We continue to see constant progress in reducing human labor to a mechanical routine, like the script followed by workers in chain restaurants or the swiping motion that’s pretty much the only skill left in staffing the Walmart check-out line. If you think about it, the compliant behavior required by the scripted service worker is, if anything, more about degrading mechanism than working on the old-fashioned assembly line. Once those who do the creative labor have reduced a task to a mechanical routine, then it doesn’t require that much more ingenuity to replace the worker by a reasonably “smart” and much more reliable machine, as you see in the innovative robotics that are mostly responsible for the astounding efficiency of the recently depopulated Amazon warehouses. Just recently, the formerly proudly personal Panera Bread has announced it’s replacing cashiers with kiosks, and other fast-food chains are following their lead. Now some libertarians would say that the process of replacing people with machines would slow if we just got rid of that bleepin’ minimum wage. There’s some truth to that, but not all that much.
So the libertarian futurists like Tyler Cowen, Brink Lindsey, and Charles Murray candidly see that our future might well be about a “cognitive elite” of about 15 percent of our population becoming smarter, hugely more productive, and more astutely creative. That class is composed of people free from personal prejudice and readily capable of flexible and abstract thought. They have what it takes either to comfortably work with “genius machines,” to manage those who do that nerdily creative work on, say, the Google campus, or to creatively market the results of all that creativity. (Cowen also imagines a small but lucrative place for enlightened economists such as himself who will be cheerleaders for that meritocracy based on productivity.)
That techno-creative class deserves what it’s getting—unprecedented wealth. Money is what is given in exchange for productive labor. Members of that class are given lots of creative freedom and flexible hours in determining how to accomplish their tasks, and they’re proving it’s possible to be wonderfully productive and have stable family lives and be consumers of all the creative, artistic, literary, and culinary accomplishments the great cultures of the world have given us to enjoy. It’s true enough that they’re too free of the repressive illusions that are the downside of being immersed in a particular religious/moral/political culture to actually be incentivized to build Gothic cathedrals, pyramids, or whatever, but they can still reproduce, manipulate, and combine the cultures of the world into creative technological artifacts that make dazzling—if not exactly profound—contributions to what they’ve been given.
Technology has given the world, as John Locke wrote, to the industrious and rational, and their labor or productivity is their title to it. Not only does the challenge of working with technological productivity make that cognitive elite smarter, it becomes smarter still insofar as it successfully isolates itself from the rest of society in real or virtual gated communities, inter-marries, and all that. Members of this elite, we’re told, understand marriage as a kind of contract for investing in the development of children. Their children, of course, are educated to be both productive and creative beings—and so they read classic books, take music and ballet, play soccer, and travel widely as well as learn all about calculus and operating systems.
So Cowen imagines that our techno-future will soon give us a world in which a brilliantly creative minority of our population is extremely healthy, wealthy, comfortable, and stimulated by all the good things the world has to offer. The middle class as we have understood it will wither away; “average,” as Cowen writes, “is over.” People without the intelligence or who are unable to acquire the complex skills required to work readily with genius “human capital” and genius machines will, if anything, be worse off economically. Their scripted work, depending, as it does, on the intellectual labor of others, will fall in value.
Now libertarians sometimes say the marginally productive really are better off even if their economic situation stagnates or worse. They live longer because of all those techno-advances in health care, which are mostly available to us all. And everyone has access to the screen in all its venues—laptops, smart phones, tablets, and so forth. The wisdom of the world is online and available to us all—free of charge. So are all kinds of mindless games and porn. Cowen is candid enough to be relieved that a marginally productive class diverted by the screen and with easy access to legalized marijuana is unlikely to be revolutionary, but it’s equally unlikely to be full of people using their leisurely access to the screen for an edifying, soul-elevating education. I can’t deny they have that choice, of course.
I realize this isn’t the whole story. But it does, as they say, “complicate” the simple story too often told by supply-side libertarians.