Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised to find out that exactly the same arguments being made today about an issue have also been made in the long distant past. Back then they may not have known any better, today we definitely should. A comment from Peter Martin on Labourlist gave me another example of this phenomenon. He quotes from Robert Tressell’s “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” which was written in 1912 to show what arguments were being made around that time to account for high unemployment.
‘Yes,’ said Crass, agreeing with Slyme……… Then thers all this new-fangled machinery,’ continued Crass. ‘That’s wot’s ruinin’ everything. Even in our trade ther’s them machines for trimmin’ wallpaper, an’ now they’ve brought out a paintin’ machine. Ther’s a pump an’ a ‘ose pipe, an’ they reckon two men can do as much with this ‘ere machine as twenty could without it.’
‘Why, even ‘ere in Mugsborough,’ chimed in Sawkins–……..We’re overrun with ’em! Nearly all the waiters and the cook at the Grand Hotel where we was working last month is foreigners.’
On cheap foreign labour:
“you know very well that the country IS being ruined by foreigners. Just go to a shop to buy something; look round the place an ‘ you’ll see that more than ‘arf the damn stuff comes from abroad.”
Over 100 years later, this is still fairly mainstream political discourse in the UK. We had this UKIP poster:
I also often see people arguing that cheap foreign labour overseas is costing us jobs in the UK.
And you still hear the Luddite argument that machinery will replace all our jobs. Technology has and will continue to replace jobs that are being done by humans today, but this doesn’t mean unemployment is guaranteed. A lot of people on the left use this argument to advocate a guaranteed basic income, but it ignores the fact that new forms of work are being created all the time, and we could also broaden what we think of as work to include activities that are not being paid to do at the moment.
We had full employment in the 1960s and there is no reason we shouldn’t have it again. As Keynes said:
“…Our main task, therefore, will be to confirm the reader’s instinct that what seems sensible is sensible, and what seems nonsense is nonsense. We shall try to show him that the conclusion, that if new forms of employment are offered more men will be employed, is as obvious as it sounds and contains no hidden snags; that to set unemployed men to work on useful tasks does what it appears to do, namely, increases the national wealth; and that the notion, that we shall, for intricate reasons, ruin ourselves financially if we use this means to increase our well-being, is what it looks like – a bogy.”