Ryan Beck

Technology and Jobs

February 13, 2020

People have been afraid of technology taking jobs for a long time. Apparently in the 1500s William Lee invented a knitting machine and went to Queen Elizabeth to apply for a patent. The story is second or third hand so it’s not a direct quote, but apparently part of her response went something like this:

“My Lord, I have too much love to my poor people, who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting, to give my money to forward an invention which will tend to their ruin, by depriving them of employment, and thus make them beggars.”

This isn’t entirely about technology because apparently it was common practice to grant monopolies to well-connected people, kind of like a more powerful patent, and part of her concern was about letting Lee have a monopoly in a time when there was some political opposition to the many monopolies that had been granted. But still it does seem like part of her concern was the technology taking jobs issue.

Technology doesn’t eliminate jobs and make more people unemployed, it just changes which jobs people do. It also makes us all better off. In the short term we should be concerned about making sure people whose jobs become obsolete are supported and can still live comfortably, but demonizing technology just makes us all worse off in the long run.

The quote and more info here: http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2019/03/the-story-of-william-lee-and-his.html?m=1