What can we learn from the history of The Machinery Question?

Recently I read was Peter Gaskell’s Artisans and Machinery, from 1836 (later reprinted).

So much of his discussion of handloom weavers could come out of an Atlantic Monthly article from 2015, albeit with different historical references.  However today’s stories typically claim that automation favors tech skills, whereas Gaskell argues power weaving put the skilled workers out of jobs and empowered the less skilled machine supervisors.

Just as Bill Gates called for the taxing of robots, back in the early 19th century many people called for the taxing of machinery.  Gaskell believes this would help labor in the short run but in the longer run actually stimulate more innovation — to avoid some of the tax by lowering capital costs — eventually making labor’s lot all the worse.

Gaskell dives into sociology and suggests that the earlier, less technology-intensive workers were more religious, more devout, and less likely to make political trouble.  Distinctions of rank were in fuller force, and children were less likely to be pressured to work outside the home.  Insofar as the man worked inside the cottage as a sole proprietor, this encouraged an ethic of individual responsibility.  Society was truly decentralized, and those were “the golden times” of manufactures.  The downside is that such individuals were less likely to be literate, and of course output was lower, including food output, and prices were higher.

Since women and children also could work the new power looms, that increased the supply of labor and put downward pressure on wages and on male wages in particular.  Collectively speaking, it would have been better to preserve division of labor within the household, and keep male wages relatively high, and female household production relatively high.

One of the more charming sections of this book was the chapter on how factories spur too much of the animal passions, as men and women are working together long hours and will eventually…dine with Mike Pence.  Furthermore, factory work leads to new norms where women can have premarital sex and still expect to marry someone else later on, without much fear of a reputational penalty.  Premarital sex then rises all the more, and then the looser norms are passed down to the children, worsening the problem all the more.  Eventually England will end up with the sexual norms found in the “warmer climates.”

Overall, Gaskell paints a picture of a world where there are positive social externalities from having individual males tied to pieces of land.  Along those lines, he offers a kind of Georgist critique of the countryside, where too much land has been tied up in speculative enclosures.

Given ongoing mechanization, only in the long run can a society find a “healthy and permanent tone” once again.  He is optimistic about the long run, but not about the transition.

I don’t exactly agree with all of these perspectives, but I was impressed by the intricacy and also clarity of the analysis in this book, which usually does not receive significant mention in the history of economic thought.

Here are various copies of the book.  Even Maxine Berg doesn’t cover Gaskell much.


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