We live in a time like never before in human history. Our scientific knowledge and technological capabilities are rapidly advancing, affecting nearly every aspect of human life. Examples are rife, from smart phones and robotics, to thought-controlled prosthetics, wireless power, even force fields. Countless others that sounded like science fiction a few years ago don’t even deserve mention today as they have become so commonplace.
In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of the process we see at work, when (mostly) free market capitalism unshackled society’s productive imagination. The key was that it allowed individuals to reap the fruits of their labor, providing incentives for workers and entrepreneurs by allowing them to accumulate capital. Capital accumulation is the prerequisite for a prosperous society, without it there can be no sustainable investment or economic growth.
Privately-Owned Technology Is Not a Problem
Yet many are beginning to worry that our technology could soon turn on us and actually bring about our demise. The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking speculated earlier this year that robots will eventually take over the world, but has since revised his stance, now suggesting that capitalist-technology is a greater threat and will bring about unsustainable inequality and poverty as automated production techniques displace human labor. Such fears display an ignorance of history and economic science.
First, economists have for centuries pinpointed labor and land (i.e., natural resources) as permanent factors of production, with capital goods (in this case machines) being ultimately produced out of them. As Murray Rothbard explains in chapter 9 of Man, Economy, and State, there has always been a scarcity of labor, meaning that machines don’t make labor obsolete, but are rather labor-saving devices that make goods drastically cheaper for consumers, enable more leisure time for everyone, and simply redirect labor to other ends. Human labor is always required in some capacity for all production processes — such as the maintenance of machines — thus it’s inconceivable that every single industry could possibly be automated, not to mention the new industries that emerge as labor is freed up from its previous areas of employment. (For a complete demolition of this argument, see here.)
Second, the chilling irony of modern technology isn’t the menace of an AI takeover, where our creations turn against us in an apocalyptic scenario (although it’s impossible to completely rule this out). More to the point is that for all the ways technology is drastically improving the quality of life for people everywhere, the ability to inflict death, harm, and destruction is also unprecedented; and these technologies are being harnessed virtually entirely by states.
State Ownership of Technology Is a Problem
Coercive governments, for as long as they’ve existed, have been abusive of individual rights and the integrity of human beings everywhere, from the torture devices of Medieval Europe, to the cannons of the Civil War. However, the State in its proclivity to inflict violence upon humanity has always been restrained by the technology available to it, whether it was the axe, the sword, or the club in ancient times.
Yet as productive society has advanced in its ability to satisfy human needs and wants, the regimes of the day have used new technologies to expand their weaponry arsenals. The twentieth century will be remembered twofold: for its incredible increase in wealth and prosperity on the one hand, but also for its terrible wars. Indeed, more people were killed by state-governments in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen combined.
Today in the twenty-first century, the world is embroiled in warfare and disaster wrought by the State, while the glories of the market economy surround us everywhere we turn. Market-societies build us up, while states tear us down.
Despite the sadistic few among us, there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of people prefer peace and prosperity and use technology as a means toward these ideals. On the other hand, it bears repeating that the primary culprit in turning technology toward nefarious purposes is the State.
So perhaps the most profound question of our time is, going forward, how we will use our increasingly powerful technology: as a progressive force to the benefit of humanity by relieving our ailments, extending our life spans, and increasing our worldly comforts beyond our wildest dreams — or as a retrogressive force that acts to our detriment by inflicting pain and suffering and death upon people everywhere?