Automation, labour law, and markets

… the presence of slave labor seems generally to inhibit the use of machinery and the presence of expensive labor to accelerate it.

Robert L. Heilbroner, “Do Machines Make History”

Reading the above comment, I was reminded of an article from last year’s Economist about a possible link between what they call ‘rigid labour laws’ and automation, “France and automation: Driverless, workless”. The article attempts to make a connection between increasing automation, high-tech services, and the ‘rigid’ labour laws of France. A similar argument has been made regarding Japan’s embrace of robotics and its narrow, restrictive immigration policies. I have seen it everywhere from Gizmodo to Martin Jacques‘s When China Rules the World, and it basically goes racism = robotics, parallel to the Economist‘s socialism → driverless trains.

If we consider ‘slave labour’ in Heilbroner with this in mind, do we see that low-paying, service sector jobs could be a clear stimulus to technological innovation, if labour is restricted in a manner that makes it expensive (via such horrors as fair pay, more time off, childcare, healthcare, etc.)?The Economist, true to its contradictory, conflicted ideals of a liberal-not-libertarian market makes a stab at snide dismissal of such a notion:

France excels at high-tech services: credit-card operated petrol stations, touch-screen fast-food counters, automatic car-washing. Two years ago, McDonalds pioneered the use of touch-screen, credit-card-based ordering in its French fast-food restaurants. Eléphant Bleu, a self-service high-pressure car-washing chain, has 472 outlets in France, and is expanding. All this in a country where the labour code runs to over 3,300 pages, an employer pays an average of 39% in payroll taxes, and unemployment is at 10%. Spot the connection.

Ultimately, however, this article has no clue what to think here. Technical innovation adds up to economic development, so should they encourage these labour laws? Is innovation a good thing, if it is connected with expansion of the state? The Economist doesn’t has no clue where it stands, set adrift as it is by its nebulous laissez-whatever ideals. It doesn’t know what it wants from society, and so it cannot engage with what technological innovation actually amounts to. The analysis of markets, and the expectations of how they should operate offers few clues in the matter.

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