The fourth GOP presidential primary debate is worth noting in part because Marco Rubio sounded a note on the topic of our techno-future, which should be a central theme for all the candidates. Sadly, the note did not grow into a symphony.
Rubio observed that “If you raise the minimum wage, you're going to make people more expensive than a machine. And that means all this automation that's replacing jobs and people right now is only going to be accelerated.” Putting aside for the moment the ambiguous meaning of the word “replacing,” let’s note that it is best for businesses to decide how many humans versus machines to employ based on free-market prices rather than on prices distorted by governments. When governments drive up the cost to employ workers, fewer workers will be employed.
The line for which Rubio got the most attention concerning jobs was, “I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” Given that authoritarian, anti-reason leftist philosophers dominate academia, the fewer of them warping the minds of young people the better. But what is needed is philosophers who promote freedom and reason.
Rubio later picked up an aspect of our techno-future when he noted that “We are living through a massive economic transformation. . . . This economy is nothing like what it was like five years ago, not to mention 15 or 20 years ago. And it isn't just a different economy. It's changing faster than ever. . . . It took the telephone 75 years to reach 100 million users. It took Candy Crush one year to reach some 100 million users. So the world is changing faster than ever, and it is disruptive.”
The implications of Rubio’s observation are profound. Exponential technological change and the transformational effects on society and the economy should be a central focus of politicians and citizens alike.
Let’s put Rubio’s observation into its full context. The Industrial Revolution resulted in a greater explosion of wealth creation than in all of human history up to that time and produced our modern, prosperous world. It also resulted in urbanization, social upheavals, and challenges to existing institutions that, in turn, gave rise to reactions—Rousseau, religious reactionaries, Marx, and fascists.
Today, radical economic and social changes similar to those during the Industrial Revolution are in the offing because of exponential changes in technology already seen in the communications and information revolution. These changes could be even greater, with 3-D printing, robotics, bio-tech, nanotechnology, genetics, life extension, and transhumanism, to name a few.
But we will have at most decades and perhaps only years rather than centuries to deal with the resulting economic and social transformations. And if new reactionaries left and right step in to stop these changes, our hard-won modern world could collapse. Rubio rightly argued for eliminating many government regulations. Indeed, free markets and freedom from strangling government regulations are as important now as 200 years ago.
But some candidates don’t understand the reactionary nature of the policies they are promoting. For example, Ted Cruz, normally sound on domestic economic matters, offered this argument against open immigration: “The politics . . . will be very, very different if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande. Or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press.” But Cruz could make the same argument about machines and technology “replacing” American workers and driving down wages. This is the same argument made by trade protectionists. Allow imports of apparel and American workers will, in effect, be “replaced” by foreign workers actually working overseas, driving down wages for those Americans still making shirts and pants.
Machines, immigrants, and open markets, of course, all provide goods and services for less costs to American consumers and raise overall living standards. But even more important for our fast-moving techno-future, they point to the facts that we humans must first attend not to training ourselves for some particular job or vocation. We must train ourselves to think clearly, to look ahead, to be flexible, and to be entrepreneurial—not only in economic matters but in our entire lives. It is the ability to think and reason that allows entrepreneurs to create transformational technologies. And economic liberty is a necessary condition to usher in a more prosperous future.
Carly Fiorina made clear the mortal dangers our future faces when she explained, “Socialism starts when government creates a problem, and then government steps in to solve the problem.” It created a housing boom through banking mandates and money supply manipulation. When the housing and banking collapse resulted, it decided to further regulate banks, placing much of the burden on smaller banks, driving them out of business or into mergers. Now, statist politicians complain because there are too many big banks.
All candidates should appreciate, as Rubio and Fiorina seem to, that America has a fantastic, prosperous future ahead. But it will come to pass not because Republicans are elected who will then create jobs or promote job creation. Rather, policymakers of whatever party must get out of the way and allow individuals and new technologies to flourish in freedom.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.