Unbridled Progression

by Sophia Rhoads
Submitting Teacher: Carla Sethna

In this modern age, technological innovation inundates us. Nearly every person, regardless of income, has a cell phone, computer, and a car. The pace of innovation is so fast that some people believe the government should take a leadership role in its production. They fail to realize, however, that if the government were to assume control, progress would be tied up in red tape, and we would never know what innovations could improve our lives.

The rapid growth of technology causes concerns about unemployment. Consequently, some petition the government to protect their jobs. Is this a wise decision? As John Stossel says in his TV special Tech Revolution, “Whenever there’s been innovation, experts predict that employment will decline. But the experts can’t imagine the new jobs.” A well-known example of technological progress without government interference is Henry Ford’s mass production of cars. He developed a system of conveyor belts that reduced the time it took to make cars from 12 hours to 2 hours and 30 minutes. At first, not many people could transition from a carriage to an automobile. Yet, as more were produced, prices dropped, and more people could enjoy the benefits of faster, lower maintenance transportation. True, some people undoubtedly lost their jobs making carriages. They had to find new jobs, possibly at Henry Ford’s factory. His system of conveyor belts led to the creation of the assembly line mode of production, an innovation that brought vastly greater numbers of jobs to the economy. Furthermore, if they did acquire a new job with Ford, they were producing goods that were more beneficial to the economy.  This process is known as “creative destruction.” Michael Barone, quoting Joseph Schumpeter, defines it in his article The Audacity of Frack: “New inventions, new processes, new methods of organization lead to the creation of new profitable and efficient businesses and to the destruction of old ones unable to compete.” [1]The market can make its own jobs. If we want progress, we need the government to step aside and allow consumers to decide which jobs can benefit us the most.

Is the government, then, obliged to retrain unemployed workers? It’s best if those who are displaced by technology are re-trained for new jobs by companies in need of employees, not by the government, who can’t really know what specific skills and knowledge new jobs require. When companies conduct their own job training, they know that they are hiring the right people. Take Amazon, for instance, a company that is gradually replacing more and more people with robots. They started a program called Career Choice, which trains warehouse workers for higher-level jobs, and encourages other companies to do the same. Jon Markman concludes, “Moaning about the loss of those jobs, or politicizing the process, will not bring them back.”[2]

So, isn't there anything the government should be involved in when it comes to technological innovation? Many believe that the government could serve to spark research. In contrast to this popular belief, Matthew McCaffrey states in his article Entrepreneurs Make Science Work,that “Science doesn’t necessarily mean progress until it moves out of the lab and into the market.” The government can research all it likes, but it could all add up to nothing in the end. In order to create progress, we need people with ideas and a motive, whether that motive is for the social good, for personal gain, or both.  Wanting to produce things for personal gain isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even government employees desire personal gain. The difference is they aren’t motivated to produce the absolute best out of fear that they’ll lose to the competition. Indeed, there is no competition for the government. Consequently, this lack of competition would diminish quality in innovation.

Quality, and specifically safety, is yet another issue that concerns people about the speedy pace of technological advances. They fear the risk that new innovations can impose. Technology certainly seems risky, so shouldn’t the government protect us with safety regulations? Not necessarily. Companies simply have to make reliable products, or face the consequences of losing customers. If Tesla, one of the companies working to create driverless cars, fails to make their cars safe, would you be eager to buy one?

The government might mean well, but if we let it interfere with the development of technology, we’ll never have the innovations that make our lives easier, safer, healthier, and more productive. As Henry Hazlitt said, “It is the proper sphere of government to create and enforce a framework of law that prohibits force and fraud. But it must refrain from specific economic interventions.”[3] If we allow the free market to take control of the reigns of progress, then we are only limited by the creativity of our minds. 

[1] National Review

[2] “Robots, Workers and Amazon,” Forbes.com

[3] Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest & Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics