Economics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional and academic economists and analysts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

John Stuart Mill famously remarked that labor-saving machines have not saved one minute of labor. More seriously, Marx argued, roughly, that machines can gain temporary market advantage, but cannot produced "surplus value," which come only from increasing attachment of labor. (Though Marx's value theory is complex and slightly ambiguous.)

Nonetheless, observers, neoliberal and socialist alike, seem to agree that machines are "productive" and "labor-saving" overall. For neoliberals this is productive "innovation" and for leftists "technological unemployment." The idea of a future where "most work is done by robots" seems remarkably widespread. This strikes me as a fallacy for three reasons.

First, in a rough adaptation of Say's Law, someone must obviously make, fuel, and maintain the machines. Someone else must, for example, mine the additional metals, feed the miners who mine the metals, raise the farmers who feed the miners who....etc.

Second, the rise of "labor-saving technology" since the 19th century has come with a huge, five-fold increase in the global laboring population. The "local" increases in per-laborer productivity appear more than offset by the attachment and utilization of increased, lower-cost labor worldwide.

Third, the idea of "robots doing all the work" would seem to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Machines cannot run or reproduce themselves. The only "perpetual motion machine" is life itself. Without humans all machines succumb to entropy almost immediately. This would apply to any level of technology.

I am not arguing that machines make no difference. But is this difference primarily local and conditional? Is the local "productivity" of machines primarily and irreducibly a way of displacing labor globally... and redirecting labor through "machines" from lower-cost to higher-cost zones?

Above all, is it logically possible for machines to produce more "work" in total than goes into them? Again, even apart from issues about "quality of work," I am always surprised at how many people seem to assume this "robot replacement scenario" is plausible.

P.S. Though I would like to respond to answers and comments, the "comment" function is not working for me at the moment, I have asked "Help" about it. My argument from thermodynamics appears to be misunderstood, I will address as soon as possible.

share|improve this question
It appears to me that although you write about the fallacy of "most work done by machines" (my emphasis), the first and third arguments pertain to "all work done by machines", and this is a critical qualitative jump that renders them irrelevant. – Alecos Papadopoulos Nov 18 '15 at 13:14

The only "perpetual motion machine" is life itself.

No it is not. We also convert energy to heat as we go through life. We are certainly not immune to the second law of thermodynamics, we increase entropy all the time.

Machines cannot run or reproduce themselves.

Why not? There is already factory robots making other robots. But of course, they run on fuel. But again, humans also run on fuel, we just call it food.

[...] someone must obviously make, fuel, and maintain the machines. Someone else must [...] mine the additional metals, feed the miners who mine the metals, [...]

Yes, there is a kind of dependency graph, and for now there are many spots for humans, there are many things the machines just cant do. But there are no fundamental reason why a machine can't fix another machine, and there is no reason why there can't be a "universal repair machine" which also repairs copies of itself.

share|improve this answer

Only thing you need to realize I think is that humans are machines, very lousy and inefficient machines at that.

Once you accept that, then it becomes evident that at some point we will be able, at worst, to create a replacement to human at lower cost.

Realistically what will be produced isn't an exact replica, but rather, a machine with all the upsides and none of the downsides that will be able to out-perform human at anything.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.