The following excerpt is from an article,"How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class" by David Autor and David Dorn, that appeared today in the New York Times "Opinionator." Contrary to the article's assertion, there was no group of 19th century English textile artisans who called themselves the Luddites.
In the early 19th century a group of English textile artisans calling themselves the Luddites staged a machine-trashing rebellion. Their brashness earned them a place (rarely positive) in the lexicon, but they had legitimate reasons for concern.
Economists have historically rejected what we call the “lump of labor” fallacy: the supposition that an increase in labor productivity inevitably reduces employment because there is only a finite amount of work to do. While intuitively appealing, this idea is demonstrably false.
Here is my response to Autor and Dorn's article:
Dear David A. and David D.,
As you both no doubt are aware, I have written the only peer-reviewed, historical examination of the alleged lump of labor fallacy and have concluded that there is no evidence that those accused of supposing that the amount of work to be done was a fixed quantity -- whether they be labelled Luddites, trade unionists, French Socialists or "populists"-- ever believed any such thing. In fact most assertions avoid specifying exactly who is being alleged to commit the fallacy. It is rather inconvenient to have an idea without a thinker who actually thinks the idea.
When the supposed opponents of such an anonymous, supposed thought are similarly only vaguely identified as "economists," then we appear to have a phantom calling out a specter. I can name two actual economists who explicitly refuted the fallacy claim -- Maurice Dobb and A. C. Pigou. Can you name any "economists" who offered substantive evidence for the "supposition" of a fixed amount of work (by evidence, I mean the citation of something said or written by somebody that indicates they held the alleged belief)?
You may be surprised to learn that this claim of a fallacy preceded the Luddites by over 30 years. Dorning Rasbotham, a Lancashire magistrate, made the claim in a pamphlet titled, "Thoughts on the Use of Machines in the Cotton Manufacture." True to the eventual custom, Rasbotham declined to name the "they" who allegedly said there was "a certain quantity of labour to be performed."
My point in bringing all this to your attention is not simply to contradict your arguments about technology and employment. I think there is something much more important at stake here. You see, when you put words in other peoples' mouths or put thoughts in their heads that are not their words or their thoughts, you close off the possibility that they may have actually had different words and thoughts and that those unheard but genuine words and thoughts may be infinitely more interesting and relevant than the ersatz "words" and "thoughts" that you have attributed to Luddites, trade unionists or whomever.
Perhaps economists suspect that what working people say and think couldn't possibly be as profound as what economists (or 18th century gentry magistrates) think? Historians have looked into the matter, though. Folks like Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson. For example, there are over 2,000 citations for Thompson's 1971 article, "The moral economy of the poor in the eighteenth century." Over 8000 citations to Thompson's 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, in which Thompson sought to "rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand loom weaver, [etc.]... from the enormous condescension of posterity."
But why should economists be concerned with what either Luddites or economists actually historically thought when they can more handily just recite something some textbook author wrote in 1948 that paraphrased something some textbook author wrote in 1924 that paraphrased something some hack journalist wrote in 1871 that reiterates something some polemical Whig wrote in 1832 that parrots something a gentry magistrate wrote in 1780?
In the early 19th century a group of English textile artisans calling themselves the Luddites staged a machine-trashing rebellion. Their brashness earned them a place (rarely positive) in the lexicon, but they had legitimate reasons for concern.Economists have historically rejected what we call the “lump of labor” fallacy: the supposition that an increase in labor productivity inevitably reduces employment because there is only a finite amount of work to do. While intuitively appealing, this idea is demonstrably false.