Rapid technological advancement has increasingly led to the automation of transactions, communications, transportation and production, causing jobs to be taken over by “robots.”
According to a 2016 report published by the World Economic Forum, 5 million jobs will be lost by 2020, with the greatest impact being in occupations that require less specialization. In an older report, Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicted an increase in production automation worldwide, from 10 percent in 2015 to 45 percent in 2025.
As robots take over production, the relationship between the prosperity of businesses and job creation tends to become inversely proportional. It is the very creation of the free market economy, meaning rapid technological advancement, that will soon bring the theory of economic liberalism to its limits as it makes the conflicting interests between classes more apparent than ever and invalidates the argument that the prosperity of those who possess the means of production will inevitably increase social welfare.
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Billionaires Elon Musk and Bill Gates, as well as many other executives, have made an effort to answer the question posed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution: How should we address the impact of automation on unskilled laborers who are gradually and permanently forced into unemployment? They suggest creating a Universal Basic Income for people who are forced into unemployment, funded through a tax on robots.
Why are American billionaires suddenly sensitized to and seeking to minimize the economic impoverishment of the people, which they have considered a necessary evil until now? As automation reduces job creation, unemployment levels will rise, causing a severe drop in demand in developed economies. Thus, in the absence of a Universal Basic Income, automation will be counter-productive because demand for the products of increased production will be limited.
In his article “A Tax on Robots?” former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis points out several technical problems with the proposal of a tax on robots, countering with the creation of a public assistance fund. According to this proposal, “a fixed portion of new equity issues (IPOs)” will be deposited into this fund, and citizens will receive a Universal Basic Dividend.
In practice, the American billionaires and Varoufakis are in favor of the creation of two groups of people: a specialized group of employees who enjoy the fruits of their labor, and a second group of unskilled unemployed people who are funded by the operation of highly automated enterprises without taking part in the process. Both proposals suggest, therefore, maintaining the entrepreneur-employee dynamic in the absence of labor relations, leaving unskilled “unemployed workers” to the mercy of the owners of the means of production, while disarming them of their only bargaining chip to fight for better living conditions — their labor power.
More than that, however, the reasoning outlined by the entrepreneurs above and by Varoufakis threatens to create a totalitarian system. In essence, it nullifies the interdependence between entrepreneurs and unskilled labor, and the latter lose the ability to fight for any social or economic right, as the most powerful interest group ceases to depend on the weak, and therefore loses any incentive to grant any rights.
Extreme technological evolution pushes us to look for new organizational structures because maintaining employee-entrepreneur relationships in the absence of labor supply is a scary scenario of unlimited power accumulating in the hands of a few.
According to John Rawls: “All social values — liberty and opportunity, income and wealth … should be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.” Within this principle, even Rawls warns that if the distribution of these values to a few — in this case the owners of sophisticated means of production — is no longer even theoretically interwoven with the benefit of all, then the equal distribution of “social values” is the only option.
Therefore, it seems necessary to move toward a social and economic system that ensures equal distribution to all members. In such a context, it is necessary to cooperate in production and to establish collective ownership of the means of production. Essentially, this would mean that the people would own the means of production in such a way that a heavy workload would affect all those involved equally, as an increase in revenue would benefit all equally. This could also ensure, through collective ownership of robots, the reduction of working hours for the entire population. Furthermore, it lays the foundation for the cooperation of the vast majority of unskilled or low-skilled workers with specialized scientists, ridding the process of production of structural conflicting interests.