessive protections. There has been an increase in what political scientist Steven Teles has called “regressive rents”—the ways in which economic winners use government policy to limit competition and thus charge higher prices for their services. But structural factors are also an important driver of inequality. If the last years have seen a great divergence in fortunes between the many and the few, globalization, declining union membership and increasing returns to high-skill work are all part of the reason.
Robotic technologies are starting to exacerbate this great divergence, and things may be about to get much worse. Over the last years, robots have become able to perform a wide range of tasks humans were long paid to perform—faster, cheaper and more reliably. As these technologies achieve the kind of mass production that will make them widely affordable over the next years, experts expect to see restaurant chains purchasing robots to prepare food, retail chains leaving it to robots to stock shelves, trucking companies making their fleet autonomous and taxi services shifting to self-driving cars.
Even high-skill jobs that had long seemed safe from the encroachment of automation may soon come under pressure. Prestigious law firms are already starting to use software for some of the tasks, like document review, that were once the purview of paralegals, or even highly paid law-school graduates. Robots have begun to carry out medical procedures. Universities are testing technologies that may soon substitute thousands of lecturers at campuses around the country with one or two star lecturers located at top universities, beamed across the world through technology, and assisted by evaluation algorithms that handle all the grading.
FOR MUCH of human history, the rich were more likely to be critical of democracy than the poor. Whether it was the elite families of Athens who gave birth to Socrates and Plato or the British aristocrats who fought to avoid an extension of the franchise, they had good reason to fear the people. After all, a democracy claims to let the people rule. Anybody who benefited from the vast inequalities of wealth that prevailed in these societies would be forgiven for assuming that the people would inevitably implement land reform, sky-high wealth taxes and other redistributive measures once they were in power.
But, starting in the late nineteenth century, and at first restricted to a few countries like the United States and Great Britain, the rich slowly began to make their peace with democracy. Part of the reason for this was that industrialists came to understand that they themselves required a well-educated labor force to build their own prosperity. Another reason was that the rich needed large-scale civilian armies, which required a stake in society through democratic participation and decent pay, lest they rise up and stage a coup.
Even so, it is only since World War II, with material inequality reaching its lowest level in human history, that the rich have become unequivocal supporters of democracy across North America and Western Europe. A broad and aspirational middle class, they now recognized, does not demand overly redistributive policies. The middle class helps to guarantee democracy in great part because it soothes elites’ historical fears about democracy. But the strong support for democracy among elites over the past fifty years does not mean they are incapable of turning their back on institutions they had feared for three millennia. As that middle class disappears, and the demand for redistribution rises, elites may once again become democracy’s most vocal detractors.
Indeed, political scientists who have studied the conditions under which democracy is feasible have emphasized one insight more than any other: The more elites fear that democratic politics is going to appropriate their wealth, the more likely they are to turn against democracy. As the scholars Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson have argued, for example, elites weigh the costs of accepting democracy against the costs of repressing prodemocracy activists. If democracy allows them to prosper, and opposition to autocratic rule is strong, they favor democracy. If democracy will likely cost them a large share of their wealth, and opposition to autocratic rule is easily quashed, they favor autocracy.
In the context of an automation revolution, that is a terrifying insight. The costs of tolerating democracy will almost certainly rise because the gap between the living standards of the rich and the living standard of average citizens will continue to widen. As that gap increases, the number of citizens who support redistributive policies will rise, and the shrinking ranks of the rich will have more to lose from those policies. Both factors make elites in comparatively unequal societies less tolerant of democratic policies than they are in comparatively equal ones. In fact, there are already first indications that, as inequality has grown in North America and Western Europe, some members of the economic elite have begun to turn against democracy.
At the same time, the cost of repression is likely to fall in an increasingly automated economy. Historically, elites have relied on a large police force and a sizeable army—institutions which are expensive to maintain and difficult to keep loyal. In an automated society, the need for human labor in the provision of security will dwindle just as it does in other sectors of the economy. The rich will live in secure compounds, protected by drones and connected by driverless cars. Meanwhile, ever-smarter surveillance technologies will help to monitor the activities of malcontents. The uncertain calculus of pacifying the army has been solved: no longer requiring the allegiance of flesh-and-blood officers, it can be accomplished with no more than electricity, metal, motor oil and cleanly written code.
To be sure, the elites will always need to rely on at least some physical labor to protect them—even if it is just somebody to monitor all the signals. But this need is likely to be small compared to the ever-growing supply of labor. With their ample resources, elites will easily be able to make the few jobs in elite protection appealing enough that the likelihood of defection will be much lower than it was in authoritarian societies before the rise of the automation age.
To make things worse, it’s not just that the costs of physically repressing dissent are falling; it’s also that the ensuing social unrest will be less and less likely to harm the economic interests of elites. At the moment, the prosperity of the wealthiest members of society is deeply dependent on some degree of social harmony. They need their middle managers to show up to work, their secretaries to organize their calendars and their janitors to make meeting rooms look respectable. The further automation progresses, the less the prospect of social disorder—or even a general strike—matters to the world of the rich. So long as the robots can be relied upon to do their masters’ bidding, the economy can chug right along even in the face of an intensely hostile population.
For now, the material interests of wealthy Americans remain bound up with the maintenance of political order to a considerable degree. Support for democracy remains strong, even among elites (though the level of that support has declined steadily in recent decades). But as inequality gets worse, that shared investment may fade. In an increasingly automated economy, the many are not only poor; from the perspective of the rich, they are also—for the first time in human history—dispensable.
As automation advances, the elites’ costs of suppressing democracy will fall, while the costs of tolerating democracy (with its increasing risk of redistribution) will rise. With each passing day, they will have a stronger incentive to rebel against democracy rather than to accept that much of their wealth might be redirected to the increasingly large ranks of the destitute.
Ultimately, then, society faces one of two scenarios: Either the political system will figure out a way to redistribute wealth in a way that preserves a middle class, or the political system will lose the capacity to redistribute wealth because it becomes completely controlled by elites. It is possible to preserve the middle class through redistribution, preserving both widespread wealth and democratic stability. But the time window to do so is short—and it is already starting to close.
IN A 2014 speaking engagement at Google, Hillary Clinton was asked about the possibility that new technologies might vastly increase the degree of structural unemployment. “I don’t have a quick, glib answer to give you,” she said in response. “There are no easy answers.”
It’s not only Clinton who doesn’t have a quick, glib answer. Nobody does. These issues are only starting to enter the public conversation, and few political leaders seem eager to confront them. Perhaps this is because politicians recognize how difficult these questions are. Or perhaps it is because genuine solutions challenge each party’s dominant economic narratives—which would also explain why, even in an election cycle seemingly obsessed with America’s economic decline, technology-driven job loss has not yet become a campaign issue.
The dominant Republican explanation for the recent economic stagnation has been simple: too much government. High taxes rob innovators and entrepreneurs of the incentive to start the businesses that create new jobs. Excessive regulations create unnecessary roadblocks that sap their creativity.
Granted, this story has a grain of truth in it. Some government regulations really are unnecessary, or counterproductive. Many more are confusing, or overly costly to comply with, in part because they require extensive paperwork and expensive lawyers. To make things worse, the influence that corporations and large donors have gained over the legislative system ensures that some of these regulations serve to protect established market actors, not to pursue important social goals.
And yet, the conservative impulse to oppose any redistribution of wealth through taxation leaves the movement unable to grapple with the basic problems posed by the automation revolution. For close to four decades, conservatives have argued that taxes are always too high, that government should always be smaller, that markets can solve all problems. But among those who have looked at the automation revolution, the growing consensus is that government will have to get involved. Tellingly, even the authors of a recent report on automation by the right-leaning Baker Institute admitted that they had not “been able to find any solutions based on the free market. All our proposals involve government intervention.” And while Donald Trump’s unexpected candidacy has, at times, provided a rhetorical challenge to the conservative consensus that it is always better to have less government, his actual policy proposals center on extreme and highly regressive tax cuts. He also talks about bringing back manufacturing jobs through aggressive nationalist trade policy. But the problem is that it’s the robots, not the Chinese workers, who are now running the factories.
The debate about technologies that already disrupt established labor practices is instructive. As Uber has become a political issue, Republican presidential candidates have been quick to embrace the company. (In characteristic rhetorical excess, Ted Cruz styled himself the Uber of politics.) Rather than seeing Uber as a threat, Republicans have generally cast the service as an optimistic story of renewal. Such technologies, they claim, are empowering workers, not undermining their traditional livelihoods. Isn’t it great, they ask, echoing the company’s rhetoric, that we are creating opportunities for our drivers to work as much or as little as they want? And won’t similar transformations soon follow in other parts of the economy, setting office workers who now spend their days in dull, repetitive, carpal-tunnel “information work” free to found small businesses—whether it be knitting ironic scarves, pet-sitting or giving massages on app-powered demand?
What this story misses is that, barring significant changes, there are likely to be few winners in the headlong race towards the gig economy. While some creative souls may indeed thrive in this environment, it is hard to see how this is a road to widespread prosperity. If technology eliminates a large number of jobs, many people will be out of work. If they all rush into service and craft-based entrepreneurial activity, supply will vastly outstrip demand. For all those who aren’t particularly talented or especially lucky, it will be very hard to make a living wage. Banks and financial institutions that loan people money to start their own businesses will do well. So will platform owners, manufacturers of 3D printers and perhaps some consultants. But on the whole, even more people will live without stability or security, relying more and more on chance and luck to generate rapidly dwindling incomes.
THE MODERN left has its roots in advocacy for destitute workers and the dignity of labor. Its primary ambition has long been not to liberate mankind from toil but to honor and reward hard work. The connection is a little less evident in the United States than it is in Britain, where the Labour Party literally originated as a trade union, or in Germany, where the Social Democratic Party has long made its political pitch to workmen everywhere. And yet, America’s left too—both the modern-day Democratic Party and more radical manifestations like Occupy Wall Street—remains, first and foremost, a movement devoted to ensuring that people who work hard get their just recompense. Their primary audience is, in the words of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, those Americans who “work hard and play by the rules”—or, in the language of Elizabeth Warren, people who “came up the hard way . . . out of a hard-working middle class family in an America that created opportunities for kids like me.”
Because labor unions still play a large role in the Democratic coalition, Democrats tend to think about inequality from a worker’s perspective. Much of their thinking tends to be rooted in the ideal of mid-twentieth-century mass-factory work, and the inherent conflicts between labor and management. Some specific recipes have been substituted as Democrats embraced the requirements of a globalized economy over the last few decades, but the default strategy remains the same. Democrats seek to improve the lot of workers by requiring more of employers: more benefits, higher salaries (e.g., the fight over the minimum wage), better working conditions and so on. The Obama administration, for example, has devoted considerable energy to making sure more employees are eligible for overtime pay, and making it harder for employers to classify workers as contractors.
To be sure, Democrats are more supportive of spending on social programs than Republicans. But even many of these programs are oriented towards helping people who are already in work, as in the case of the Earned Income Tax Credit, or getting people back to work, for example, through various educational benefits.
Taken together, these measures have done a lot to improve the material condition of American workers. But the flip side is that these protections for workers significantly raise the cost of hiring workers. It’s hard to disagree with the premise that $15 per hour is a reasonable wage for fast-food workers. But in the age of automation it is also hard to ignore the possibility that a high minimum wage speeds up the transition to automating low-skill work. The fast-food industry, for example, employs more than two million wait staff, three million cooks and a sizeable share of the nation’s more than three million cashiers, according to a recent Washington Post article. As the price of robots goes down and the price of labor goes up, more and more fast-food chains will opt to delegate these tasks to machines instead of workers.
The fast-food industry is hardly an isolated case. By the National Employment Law Project’s estimate, 42 percent of all workers earn less than $15 per hour. Most of them perform repetitive work that doesn’t take special skills, meaning that they may soon go the way of elevator operators. The dilemma this poses for the left is real: low wages keep workers in poverty; high wages push workers out of their jobs. So long as the Democrats’ primary economic focus remains on decent-paying jobs, this impasse will remain.
Instead of acknowledging how fundamental a challenge the automation revolution poses, Democrats have tended to cast declining wages as a mere problem of skills and education. They seem to believe that, if only workers could get more training or attend college, they would command higher wages. Recycling the familiar pabulum that “[d]eveloping the skills and abilities of these workers . . . presents a significant opportunity to improve their wages and to increase the productivity and competitiveness of employers,” the Obama administration has created something called the Upskill Initiative. Invoking the same rhetoric, Hillary Clinton now proposes spending an additional $350 million so that more people can get a college education.
The left’s response to the rise of robots, then, is likely to be more of the same. In the future, they realize, those who have the skills to operate the machines or to do high-level creative work will do well. If more people are trained to do high-level creative work and operate machines, they assume, the economy will thrive. Education, they conclude, is the key—preferably that of the STEM variety.
It is an argument that is as misguided as it is simple. Even if policymakers could design and enact effective programs to support widespread education, it’s unclear how much of a difference they would make. There are many reasons for this. One is the long time lag of educational investments. As Larry Summers notes, two-thirds of the labor force of 2030 is already out of school today. But in an economy of increasingly scarce employment, it is also unclear how successful education and training programs will be for those who do participate in them. The remaining high-skill jobs will be limited to those with a certain degree of natural aptitude, and the more people rush to fill these jobs, the weaker the bargaining position of labor in general. At some point, retraining yet another person to code may simply displace a recent graduate from that very same retraining program. Even if every American were trained to perform some task that machines are not yet able to carry out, the aggregate effect would likely be minor. If the total number of these tasks is low, spreading skills to the masses will not avert mass unemployment.
In a 2012 Foreign Affairs article, Francis Fukuyama observed that it has been a long time
“since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.”
Unfortunately, he is right about the left’s failure to face up to the fact that its old solutions no longer work—and the consequences are likely to be dire.
THE MOST important players in both parties are likely to rank among automation’s winners. Politicians and their top donors alike are part of the small portion of the population who have the skills, capital and connections to profit from the remarkable productivity of the coming automation age. They will be eager to keep those gains to themselves. So it is little wonder that they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of significant redistribution—or that the issue has so far remained off the “serious” policy agenda.
A small minority of wealthy elites has nevertheless begun to argue for more redistribution. Some of the rich who favor redistribution are motivated by genuine fears about the kind of society that would come about if a greater share of Americans were destitute. Democracies with universal suffrage, they realize, have only ever proved stable in conditions of significant middle-class affluence. It follows that democracy and the automation revolution may genuinely be at odds. To survive in the automation age, democracy would have to restrict the voting rights of the bulk of the population. The only alternative is to recreate the economic conditions of mass affluence that have long sustained the system through increasingly active redistribution.
Other elite advocates of redistribution are more concerned with their perceived self-interest than with preferences about the kind of society they want to live in. Nick Hanauer, a self-proclaimed “zillionaire,” has argued that an effective defense of the enlightened self-interest of the rich requires significant redistribution. “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society,” he writes. “Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.” To avoid a revolutionary assault on the wealth of the rich, Hanauer suggests, they should be so forward-looking as to share a significant portion of their wealth voluntarily. “Wake up, people. It won’t last.”
A concern about the long-term consequences of extreme inequality has also persuaded some libertarians, like scholars Matt Zwolinski and Charles Murray, to defend redistribution. They worry that populist anger at widespread immiseration may eventually lead to widespread demands for the state to take an ever more active role in the economy—or even to capitalism collapsing altogether. They therefore favor forms of redistribution that would limit the expansion of the state and soften popular pressure for the state to rein in capitalism. Harkening back to Milton Friedman’s negative income tax or even Thomas Paine’s citizen dividend, they champion a universal basic income. The best course of action, they argue, is to transfer money to the poor in a way that minimizes state involvement in the economy, and then let them figure out how to spend it.
REDISTRIBUTION IS indeed necessary. And though it remains uncertain what the best redistributive mechanisms are—whether some form of universal guaranteed income or state provision of welfare programs—the provision of goods must go beyond the means for basic sustenance. To lead a worthwhile life, people need to have access to the material and educational means for constructing meaningful lives for themselves. To help them in this endeavor, policymakers should massively expand access to the arts, to education and to other cultural programming.
At the same time, concerns (shared by many conservatives) about the dangers of too much power in a centralized authority are not without merit. That’s why much of this money should be allocated to cities, regions and nonstate actors like voluntary associations. Towns and individuals, states and NGOs, should have the freedom to experiment. And by pairing locally administered public programs with more participatory means of governance, people will be able to decide on spending priorities and have a greater stake in their communities.
All of this will, to be sure, require high levels of taxation on the owners of capital and equipment. Such transfer payments do, admittedly, create risks—the most obvious of which may be that a generous welfare state with high taxation could make the bulk of the population unwilling to work. This won’t be a big problem, however. Many people will still want to work because of the prestige and purpose associated with the scarce employment opportunities in an automated economy. Progressive labor policies could increase the amount of work sharing, giving more people the opportunity to do part-time and limited work that still leaves them with ample leisure time. And since the overall demand for human labor will rapidly shrink in an automated economy in any case, it would be a boon, not a problem, if large sections of the population decide to opt out of work entirely.
Obviously, there is a lot more work to be done in thinking through how forms of redistribution might preserve a broad-based middle class in a heavily automated economy. Nevertheless, the policy challenge is ultimately much less serious than the political challenge. The really daunting problem is not how to design tomorrow’s welfare state; it is to make political movements shaped in an industrial age, and only just starting to understand the political realities of a service economy, accept that a radically expanded form of welfare for the middle class will be needed in the automation age.
For now, most politicians on both the left and the right continue to believe that their constituents can preserve a broad middle class in the same way in which it was initially created: by means of a mass-labor economy that creates rapidly rising wages. But to help the middle class—and democracy—survive, politicians need to recognize that job creation can no longer be the principal tool, nor the foremost goal, of economic policy. Redistribution on a significant scale is indispensable.
But while redistribution is economically feasible, it is far from clear that it will be adopted in time—and the grounds for pessimism are especially strong in the United States.
The first and most significant reason why America may have special difficulty adapting has to do with campaign finance. A growing body of empirical research makes clear that wealthy donors have outsize power both in selecting their favorite candidates and in swaying actual policy outcomes. In America’s privately funded electoral system, which allows for unlimited contributions by the superrich, a small slice of very wealthy donors can thus play a powerful gatekeeping role, effectively disbarring any politician who threatens their interests. And since elites would be hard hit by any redistributive policy, they have strong material incentives to avoid redistribution—as well as strong psychological incentives to convince themselves (and the politicians they select) that people can adapt to the changing economic circumstances through small adjustments.
A second reason is that Americans are more reluctant than their European counterparts to turn to the state to solve their economic problems. This distrust in government has led to increased outsourcing and downsizing of government, which has effectively crippled the capacity of the state to accomplish the kind of necessary large-scale intervention that is needed to confront automation. Worse, it has limited the capacity of policymakers to build up their own in-house expertise, increasingly forcing them to rely on whatever policy resources are provided to them by the private sector. This may lead politicians to persist with proincumbent business policies that are no longer up to the task of dealing with the much more fundamental challenge facing us in the coming decades.
Finally, America has more veto powers than any other developed democracy, favoring continuity over change, and the worsening status quo over desperately needed experiments with new policies. All in all, the picture isn’t pretty. In a gridlocked two-party system, crippled by a massive lobbying community that has little incentive to embrace large-scale redistribution, the possibility for major action seems low indeed. The political challenges of the automation revolution are not only vast. Worryingly, they are of a kind that the American political system will find especially difficult to meet.
IF PESSIMISTIC predictions about the economic consequences of automation come to fruition, the future looks bleak. Even so, some hope remains. Democracies, after all, have proven surprisingly resilient in the past. In economic crises, leaders tend to dig in their heels, insisting on an increasingly pure form of their ideology. But when the crisis lasts long enough, their ideological rigidity can give way to surprising moments of flexibility, especially if public opinion demands it. In the age of the Great Depression, FDR challenged the conventional wisdom (even within his own party) that markets are self-correcting, and revolutionized the state’s role in the economy. In the stagflation of the 1970s, Nixon, to the horror of many Republicans, implemented wage and price controls.
Public-opinion trends suggest that the foundations for a similar moment of ideological flexibility are growing. With only a small number of Americans experiencing increases in their living standard, and a majority getting poorer, deep economic anxiety has spread throughout society. Under the right circumstances, that anxiety could be channeled into support for the kind of redistribution that the automation age will necessitate. Indeed, a much wider portion of the electorate already favors higher taxes on the rich and expanded welfare benefits for ordinary citizens than the manifestos of mainstream politicians would suggest. If the public were to vote directly, more redistribution would be adopted in a landslide.
Moreover, while the promise to create more jobs still dominates contemporary politics, citizens are undoubtedly open to a future in which they might be freed from the necessity of toil. The current crop of politicians may talk up job creation—but polls also show that most Americans don’t like their jobs. As one recent Gallup poll found, nearly 90 percent of workers described themselves as either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their work. A politician who would advocate unleashing the robots, promising a combination of generous welfare benefits and a radically shortened workweek—or even a universal basic income—might quickly build a substantial following.
Another reason to hope that there may be more potential for ideological flexibility in American politics than meets the eye is that both the left and the right can draw on their own traditions in imagining new departures. The left’s attachment to labor, for example, is long and it goes deep. And yet, work has, at the most fundamental level, always been the condition rather than the goal of its core constituency. At its origins, in the early nineteenth century, the left either condemned industrial society or saw it as a necessary step in the progression towards a materially plentiful future. The Luddites attacked the machines, the Utopian socialists imagined communities where toil would no longer be required, and even the mainstream of the worker’s movement long preserved the promise that work would eventually cease. Karl Marx not only predicted that the state would eventually fade away but that any need for real work would, too. The world in which one could decide to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and be a critical critic in the evening is, for all intents and purposes, the world of automation.
But just as the withering away of the state receded into an ever more distant future in real-world Communist regimes, so too did the withering away of work eventually drop out of the imagination of the global left. Since the voters of the left have, over centuries, spent much of their time at work, and since that work was often backbreaking, it is only natural that the left not only aimed to improve the conditions of that work—but also came to invest the activity itself with dignity and meaning. In this way, a movement that had been rooted in radical criticism of the degradation of the human spirit, involved in forcibly having to accept employment in a capitalist economy, slowly morphed into a movement devoted to expanding the number of people who would find employment in a capitalist economy.
Over the past decades, as the left’s historical constituency has shrunk, and stagnating living standards have bred ever-deeper anger against its traditional prescriptions, the left has started to lose support among poorer voters. It lacked a long-term vision that could grip the masses, while its policy prescriptions—even when sensible—were too technical to inspire devotion. That is why the automation revolution means not only a deep challenge but also a real opportunity for the left. The hope never to have to toil again has always been a deep part of the imagination of ordinary people. If the left can transform itself into a force that liberates ordinary people from the necessity of work, rather than promising policies that will marginally improve the nature and remuneration of that work, it can regain much of its lost vitality.
The right, too, has an alternative tradition it can draw upon to respond to the automation age. Originally, the most basic commitment of conservatives in the United States was to political, not economic, liberty. Conservatives have long feared that tyranny might begin to override the people’s right to govern itself, and that encroachments upon an individual’s right to think, speak and worship as he pleases would quickly follow suit. During the Cold War, as democracies were locked into an existential struggle with Communist regimes, the state’s meddling in the economy came to seem like the most potent threat to this kind of liberty. The road to serfdom, many Republicans now believe, starts with government regulation and redistribution. In the years since Communism ceased being a live threat, this economic focus has only intensified, in part because it serves the interests of economic elites—and of prolific donors to the Republican Party.
And yet, like the left, the American right can make a real contribution to confronting the automation age by drawing upon an alternative interpretation of its own tradition. Its economic views started out as a means of ensuring political freedom, not as an end in itself. By recognizing that an absence of economic redistribution now poses a greater threat to the maintenance of both self-government and individual rights than an excess of government meddling, it can come to accept new forms of redistribution as a necessary price for the maintenance of political liberties.
America is facing an economic future that will look very different from the recent past. So far, it has failed to understand its political implications. But in one crucial respect, the coming robot age is not so different from the world today: whether it turns out to be a good or a bad place for most human beings ultimately depends not on the material conditions of life but on the political response to them.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America and author of The Business of America is Lobbying. Yascha Mounk is a lecturer on government at Harvard University as well as a Carnegie Fellow at New America. He is currently working on a book about the crisis of liberal democracy.
Image: Inside the Tesla Motors factory. Flickr/Steve Jurvetson.