Future Trend: Servility!

Robots and Social Equality: In Reason, Ronald Bailey concedes that “automation has taken over a lot of the routine physical and intellectual tasks that once were done by middle-income workers.” This has “resulted in a more polarized economy, where highly skilled workers in such fields as infotech and biotech are richly rewarded while a greater proportion of the workforce toil at relatively lower-paying service jobs.” [E.A.]

But don’t worry! The prosperity created by robotic achievements will lead to  “a rising demand for services, involving non-routine tasks in which workers have a comparative advantage over machines—ones requiring interpersonal interaction, flexibility, adaptability, and problem-solving. ”

Like, what services, for example? Bailey cites MIT economist David Autor:

Work, he argues, is evolving away from assembly-line rigidity and back toward a more pre-industrial paradigm populated by “new artisans.” Perhaps more chefs will prepare fine meals in the homes of clients, dramatists devise elaborate virtual environments as entertainment, tailors create one-of-kind bespoke garments. [E.A.]

Hmm. Notice anything about these “pre-industrial” jobs? Maybe that at least two of the three involve a servile relationship to someone on the right side of the “more polarized economy”?  One reason arguments like Bailey’s seem so sterile and unconvincing is that he (like many libertarians) doesn’t even consider that this might be a problem.

Maybe there’s an answer to this fear of servility, After all, some servants are upwardly mobile rather than self-effacing ( see: Affleck, Ben; nanny). And if everybody is providing artisanal services to everybody else, one man’s master one day can be his bespoke tailor the next. In theory. But it’s hard to see how a polarized economy produces that sort of universal hybrid part-time servility — especially when many people who have the skills to work effectively on an assembly line don’t have the skills for “adaptability and problem solving,” let alone sucking up to clients in their homes.

I say worry.

P.S.: And no, mass unskilled immigration won’t help.