Labor’s Paradise Lost

LONDON – As people in the developed world wonder how their countries will return to full employment after the Great Recession, it might benefit us to take a look at a visionary essay that John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930, called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”

Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, published in 1936, equipped governments with the intellectual tools to counter the unemployment caused by slumps. In this earlier essay, however, Keynes distinguished between unemployment caused by temporary economic breakdowns and what he called “technological unemployment” – that is, “unemployment due to the discovery of means of economizing the use of labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.”

Keynes reckoned that we would hear much more about this kind of unemployment in the future. But its emergence, he thought, was a cause for hope, rather than despair. For it showed that the developed world, at least, was on track to solving the “economic problem” – the problem of scarcity that kept mankind tethered to a burdensome life of toil.

Machines were rapidly replacing human labor, holding out the prospect of vastly increased production at a fraction of the existing human effort. In fact, Keynes thought that by about now (the early twenty-first century) most people would have to work only 15 hours a week to produce all that they needed for subsistence and comfort.