The Public Interest

Men and machines in perspective

Robert L. Heilbroner

Fall 1965

It is curious that technological unemployment has always been the intellectual stepchild of capitalism. One would think that nothing would have so interested economists as the economic impact – and above all, the impact on labor – of machines that suddenly alter the speed, the technical requirements, the human relationships, not to mention the end products, of the economic process. Instead, a consideration of technology in any guise has always made economists uncomfortable, and the thought of technology as a labor-affecting force has simply been too much for most of them. There was Marx, of course, who put technology and its labor-displacing effects into the very center of his diagnosis of capitalism, but no one paid any attention to him. Alfred Marshall and John Maynard Keynes, the two greatest economists of mature capitalism, managed to conduct their inquiries without admitting the subject of technology at all. Only in the underworld of economic thought, in the intellectual descendents of the Luddites, do we find a persisting concern with machines as things that do man’s work and thereby lessen the need for his labor. But to the great majority of recognized economists these rude doubts remained as inadmissable as they were unexamined.

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