Now the third myth, what I call the superiority myth. It’s often said that those who forget about the helpful side of technological progress, those complementarities from before, are committing something known as the lump of labor fallacy. Now, the problem is the lump of labor fallacy is itself a fallacy, and I call this the lump of labor fallacy fallacy, or LOLFF, for short. Let me explain. The lump of labor fallacy is a very old idea. It was a British economist, David Schloss, who gave it this name in 1892. He was puzzled to come across a dock worker who had begun to use a machine to make washers, the small metal discs that fasten on the end of screws. And this dock worker felt guilty for being more productive. Now, most of the time, we expect the opposite, that people feel guilty for being unproductive, you know, a little too much time on Facebook or Twitter at work. But this worker felt guilty for being more productive, and asked why, he said, “I know I’m doing wrong. I’m taking away the work of another man.” In his mind, there was some fixed lump of work to be divided up between him and his pals, so that if he used this machine to do more, there’d be less left for his pals to do. Schloss saw the mistake. The lump of work wasn’t fixed. As this worker used the machine and became more productive, the price of washers would fall, demand for washers would rise, more washers would have to be made, and there’d be more work for his pals to do. The lump of work would get bigger. Schloss called this “the lump of labor fallacy.”
And today you hear people talk about the lump of labor fallacy to think about the future of all types of work. There’s no fixed lump of work out there to be divided up between people and machines. Yes, machines substitute for human beings, making the original lump of work smaller, but they also complement human beings, and the lump of work gets bigger and changes.
But LOLFF. Here’s the mistake: it’s right to think that technological progress makes the lump of work to be done bigger. Some tasks become more valuable. New tasks have to be done. But it’s wrong to think that necessarily, human beings will be best placed to perform those tasks. And this is the superiority myth. Yes, the lump of work might get bigger and change, but as machines become more capable, it’s likely that they’ll take on the extra lump of work themselves. Technological progress, rather than complement human beings, complements machines instead.