Confession: I am a technology junkie. Over a week ago we had the storm of the century here with 100-mile-an-hour winds on our ridgetop, and power was knocked out for everyone in our area, some for almost a week. We had a blip in our electricity, but thanks to these puppies (and the foresight of my husband), our lights stayed on and the meat in our freezer didn’t thaw:
That’s the good news. The bad news—and the reason why you haven’t seen me around here much for a few days, if at all—is that the T-1 line was put out of commission and the phone company took its sweet time getting around to permanently fixing it since we are rural and don’t rank up there with the important customers in the suburbs. I have to admit that I had some blogging/internet withdrawals, but I also found that I got a whole lot more reading done when I had no other choice of how to spend my time.
In this week’s edition of the Economics in One Lesson (a title which is a bit misleading) book discussion, there are several aspects of economics which were addressed in chapters 7-12: machinery (what we might call “technology”), employment, government programs and bureaucracy, production, tariffs and foreign aid, and exports. That’s a lot to cover and even though the chapters are shorts, it’s a lot to absorb when just reading it, let alone sorting out for a discussion. I haven’t looked too closely at what others have written yet as I don’t want to be a copycat, but I suspect the things I focus on here may be similar to what some of the others are discussing.
I began with talking about my fondness for technology because the chapter that stood out the most to me was the first one (chapter 7) which talked about the arguments for and against technological progress (machines). Hazlitt is fer it, not a agin it. I agree with him but with some very serious reservations and also with the caveat that I think he has some big blind spots in this area, perhaps not entirely his fault, not being able to foresee the way some technology is used to avoid responsibility and to insulate from reality, though I think his intellectual heirs are a bit too fond of their system to admit some of its defects.
What do I mean? He uses Luddite examples from history (i.e., pin makers and stocking makers) to make the case that free market encouragement of labor-saving devices will have a “net” result of greater freedom and benefit the most people…in the long run. I think he’s right to a great extent, but I also think he and other classical economists, in their desire to point out the very real pitfalls of government restrictions on industry and invention also forget the very real long-term effects of unbridled materialism and harm to families when we go too far the other direction.
What to do, what to do? As Steve likes to say, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, nor do I think you want to. After all, we are all benefitting by having this very discussion on our computers. But, as I pointed out, I miss out on some beneficial reading by spending too much time on my computer. Hazlitt points out in defense of technology, “people can now afford to work fewer hours, while children and the overaged no longer need to work.” The down side of that is, we don’t expect children to make economic contributions any longer to our households and instead encourage them to be indolent; and “old” people expect to retire and often live indolent lives even though they are still quite capable of working, creating a financial burden of another sort on those who are still employed. A kind of dignity once afforded both groups is now diminished as we go too far in the other direction.
To be fair, we must admit that Hazlitt, in section 4 of this chapter, does admit there is a negative effect on special groups when the “long view” of economics is pursued, though he is mostly concerned with not focusing too much on that and does not give any advice about how to ameliorate it. I think(?) all of us would agree that it’s not the job of the government to protect these groups by stealing from another group that is doing well economically. I think we might all agree that it’s not the usually job of the government to place restrictions on development of technology (unless it pertains to horrors such as stem-cell research involving aborted babies, or genetic research of Frankensteinian proportions, for example).
It should be noted that when Hazlitt refers to the government getting involved in economic transactions, I believe he is mostly referring to the national government, and I wonder if his views would be any different if we were talking about the involvement of local governments in some of these discussions.
I am not sure that technology is amoral. The examples I give above are obvious, but others are more murky. Some “machines” may be, of themselves, more innocuous, until we look at some of their unintended consequences. I am in great sympathy with my agrarian friends, for example, who are concerned about how music is made for us through the “entertainment” industry so much that families no longer make music together. Food is so processed and public eateries so ubiquitous, that the skill of cooking and the practice of sharing meals together is being lost. So many are basking in the glow of their television and computer screens that they have forgotten how to talk with one another (or read books), including losing the ability to argue and work out problems as they don’t have the patience or skill in communicating with each other any longer. The downside to technology in all these instances is that there is a lost of relationship in families, in communities.
This isn’t necessarily inevitable, but I think it’s a natural result of our sinfulness that we will indulge ourselves too much in a “good” thing and abuse it. It’s common knowledge (especially if you are familiar with spy thrillers) that many otherwise innocuous inventions are examined for their potential to be used in weapons against enemies. And while we look for labor saving devices to make our lives easier, they can also become a burden to us as we forget how to engage in work that produces honest sweat and that doesn’t allow us to be islands unto ourselves. I think fixing this will take a lot of self-discipline, but I sure don’t want any government programs to tinker with it one way or the other, which is why I agree with Hazlitt that the consequences of the state propping up the old order in order to prevent any hardship on displaced workers would be disastrous. Double dittos for any kind of totalitarian requirements for people to opt in to modern conveniences in order to be good citizens. I’ve seen this happen with families who try to live off the grid being turned in to the authorities because they don’t have a certain standard of living for their children.
It’s because of technology that my husband is able to be at home with our family in a rural setting, telecommuting rather than sitting in a “cube farm” in a big city. He is not a victim of overspecialization, though he is a specialist in his field and well-respected for it, as he also knows how to converse with others, preach a sermon, work on a vehicle, design a dwelling, install sheet rock, work on electrical wiring, and many other practical pursuits. He is also full of pithy sayings, hitting the nail on the head, so to speak. I have more questions than answers, except to say that I think Hazlitt’s correct that government only botches what it tries to fix, but I also have many qualms with a blanket assertion that technology always benefits us. We need to define “benefit.” I think we ought to be cautious and evaluate how we use or abuse technology, perhaps doing a “cost-benefit” analysis as to how it will affect our family and to what extent we should embrace various technologies, so they don’t rule us but serve us instead.
This discussion is continuing through Cindy’s site. She has wisely suggested that if we have further things to say about other chapters, we should feel free to add other posts and link later, and I will hopefully do this to discuss foreign aid and tariffs (mercantilism). I hope you will try to read the other posts as this is a fascinating discussion about things that really do affect our real lives.