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Freed by Robots?

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books and culture

Freed by Robots?

A new book suggests that automation will liberate us to pursue our passions. July 13, 2018
Technology and Innovation
Economy, finance, and budgets

The End of Work: Why Your Passion Can Become Your Job, by John Tamny (Gateway Editions, 256 pp., $28.99)

At just about any gathering today of workforce practitioners—people involved with job-training and placement projects in the public and private sectors—the future of work and the implications of automation will come up. Today’s discussion has taken on new urgency, though, with fears that the latest technology, propelled by artificial intelligence, will destroy more jobs than it creates.

John Tamny’s thoughtful new book, The End of Work, offers a different view. Tamny, director of the Center for Economic Freedom at Freedom Works and editor of Real Clear Markets, sees the replacement of jobs by automation as a positive development that will free individuals to create economic roles reflecting their interests. The proper role of government, says Tamny, is to let it happen, restrain its impulse to intervene, and essentially let a thousand flowers bloom.

The new economy has created more room for specialized services and niche products. In the past, people with passions for, say, animal-training, or physical fitness, or fine wines, might have halfheartedly worked in routine jobs just to pay the bills; in an era of greater economic prosperity and larger discretionary incomes, people can make their living as animal-care specialists, personal trainers, and sommeliers. The range of outlets for creative content has expanded, too. Technology has made it possible to look beyond a handful of television networks, music producers, or legacy book publishers. Today, we can record and post our own songs, publish our writing, and broadcast video productions with accessible and affordable equipment once available only to major media companies.

In the tradition of George Gilder, Tamny draws on individual stories, such as those of well-known restaurateurs Wolfgang Puck and Grant Achatz, musicians Keith Richards and Lindsey Buckingham, and various athletes, along with more obscure figures. He warns that pursuing passions and making them pay requires hard work and persistence. Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, spent seven years working on the pilot. But most people like to work at things they love; those who appear to be lazy are just in the wrong job and bored, Tamny believes.

Tamny, who had planned to call his book The End of Laziness, contends that laziness decreases as prosperity increases. An expanding economy will allow more people to do what they love as a job. “They won’t be ‘working’ as much as showcasing a passion,” he has said.

Tamny’s title evokes economist Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, which also focused on the elimination of jobs by technology. Rifkin urged a large-scale effort to create public-sector jobs; Tamny instead emphasizes the importance of the free market, which enables individuals to make choices, producing the economic abundance that provides capital for private-sector spending and charitable giving, which, in turn, enables people in the arts, nonprofits, and economic think tanks to pursue their passions.

Rifkin’s solution itself echoed earlier responses. As automation threatened to displace large-scale employment in the 1950s and 1960s, democratic socialists, such as Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin, responded with calls for public-sector job creation (culminating, in part, in the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act). But Leftists saw public-sector jobs as a short-term solution. The long-term vision, as expressed by Harrington in his 1972 book, Socialism, was of an economy in which work expressed people’s interests and talents, and in which (following Marx in The German Ideology) man was no longer alienated from his labor. What Tamny’s free-market approach shares with Harrington’s statist vision is the notion of an economy in which work is an expression of the individual.

Tamny sees a bright future ahead if policymakers recognize the role of economic freedom. “Just as the division of labor among humans leads to much better work outcomes, so will the rise of automation benefit the worker. Only the outcome will be many multiples greater than that which springs from human divisions of labor.” He welcomes the rise of robot workers. “Imagine the future if robots achieve their potential to erase all manner of work forms,” he writes. “How very exciting.”

How realistic is Tamny’s new economy? Keith Richards and Tom Brady can pursue their passions and make a living, but what of the great majority of us who have the passion but lack the skills? Today, the numbers of writers, sports figures, musicians, and other creatives who can make a living from their passion is small—though the numbers who can supplement their incomes are growing.

Perhaps Tamny will provide greater detail on participation in this new economy in a follow-up book. For now, the End of Work presents a valuable corrective to visions of an automated future in which the robots leave us with nothing to do.

Photo: Eva-Katalin/iStock

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