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No, Self-driving trucks are not threatening one of America’s top blue-collar jobs

Last week, a friend of mine — a Facebook ‘friend’ — who was an avid Bernie Sanders supporter, posted the following article from the LA Times entitled,

Robots could replace 1.7 million American truckers in the next decade

The idea behind this article from the LA Times is to essentially demonize the development of capital and technological advancements — like automation — for fear of unemployment. In actuality such advancements increase the quality of life for people all around while likewise reducing their cost of living and the amount of work exerted. The idea that ingenuity is somehow a threat to mankind’s way of life is rather specious, not to mention counterproductive if widely accepted. Likewise, if I may be so bold to suggest, it is the reason why so many people live in poverty and without the leisure that many of us in first-world countries get to enjoy most often (e.g. Washing Machines).

This premise — an antithesis between labor and capital — is based upon an ignorance of economics and it’s often used to exploit hardworking Americans for political expediency. How much easier is it to garner votes if you can convince your constituency that you’re going to save them by sustaining their well-being (i.e. employment and accompanying benefits)? Such faux paternalism seems to be the key  to career politics.

Is capital a threat to labor? If by threat you mean that it can lead to the dissolution of jobs in one industry only to create more jobs elsewhere, and greater opportunities for each individual whose time was previously consumed by said labor, then sure, it’s a threat. It’s a threat to a harder way of life. The whole point of developing capital is to decrease the amount of work exerted as well as the costs of production. This also leads to the creation of affordable products for consumers while likewise freeing up people to pursue greater ends.

Think about it this way, if companies were still using horses and buggies to transport goods, it would take much more longer for their products to reach the market than it does now. The demand would be a nightmare, not to mention the impact it would have on consumers. However, with the advent of eighteen wheelers and big rigs came an alleviation; it allowed shipments to be timed in accordance to production, instead of the other way around. Did the invention of big rigs mean more jobs? Well, not necessarily. More jobs came as a consequence of market growth and the need for labor to accommodate for product abundance and its distribution. Greater profits means allocating more capital (e.g. big rigs); and more capital means greater profits.

So, does this mean there was an outcry from the horse-and-buggy industry when Freightliner Trucks was founded? Probably. The problem was not with the advent of trucks though, but rather with those who refused to see the market potential in using such capital. If these big rigs were never imagined, never created, and never used, and we still used the aforementioned primitive means of transport, then those 1.7 million jobs for truck drivers would have never existed. Instead, there would be 1.7 million more laborious jobs involving the raising of horses and the construction of buggies. Likewise, I can’t imagine today’s truck drivers jumping at the opportunity to be a reinsman or bull-whacker tasked with transporting goods across the country in light of the fact that it can be done with a 500 hp / 1,600 ft-lb torque truck.

Published in Terrence Daugherty