All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1964

Are We Enslaved by Machines?


Miss Cross is a free-lance writer, residing in France.

Are men “enslaved by machines”? It is important to get at the truth or falsity of this idea, because it leads to legislation that affects all of us. People who are concerned about men’s slavery to machines nearly always see it as a social question which can be solved by putting the right laws into effect.

The essence of slavery lies in serving or performing work un­willingly for another. The “oth­er” may be a person or idea. If it is a person, we have a contest of wills. If it is an influence or idea, the contest will lie within the individual and the bondage is nec­essarily voluntary to some degree. As Dr. Ludwig von Mises has so clearly set forth in Human Action, we always do what we want to do, in the sense of choosing the most desirable—or least undesirable—alternative of those available to us.

Can a man, then, be “enslaved by a machine”? No, he cannot: a machine is neither a person nor an idea; it is a thing. And a thing has no stick to beat us with if we ignore it, nor can a thing have any effect on our conscience.

If a man voluntarily uses a machine to help him create new things from raw materials, he is not enslaved by his helper. The machine has neither will, nor pow­er that is independent of that which man has constructed it to produce or use. It is serving the man, perhaps replacing a slave, but certainly not enslaving its owner.

If the owner is bound by natural laws to do certain things in order to keep his machine in working order (oil it, for example), he still is not a slave to his machine. First, it is a voluntary act; sec­ond, it is not the machine that de­mands the care, but his own desire to keep it in use.

Suppose a man invents a ma­chine that cuts and assembles shoes faster than he could do the job by hand. By putting out a larger quantity, he is able to reduce the price per pair and under­sell his old friend who is still mak­ing shoes by hand. The latter gradually loses business until he is forced to close shop and seek work elsewhere. And the man with the machine now has to work six­teen hours a day managing his rapidly expanding business.

Has either of these men been en­slaved by the new machine? Many persons would answer that both of them have, so, let’s take a close look.

Mr. Smart invented a tool to help him. It works for him, and he is glad to be relieved of such drudgery as cutting out shoe soles by hand. He is willing to go on managing his growing business, even work more hours, because of the higher financial rewards (prof­its). With these, he can arrange for future vacations; his children can have a better education; his wife can have greater comforts at home.

He may complain about the long hours, but if the business is really a success, he could sell it or hire a manager. Or he could even go back to making shoes by hand. From his actions, we must assume that he is not working involuntarily for a machine; it is serving him.

A philosopher may say that Mr. Smart is a “slave” to the idea of getting rich, or of improving his condition; or a “slave” to the ne­cessity of earning a living. But even if true, they are not forms of “slavery” that can be successfully dealt with by government action.

This may be made clear by dis­cussing the other cobbler, Mr. Craft. What has happened to him? His will or desire was to go on making shoes by hand. He enjoyed his work and was proud of his craft. It was against his will that business fell off, finally forcing him to close his shop and look else­where for work.

Social Coercion?

According to one point of view, what happened to Mr. Craft is an injustice that has a social cause, and therefore requires a social remedy. It was the economic power gained by Mr. Smart when he in­vented his machine that forced Mr. Craft to do something against his will or desire. “No one,” ac­cording to such a view, “has a right to use economic power to harm others. Mr. Craft has a right to go on being a cobbler if he wants to. He has been driven to involuntary servitude by a ma­chine.”

But does anyone have a right to use social power (the law) to harm others? That is the inevit­able result of forcing consumers to support a cobbler just because he wants to be one. Must we then support the woman who makes unsalable pictures from thousands of bits of postage stamps glued on a board to represent birds or flowers—just because that’s all she wants to do? Or a man who makes horseshoes where there are no horses—just because he likes to work with iron?

It is true that Mr. Craft was constrained to make a choice when business fell off. But he was forced to act by the necessity of earning a living—a natural necessity, neither socially imposed, nor im­posed by the will of Mr. Smart. The cobbler was forced to choose by the failure of customers to seek him out and pay his prices.

Further, Mr. Craft was not at any time under bondage to either Mr. Smart or his machine. Even if he later got a job in Mr. Smart’s shoe factory, the machine would still be helping him earn a living—serving him, not he serving it. Therefore, Mr. Craft was neither enslaved by Mr. Smart nor “en­slaved by a machine.”

What Can Be Done?

This is not the end of the prob­lem, however. Granting that we are in sympathy with Mr. Craft, and would like to do something for him, what can be done?

Nature has imposed the neces­sity of earning a living. Society can relieve a member of this bur­den in only two ways: 1) by vol­untary means: gifts, inheritance, private charity; 2) by involun­tary means: theft, or by using government as the instrument to collect and redistribute the funds. Note that in any case the burden does not disappear but is only shifted from one back to another.

Mr. Craft could become the ben­eficiary of unemployment compen­sation, which necessarily calls forth the involuntary service (slavery) of others for his bene­fit through forcible collection of taxes.

But perhaps there is another way for government to help Mr. Craft in the name of society with­out imposing this injustice on everyone. Mr. Craft’s business might survive if Mr. Smart didn’t reduce prices. Couldn’t the gov­ernment help through price con­trol?

To set a minimum price means that those who buy shoes are forced, against their wills, and against natural conditions, to pay more for shoes than is necessary. Only the arbitrary intervention of the government causes this injus­tice. And it is an injustice, though it costs each of us only a few pennies per shoe, because we otherwise could have that money to spend on something else. It is an injustice to all sellers who will not be able to sell their goods be­cause this money that would have been available to help them earn their livelihood was diverted by government intervention for the special benefit of the cobbler.

Men, not natural necessity, have created this method of spreading injustice or slavery to a whole society.

I am sorry that anyone has to work to eat; sorry that not every­one can work at the craft or art he prefers; sorry that anyone is weak, or ill, or not very intelligent. But I am not sorry that some are able to live on gifts from others; nor that some are strong and healthy and intelligent to the point of genius. Not at all! Why try to destroy that which is good, out of sympathy for that which is undesirable?

Examples of Enslavement by Subsidy or Intervention

We seldom recognize the extent to which we are indeed “enslaved” by subsidy or intervention. When government keeps interest rates lower than the free market rate, numerous investments are made in machines and for other things that are economically unsound. Raw materials are used to pro­duce things that people are not willing to pay for—unless they are given a subsidy in turn.

We are truly enslaved to the ex­tent that we have involuntarily paid for storage bins bursting with rotting grain, for ships in mothballs, for goods and services poured into foreign countries that later insult us and drive us out, for rockets to the moon. We are enslaved by people who benefit from postal subsidies. Every work­ing taxpayer is a slave to every farmer who gets a subsidy for not growing grain.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter when it’s such a little bit. I’m not aware of being poorer than I might be,” is a stock response to these facts.

But think about it. In the United States, all governments combined spend nearly a third of the national income. If you earned $300 last month, then government—for somebody’s alleged benefit—took nearly $100. It won’t show up in your paycheck that way. But, besides what is withheld, every­thing you buy has taxes hidden in the price. Would you contribute that much voluntarily? Or have you other uses for that $100?

Whatever barriers to trade the government imposes in the name of society, with the sincere inten­tion of promoting justice, will not only fail in that purpose but will impose further injustice on many. All become slaves of the few in the sense of involuntary servitude, of performing work for another against one’s will, of being under bondage to the will of another per­son or persons.

Abolishing Machines: A Retreat to the Cave

But some take an entirely differ­ent approach to the problem. They would restrict the use of machines for other reasons. They find them noisy, dirty, ugly, poisoning the air, spoiling the landscape—a general burden and a curse. Those people think it would be ideal to go back to the days when each homestead was self-sufficient, bak­ing homemade bread, growing its own corn, smoking its own bacon, spinning its own cotton, making its own entertainment at home.

Despite certain virtues in the pioneers’ struggle to better their conditions, would many today be willing to live in a world without mechanical aids? To be rid of un­pleasant by-products of civiliza­tion, they would have to give up the advantages as well, both ma­terial and spiritual. Carried to its logical conclusion, abolishing ma­chines would take us back to the caves, without even a bow or a firestick.

Imagine the man who has just invented an effective bow, coming home with a haunch of the first deer ever taken by bow and arrow. His mate greets him from the cave.

“Back so soon?” she growls. “You haven’t had time to go to the pit and back. Lazy good-for-nothing! There’s hardly a strip of bison left, and it’s so dry the little ones can’t chew it.”

“Hush, till you see what I’ve brought.”

“I suppose you found an old dead one that’s too tough to eat.” She follows him outside, where children of all sizes are already surrounding the haunch, ready to help cut it into strips when it is skinned. She darts over, shoving them aside, to poke and sniff the meat.

“This long stick killed it,” he said. “See,” he showed the chil­dren, “I put the little spear on the vine and—watch!” The little spear goes sailing to the edge of the clearing to stick quivering in the earth, far beyond where his throw­ing-stick could reach.

Yes, the invention of the bow to fling his short spear farther, harder, faster, more accurately than his throwing-stick gave late Paleolithic man a precious gift: more time. More time to store up reserves of food; more time to spend teaching his children vital skills; more time to draw, think, wonder.

Was he then “enslaved” by the bow? He certainly became depen­dent on it. And it eventually put out of business those skilled at making and using throwing-sticks. Though men for a time continued to hunt in groups, a man alone could now travel farther afield, explore more of his environment, de­velop his individual talents more easily, become more civilized, less savage.

When I told a friend, an engi­neer, the title of this piece, he was puzzled that such a question could seriously arise.

“But machines are a boon,” he said. “They’re impersonal, just mechanical aids to help do a job or make things faster than we could do otherwise. They’re a boon to man.”

He is right. And thanks to sav­ings invested in capital goods of all kinds, we not only can make things faster, but we can provide things which otherwise would not exist. First in importance is food and clothing. This means more hu­man beings can come into life, and survive, within a given period of time.

A Bare Subsistence

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth cen­tury, well over 90 per cent of the population were engaged in agri­culture. Those were times of want and misery for the vast majority of the English population. They labored from dawn far past sun­set, at the mercy of the weather, and paid a large part of their pro­duce to landlords and as taxes. Many were too poor to afford to eat the chickens they kept, the eggs produced, or meat more than once a week—or once a month in bad times.

As the Industrial Revolution got under way, women and children worked in factories and mines be­cause otherwise the family could not have survived on what one man could then earn or produce. Gravestones in old cemeteries and other records reveal that mothers often bore 16 or 20 babies, only to have most of them die within two or three years. Perhaps only three or four would reach adulthood. But a century later, there were families with ten or twelve or even sixteen living children, well on their way to maturity. Many of these worked in factories or in cot­tage industries on rented machin­ery. But they were keeping alive.

This is not to imply that there were no injustices: there were serious ones. But they were not caused by machines.

Little by little those roaring steam engines, the stocking frames and spinning jennies, the turret lathes and milling machines, began to enable a man to produce enough surplus to raise his wages. Men could eventually support their family despite laws diminishing child labor and restricting women to lighter work.

Many well-meaning people have felt that industrial workers for over a century were enslaved by machines. They also complained about the long hours (not so long as on the farm), lack of air, light, sanitary facilities (none on the farm), insufficient time off for meals or rest, lack of safety pre­cautions.

But a great many employers were neither careless nor unjust, nor even unsympathetic. There was little they could do about many of the undesirable things until later. Not until savings and tools, mak­ing possible greater output per man and inventions of new tools, had run through numerous cycles could men afford to reduce work­ing hours and attempt other re­forms.

Today, economists see the pro­grammed, self-correcting, com­pletely automatic assembly lines—not as monsters designed to cre­ate unemployment—but as won­derful means to release men and women from the boredom and drudgery of endlessly repeated op­erations. There is a tremendous advance in safety, too. The tech­nician who observes a process, per­haps through closed-circuit televi­sion, will not lose a hand in the gears, or burn out his lungs by breathing chemically dirty air. And the ever-dwindling number of unskilled workers live far better and have more purchasing power than their grandfathers had, be­cause automation has cut costs.

Half the employed persons in the United States are now en­gaged in service industries. The tremendous significance of that fact has escaped the columnists and headline-writers. Half the working population is now doing—with the help of machines—what used to be done by wife and children and servants, who went on working 14 hours a day at home long after such hours were outlawed in factories. Many of these modern services were left undone before. Machines give men and women leisure to form Art Leagues, study for Ph.D.’s, and take their children to Europe, in­stead of baking and sewing, chop­ping wood, and plowing their acres.

Gaining Time

What do time and machines and slavery have to do with each other? To begin with, a slave’s time is not his own. And it is ma­chines that free man from bond­age to time. There is a miracle here, if we could only appreciate it.

A famous visitor from the USSR a few years ago was puzzled at the sight of America’s richest farming lands. “Where are all the workers?” he asked.

Most of the workers—and the horses as well—were reflected in the horsepower that ran tractors, combines, and harvesting machines. In his country it takes one of every two workers to produce food for the rest, and not much of it at that. In the USA only one out of ten work to produce more than enough food. What an in­credible amount of time to do other things we are given by farm machinery alone!

That visitor from the USSR was Mr. Khrushchev, who perhaps has come to see the vital link between capital goods and time, between time-saving and progress. East Europe magazine of November 1963 quotes him to the effect that trading with the West can provide the USSR with “quicker fulfill­ment of its program for the con­struction of new chemical enter­prises without wasting time on creation of plans and mastering of the production of new types of equipment.” (Italics added.)

“Time is omnipresent in human action as a means that must be economized,” Murray Rothbard tells us in Man, Economy and State (p. 11). Capital goods are those on which man has expended his labor and his time. Raw ma­terials can be turned into capital goods, that is, made more useful to man, in less time by the use of machines. That means there is more for everyone sooner, even for those who have no capital, sav­ings, tools, or raw materials them­selves!

We all have a more abundant life to the extent that we are freed from bondage to time. Machines help us do this; so it is vital for future progress, whether at ma­terial or spiritual levels, to under­stand how we bring these helps into being. The people of under­developed countries would like to make the magic operate there too.

The principle is simple: men who have hope of bettering their condition bring this progress into being. When men feel secure in their honestly gained property, they save money or goods or ma­terials that are then combined to form new capital goods—things which never existed before.

These daily miracles of trans­formation come about when men have hope of a greater profit in the future than they would obtain by spending in the present. With­out this hope, the miracle doesn’t happen. And the wider the area of freedom to produce new goods by voluntary cooperation, the more time-creating miracles occur.

Given personal freedom, hope, free exchange in the market place (without threats or subsidies), and security of life and property, men will not then be enslaved by other men. Nor will men be “en­slaved by machines.” Instead, they will see that machines are indeed “a boon to man.”