Many people think that replacement of human labor by capital and the alienation and social disintegration that results is a new thing. It is not. Economic and social alienation due to advancing technologies or changing economies has been around since the dawn of time. It is just that the rate at which change occurs started accelerating about five hundred years ago. For this, two factors are responsible.
The first factor leading to economic and social alienation was that ownership of land became increasingly concentrated. Reversing the trend of centuries, greater numbers of the people who worked the land did not have a direct share in the rewards of production.
|The Man for All Seasons|
Further, people became redundant in critical industries. Growing demand for fiber, for example, meant that especially in the British Isles, people were cleared off land they had in some cases inhabited for generations to make way for sheep to increase wool production,. As Saint Thomas More (1478-1535) had his narrator comment in Utopia, his satire on Tudor England,
“Sheep,” I told him. “Those placid creatures, which used to require so little food, have now apparently developed a raging appetite, and turned into man-eaters. Fields, houses, towns, everything goes down their throats. To put it more plainly, in those parts of the kingdom where the finest, and so the most expensive wool is produced, the nobles and gentlemen, not to mention several saintly abbots, have grown dissatisfied with the income that their predecessors got out of their estates. They’re no longer content to lead lazy, comfortable lives, which do no good to society — they must actively do it harm, by enclosing all the land they can for pasture, and leaving none for cultivation. They’re even tearing down houses and demolishing whole towns — except, of course, for the churches, which they preserve for use as sheepfolds. As if they didn’t waste enough of your soil already on their coverts and game-preserves, these kind souls have started destroying all traces of human habitation, and turning every scrap of farmland into a wilderness.” (Thomas More, Utopia. London: Penguin Books, 1978, 46-47.)
Understanding “capital” as all non-human factors of production, by the end of the Middle Ages two things were becoming clear. Not only was ownership of capital becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, but human labor was decreasing in value relative to capital as a factor of production.
|The sheeps in the field, not the ships in the harbor.|
Again using wool production as an example, agriculture in a low-tech economy is labor intensive. Grazing not only requires much less labor, but yields greater returns and a higher profit margin. (See Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1971; Derek Hurst, Sheep in the Cotswolds: The Medieval Wool Trade. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing, Ltd., 2005; Eileen Power, The Wool Trade in English Medieval History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1941; John H. Munro, Wool, Cloth, and Gold: The Struggle for Bullion in Anglo-Burgundian Trade 1340-1478. Toronto, Quebec: University of Toronto Press, 1972.)
And that was the second factor driving a wedge between ordinary people and full participation in society as well as developing more fully as human persons. With technical innovation and expansion of commerce and industry, there were more ways of making a living than before.
|A growing gap between rich and poor in both degree and kind.|
As ownership of capital became more concentrated, however, participation through ownership in the new ways of being productive, useful and beneficial in themselves, became restricted to fewer and fewer people. Rich and poor became increasingly divided not merely by the amount of wealth they possessed, but by the ownership of the kinds and quality of wealth to which they had access as well as the means of producing it. Where the rich owned both labor and capital, the poor owned only their labor — and labor was decreasing in value relative to capital as an input to production.
With the development of a discrete science of economics (originally termed “political arithmetic”) many people began blaming the greed and rapacity of the rich for hearkening to artificial laws of economics and replacing human labor with non-human capital. They failed to realize that “the iron laws of economics” such as supply and demand, and efficiency are not a human invention based on impersonal urges of materialism and greed. They are instead applications of the absolutes of human nature itself.
It is human nature to select the most efficient alternative in any endeavor. This is what drives the impulse to make tools such as capital instruments to do a task better and less expensively than labor in time, effort, and other resources.
|Can't we all just get along?|
Insisting on producing marketable goods and services using less efficient modes of production is contrary to human nature. Anyone who does so soon discovers that competition from others who are more efficient — and thus less expensive — in producing goods and services of equal or greater quality and supplies them at lower prices will drive those who are less efficient out of business. This is not an inhuman process, but one that is quintessentially human.
What the Catholic Church condemns is not competition per se, but competition carried to extremes. Competition is a positive good. Like all virtues, however, competition can easily become a vice when pursued as an end in and of itself with no reference to the common good.
But if this process is inevitable and consistent with human nature, is it even possible to correct it?
|Kelso: Buy the machine!|
Taking the institutional environment as a given and assuming that they way things have always been done is the only way they can be done, the answer is no. If, however, we examine more closely what is going on, the answer becomes obvious. As Louis O. Kelso said in a 1964 article in Life magazine, “If the Machine Wants Our Job, Let’s Buy It.”
This sounds revolutionary to modern ears that have from birth had dinned in them the mantra of “Jobs-Jobs-Jobs” as the only way to gain income. Going back only a few years, however, and we find that people were saying the same thing as Kelso as the way to resolve the conflict between owners of labor and owners of capital. As Pope Leo XIII noted in his landmark 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum,
If a workman's wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. Nature itself would urge him to this. We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)
It’s not “Jobs-Jobs-Jobs,” then, but “Ownership-Private Property-Production.”