Luddites: the Pretty Machine Hate with the Aftertaste from Hell

Every once in a while, the mainstream media attempts (and spectacularly fails) to describe globalization.

Today’s piece in the NYT by David Leonhardt is no exception. It explores some of the growing acceptance among economists that increased competition with lower-wage workers (surprise) negatively impacts living standards in the US.

But then it paints a naturalistic account of “globalization” as a “universal force” that cannot be remedied from Washington. (Nevermind that these patterns of low-wage competition were created by policy, nor that nations have different approaches to globalization today that seem to affect socioeconomic outcomes.)

Okay, these are all very contemporary and topical social issues, and so long as no one brings plagiarism charges against the hackneyed reporting, I guess we’ll continue to see stories like this every few months.

But there is one tic of political reporting that I would like us all to do away with, and that’s bashing of Luddites. Leonhardt reports:

Previous periods of rapid economic change also created problems that seemed to be permanent but were not. Neither the cotton gin nor the steam engine nor the automobile created mass unemployment.

“When technology reduces the need for certain kinds of labor, we know that some inventive people will one day come along and find a way to use that freed-up labor making things that other people want to buy,” said Mr. Friedman, the economic historian. “That’s what in the long run made the Luddites wrong.”

He added, “How long does it take the Luddites to be wrong — a few years, a decade, a couple of decades?”

Can we just leave these poor people alone? I know of no one that subscribes to a machine-breaking philosophy, and the last organized expression of the tradition was wiped out by execution nearly 200 years ago. By picking on people that aren’t around to defend themselves, the commentariat gets away with engaging with reality.

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