For the past few weeks, I have been playing with the following argument. Tell me what you think:
In the past year, fuelled by Trump’s fiery rhetoric as well as the left, a lot has been said against trade, especially framing it as the cause for the decrease of manufacturing jobs in the United States or Canada. But the truth is, trade played a much lesser role than decades of efficiency gains due to automation and information technologies. Although most of us do not realize that fact, the US has never produced as much industrial goods as they do now, with the big difference being that they produce all of it with less workers than before.
Let us consider the following abstract case:
- 20 years ago, 200 workers built 200 tractors.
- Now, because of efficiency gains, 150 workers are able to build 210 tractors, while the other 50 workers are fired.
On one hand, we should be happy that we can produce more with less work, it really is a progress. But of course, this leaves behind 50 people into unemployment and poverty. These people and their families will be left in dreadful conditions until they find other jobs, which despite the recurrent promises of future growth and retraining, will not happen for many of them.
However, instead of fighting job losses, I would suggest that maybe the most important thing we could do would be to raise taxes on the rich. What does taxes have to do with unemployed workers? Well, in our example, the gain of producing slightly more tractors with less expenses is clearly not received by the 50 who have lost their jobs, nor the 150 workers left (the real income for most workers have stagnated over the last decades despite significant growth). Instead, it goes to the owners (whether a single person or multiple stock-holders). But here is the thing: the owners are not necessarily working longer than before, having better marketing strategies or more genius insights. They have simply been allowed to capture all the benefits from our society’s efficiency gains.
This is why taxes and redistribution are essential, and now more than ever. We must make sure that the owners still get a share of the efficiency gains, but the same goes for the workers who continue to work, and perhaps more importantly, we must make sure that those who are displaced from the workforce are not left with nothing for their sacrifice. For they are, in a very real way, sacrificing themselves for the benefit of the whole by no longer working.
Politicians on the right have long argued that redistribution toward the unemployed promotes laziness and weakens the country, but actually, more and more, our gains in efficiency in the industrial sector force people out of work in a way that has nothing to do with their will to work or their talents—and the same was true in past centuries in the farming sector. Full employment might not be a coherent goal after all. We probably should not have everybody producing goods and services on the market, since there is a point at which the consumers do not need 2 more tractors each, or a new phone every week. In other words, our efficiency is so great that it must now manifest as less work rather than evermore output. And thus, unemployment, if handled correctly, could be a good sign for all of us, rather than an indicator of economic, political and ethical failure.
And this issue is particularly significant, since all signs point to a 21st century in which unemployment will be quite high despite maximal production. In such a context, using taxation to compensate those who are kept out of work actually makes a lot of sense, for the sake of growing a better economy, of attaining social justice and of preventing crime, instability and riots—which are likely to happen as we leave more and more people without any access to our society’s wealth (we must never forget that most countries are getting richer every years, even though many of us are being cut off from this wealth).
Therefore, the right should recognize the sacrifice of the unemployed, instead of further alienating them, and the left should focus on making unemployment bearable for the millions it will unavoidably affect, instead of vainly fighting solely to create or keep unneeded jobs.
It is time to take the pulse of our times, and to fight for massive wealth redistribution and against the idea that anyone who does not work is lazy and undeserving. Right now, too many of us blind ourselves into blaming China or trade for unemployment in the industrial sector, thus demonizing an external enemy while chasing the mirage of full employment, without realising all the good our efficiency gains could mean for all of us if, and only if, wealth redistribution was keeping up with our economy.