Monday, February 9, 2015

Machinery Hurtful to Commonalty

Luddites weren't wrong about losing their jobs, they were just wrong about the economy losing jobs in aggregate. -- Dietrich Vollrath
The Luddites couldn't have been "wrong" because they had no such opinion on "the economy" or "aggregate jobs." The Luddites were also not wrong about quantum mechanics or Freudian psychoanalysis. They had no anticipatory opinions on concepts that didn't exist yet. Nor did they travel 58 years back in time to burn down John Kay's house.

Dietrich Vollrath isn't just wrong about what the Luddites were wrong about. He is also propagating a myth whose ultimate target is to deny the right of workers "to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection..."

Perhaps Vollrath isn't aware that the fable he is repeating is part of an historical complex of ideological assertions whose gestalt is readily discernable. By the end of the nineteenth century, the connection between Luddite machine breaking and trade union restriction of output had become British upper-class conventional wisdom. A typical example of the "Luddite fallacy" argument against labor unions is found in Benjamin Taylor's 1901 article, "How Trade Unionism Affects British Industries":
The great object in British Trade Union production is the dissipation of labor -- which is waste. This is the central idea of the 'machine question' among the engineers, of the eight-hours-day movement, of the miners' weekly 'idle day.' The less each man does for his wages, the more will there be for other men to do for the same wages -- so they foolishly think, as if there were a common wage fund into which every man can dip, share and share alike with his neighbor. This is why all labor-saving machinery is still hated by British workingmen, almost as much as it was in the days of the Luddites. Men do not smash machine-tools now-a-days, it is true; but they manage to get the minimum of work out of them, and to extract the maximum pay for attending to them.
Lancashire magistrate Dorning Rasbotham pioneered the portrait of factory rioters and machine breakers as hapless technological illiterates in his 1780 tract, Thoughts on the Use of Machines in the Cotton Manufacture. I chronicled the 19th progression of Dorning's platitude in "A Cheap Market Will Always Be Full of Customers." In Supply Creates Its Own Demon, I examined in depth and at length the inexorable and vertiginous connection between the Say's so-called Law, the lump-of-labor (Luddite) fallacy and the Jevons Paradox. But there is more.

Keep in mind that "combinations" of workers were illegal in England in 1811. So not only did frame weavers encounter higher prices, lower wages and mass unemployment but it was against the law to try to do anything about it. Under the circumstances, one "might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb." It was the actions of the machine owners rather than the machines themselves that incited the Luddites to violent retaliation. Whether the violence was justified or not, it was customary and it was provoked.

But, as Benjamin Taylor conceded, "Men do not smash machine-tools now-a-days..." Instead, they promote "labor market rigidities" through collective bargaining and worker protective regulations. In Taylor's view, unions were "neither more nor less than organizations for the restraint of labor and the curtailment of production." That is the subtext of the Luddite fallacy fable.

But what could all this possibly have to do with denying modern-day collective bargaining rights? Stay tuned for "Green, Black and Blue: How the Wagner Act bird hatched from a Thirty-Hour egg."