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Tuesday, May 7, 2024

What Matt Walsh Gets Wrong about AI and Work

Replacing human labor with AI is nothing to be feared.

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore - Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

In a recent viral tweet, conservative pundit Matt Walsh proffered an “unpopular opinion” about AI that deserves some serious scrutiny. Reacting to a video showcasing an AI-powered Wendy’s drive thru, Walsh commented that this kind of technology should probably be illegal.

“Unpopular opinion (among conservatives anyway) but there probably needs to be laws against this,” the Daily Wire pundit observed. “AI is going to wipe out 80 percent of the jobs on the planet if we don’t do something.”

Ashley St. Clair, a conservative author and influencer, was one of many high-profile figures to offer a response. “Call me idealistic but that lends a lot of room for us to get more autonomy back and create beauty again,” she wrote. “There will also be a plethora of new industries created that will hopefully replace the obsolete jobs.”

Walsh’s response to St. Clair is almost more concerning than his original take. “I think experience shows us that humans, on the whole, don’t ‘create beauty’ when they have nothing to do,” he wrote. “We’ve seen what happens as we become less necessary and have less to do. It’s not a pretty picture. A world where AI does everything will be bleak beyond all imagining.”

There’s a lot to unpack in this reply, but let’s start with the original tweet.

What’s So Bad about Technology Replacing Jobs?

Walsh’s concern about jobs being lost due to technological development is nothing new. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, people have been raising concerns that technology would “take jobs” and leave many out of work. One of the earliest groups to raise these concerns was the Luddites, a 19th-century group of English textile workers who opposed the use of machinery in their trade because it was being used to replace workers. The term “Luddite” has since become a pejorative for someone who opposes labor-saving technological advances—one that Walsh has clearly earned with this take.

The issue with Luddism is that it gets in the way of economic progress. Technology is an immensely powerful tool for improving our standard of living, and much of the prosperity we enjoy today is a result of technological advances that replaced human labor with machine labor. If we had refused to adopt any new technology that would have replaced human workers, we wouldn’t be nearly as well-off as we are today. And if we restrict the new technologies of today, such as AI, we would likewise be setting ourselves up for economic stagnation. It would be like insisting workers dig with shovels (or spoons!) instead of modern machinery, because doing so would maintain a high number of digging jobs.

True, technological development means that some jobs are made obsolete. But this is nothing new, and nothing to be afraid of. In 1840, 63 percent of US workers worked in agriculture. Today, that number is 1.4 percent, largely thanks to the development of tractors and other technologies. So what happened to all the workers who lost their jobs? They found new ones! Entire new occupations and entire economic sectors that never existed before came into being.

As long as people still have desires that are going unmet and that could be satisfied with human labor, there will always be jobs to do. So being replaced by a machine doesn’t mean you can never work again. It just means you might need to start doing a different kind of work.

Too Much, Too Fast?

One common response to this point is that, yes, people will eventually find new jobs, but technological development is taking place on such a massive scale and at such a rapid pace that we won’t be able to adjust fast enough. Technology will wipe out millions of jobs overnight, we are told, and it will take those people years to develop new skills, leading to tremendous hardship in the interim period.

While it’s certainly true that the transition may not be smooth for everyone, these fears seem overblown. There will still be plenty of opportunities to work odd jobs that require minimal skill while people pursue various job-training pathways, so it’s not like millions of people will just be unemployed for years while we wait for the job market to adjust.

Now, to be candid, people who invested in a skillset that is no longer valuable on the market may have to adapt to a lower standard of living for some time. But this is the reality of a market economy. Investing in a skillset is a kind of entrepreneurial venture, and if it turns out that the market doesn’t value your kind of work at the price you were expecting, there comes a point where you simply need to accept that you made a bad investment and adapt.

As the economist Ludwig von Mises wrote in his 1949 economic treatise Human Action, “In training himself the worker becomes a speculator and entrepreneur. The future state of the market will determine whether profit or loss results from his investment.”

The alternative is that we guarantee a disruption-free career to everyone, which in practice means refusing to allow the economy to incorporate new technology and thus majorly stalling economic growth. This is not a better solution, no matter how compassionate it may sound. Overall, we are better off when we let the market do its job, even when that creates some short-term pain for those who made poor job-market forecasts.

As Mises wrote elsewhere in Human Action:

It is certainly true that the necessity to adjust oneself again and again to changing conditions is onerous. But change is the essence of life. In an unhampered market economy the absence of security, i.e. the absence of protection for vested interests, is the principle that makes for a steady improvement in material well-being.

Misreading History

Having said all that, it’s worth noting that Walsh doesn’t seem to be making the rate-of-change argument. But then we come back to the original question: why be concerned about AI wiping out 80 percent of jobs?

One possibility is that he thinks the people who lose their jobs will just be permanently unemployed and thus destitute, but as we’ve seen with agriculture in the past two centuries, that’s just not true.

The other possibility is the one he raises in his reply to St. Clair: keeping people working is important for its own sake.

The thinking would go as follows. Yes, the people who get laid off because of technology will eventually find new jobs, but there will be less work for humans in general. We could have the same standard of living with a lot less expenditure of human labor. This means that, on average, people would likely work far fewer hours, perhaps as low as 10 hours per week instead of 34.4.

This, according to Walsh, would be a dreadful thing. Consider his comment again:

I think experience shows us that humans, on the whole, don’t “create beauty” when they have nothing to do. We’ve seen what happens as we become less necessary and have less to do. It’s not a pretty picture. A world where AI does everything will be bleak beyond all imagining.

Walsh is here preaching one of the most pernicious ideas in all of conservatism, the idea that we shouldn’t make life too easy on ourselves because it’s important for people to be industrious. Make no mistake, Walsh is against significant amounts of economic progress because he believes that working hard is good for you and you’ll mess up your life if you have too much free time. He wants prosperity, but not too much. Or, more accurately, his vision of prosperity is one where people toil at a job for most of their life. (A perspective that is more easily embraced by someone who tweets and makes videos for a living than by a bricklayer or construction worker.)

Oh, and he’s intent on imposing that vision on everyone because realizing his labor-venerating view of society is more important to him than respecting people’s freedom and autonomy.

More to the point, Walsh has human history precisely backwards. Experience shows, overwhelmingly, that material well-being and the leisure time it facilitates are not a hindrance, but a critical prerequisite for creating beauty. We have absolutely seen what happens as human labor becomes less necessary. It’s a stunning picture.

Is there a sense in which idle hands can be the devil’s workshop? Sure. But “on the whole,” having less to do has led to amazing results.

By embracing labor-saving technology, people in the 19th and 20th centuries became much more prosperous, which meant they didn’t have to spend as much time working. They became “less necessary” and had “less to do.” The result was the greatest proliferation of beauty, science, wisdom, and art that mankind has ever seen.

Mises thus comments in Human Action:

The nineteenth century was not only a century of unprecedented improvement in technical methods of production and in the material well-being of the masses. It did much more than extend the average length of human life. Its scientific and artistic accomplishments are imperishable. It was an age of immortal musicians, writers, poets, painters, and sculptors; it revolutionized philosophy, economics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. And, for the first time in history, it made the great works and the great thoughts accessible to the common man.

The world of toil and struggle that preceded the Industrial Revolution—the world where people were more necessary and had more to do—is what’s truly bleak. As Mises writes:

It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchens and the children from their play. These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation.

Matt Walsh thinks too much leisure time is bad for you and for society. He sees AI as a threat precisely because it would relieve us from having to work so much. But the truth is, AI represents a massive opportunity for us to break free from soul-deadening work like never before.

This is not the time to romanticize poverty.

Additional Reading:

Robots Are Not Your Economic Enemy by Joseph Michael Newhard

What the New York Times Gets Wrong about Automation by Saul Zimet

The War on Self-Checkouts Is Economically Backward by David Youngberg

  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.