Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and a very smart and rich man, has an idea: tax robots who take jobs that people used to do. Interesting idea. But before we sign on, let’s think about how it would work in practice.
First of all, what’s a robot? The dictionary says it’s “a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.” So robots don’t have to look like people — they just have to do complicated things.
Do you understand how a car works? How an elevator works? How a light switch works? How a toilet works? If you had to build one of these, could you do it? I couldn’t. If you had to explain how any one of these things works, in detail, could you do it? I couldn’t.
Forget iPhones and the internet — the world is full of machines that are far beyond my comprehension, and most likely beyond yours. That’s not a bad thing — it’s a great thing.
Humanity has never built a machine that wasn’t intended to take work away from people. The original machine was the horse collar. We might not think of that as anything special, but consider this: Would you rather pull the plow yourself?
All machines are the result of specialization. The process was described by Adam Smith, the great liberal Scottish economist, who wrote “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776, the year we won our independence.
Smith pointed out that if every man had to make his own matches, every man would do little else. But if a few people specialized in making matches, they could make matches for everyone.
Machines — even robots — are produced by smart people. But machines are still just specialists. Instead of having to hire a man, a few stable boys, and a jockey, we have a car. Instead of having lots of telephone operators, we have an iPhone.
If Gates wants to tax today’s robots, what about taxing yesterday’s? What about taxing Henry Ford for destroying the stable boy industry? How about taxing ATMs for eliminating all those bank tellers? After all, an ATM is a robot, too.
And what about Gates himself? When my parents were in college, they had to hire typists to produce their papers — because only a specialist could turn out a perfect page, without any errors, on a typewriter. Now, with a word processor, anyone can do it.
Who destroyed all of those typist jobs? Gates himself.
Gates’ idea is folly. The purpose — the only purpose — of machines is to do our work for us. If we blame machines, we are saying we would rather have people emptying our latrines than have toilets doing it for us.
If we start taxing machines that take away our work, we will have fewer machines. And we will then have more people doing nasty, poorly paid jobs — because a job that can be automated is a job that won’t be paid much. And then we will all be worse off.
Hundreds of years ago, almost everyone worked growing food. Now, only a few percent of us do. Being a farmer is a hard job, and all praise to them. But if we believe that machines are bad, we should all head back to the land, because we rely on machines to grow our food.
The ultimate resource isn’t land. It’s not horses, or oil, or machines. The ultimate resource, as the economist Julian Simon wrote, is the human brain. There will always be enough work for everyone. Only the nature of work changes.
So what’s wrong with Bill Gates? He’s spreading the fallacy that, since work is limited, the answer is more taxes. That’s completely wrong. Taxes are not the cure. They encourage us to keep on doing work that’s only fit for machines. In other words, taxes are the disease.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.