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OP-ED: The fate of the apparel workers after industry automation

Human labour used to do one thing cannot be used to do another. Therefore the labour used to do something is a cost

Jobs are a cost, not a benefit: The aim of all economic development is to destroy jobs.

This isn’t, I agree, the way we normally think of things but it is the way we should. 

The relevance of this is recent comments in this newspaper by Asif Saleh, who talks about the female workers in the RMG sector. They built, with their labour, a startlingly successful export industry. 

So, when the industry automates, we need to think about what they should do next. 

We should. But we need to think about this the right way around. 

We like people being able to consume things. This is the purpose of our having an economy, a civilisation even: That the average person becomes better off over time that they are able to consume more. 

As these things work out, in order to be able to consume, they need to have an income. The normal way of gaining an income is to sell our labour – to go out to work at a job.

But we also need to look at this the other way around. Which is that a job is a cost of getting something done. If someone’s labour is being used to do this thing –say in an RMG factory – then it cannot then also be used to do this other thing – cuddle a baby, grow food, build a space rocket, whatever. 

So, the cost to us all of that person working in RMG is that we have fewer spaceships – or smiling babies, and so on.

The logical extension of this is that we want to have fewer people working in RMG so that we can have more spaceships. 

Yes, the actual examples here are a little extreme, but the logic is 100% sound. 

Human labour used to do one thing cannot be used to do another. Therefore the labour used to do something is a cost. The cost being the things we don’t get from other activities the labour could be doing instead.

This means that the entire process of economic advance is the destruction of jobs. 

For only by using a machine to do the work can we free up that labour to another task. Automation which kills jobs is, in fact, what makes us richer.

Think on it. Before, we had only what the labour of one person produced. Now we have what the machine produces, and also what that person produces in their new job. We have two things, not one; we are richer.

Automating RMG production doesn’t mean the world will want more clothes. So some workers will have to leave the RMG factories. Is this a bad thing? 

Of course, there will be dislocation problems. 

Still, for society as a whole this is a good idea. Because those leaving RMG can do something else. 

What that something is doesn’t really matter very much – not for the purposes of this argument. If they produce food or tea, then we have more food and tea. Or they take care of children – more children taken care of. Or they build spaceships, we have more spaceships.

At the beginning of the process we have just the produce of their labour, clothes. Now we have the clothes made by the machines and also the produce of the human labour – we’re richer. 

It is an entirely standard assumption that human desires are unlimited. But the resources available to meet them are not. So, we humans are always short of something we’d like done. 

That, in turn, means there’s always something that spare labour can do. Because people out there still want something more, supplying or making that something more can be a job.

I know, it all sounds a little strange but it is true that jobs are a cost of getting something done, not a benefit. 

Economic advance really is working out how we kill a job. 

For once we’ve turned that piece of work over to a machine then the human labour we’ve freed up can be used to do something else, something more that we didn’t have before. The only time this stops is when everyone has everything they want and, to be honest, that doesn’t sound like all that bad a world to arrive at.

Given all this we can now turn back to that original question. 

If the RMG factories automate then what are all those workers going to do? 

Well, the correct question is, what’s the next thing that you, the consumer want to be done?

What is that you want to be made? Or service that you want to exist? Because now we’ve got the spare labour to meet the next human desire.  

Tim Worstall is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London

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