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The Busy Hands Fallacy

I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic for a while, but a recent conversation made it clear that it was time to sit down and get to it. I casually mentioned to one of my friends that it was only a matter of time before stores were prohibited from selling cigarettes. For those of you who don’t know, Ontario has been making it harder and harder to get them by taxing the shit out of them and making it illegal to smoke them in public places.

My friend replied with “But wait; you can’t just make cigarettes illegal. Cigarette companies employ a lot of people. You can’t just put them all out of work!” This, my friends, is an example of one type of faulty reasoning that I call “the Busy Hands fallacy.” Yes, that’s right. I coined my own fallacy.

Let me explain.

Not so long ago, humans had to spend every day working just to provide themselves with enough food to survive. As little as two hundred years ago, close to 90% of the population spent their days working as farmers. That has changed. Today, less than 10% of the population is employed in agriculture. Why? Technology.

We have tractors and seeders and plows that allow one person to do the same work that would have required several hundred farmhands just two centuries ago. Today, we’re producing enough food to feed the entire planet, and we’re doing it with a fraction of the labour that our ancestors would have needed to accomplish the same task.

So what if I were to then suggest to a farmer that she should pick up one of those old scythes that her ancestors used to harvest wheat and do all the work by hand? You’d probably think I was nuts, and you would be right to do so.

Work is not an end in and of itself; it is a means to accomplish some other end. In this case, the end is feeding the farmer’s family and the rest of the community. The community will not be any better off if the farmer chooses to do her job the hard way. On the contrary, she can feed more people by using the technology at her disposal.

The purpose of technology, the sole reason for its existence, is to alleviate the need for human labour. In doing so, technology raises the standard of living for everyone in society, freeing them from toil while creating new opportunities.

However, we’re currently approaching a point where economics as we know it will be forced to undergo a radical shift, and one of factors that will lead to such a shift is the exponential growth of technology.

I like to link people to CGP Grey because he summarizes the issue quite well, but if you want someone with more credentials to back up the point, here’s a talk by Andrew McAfee, MIT’s associate director for their Center for Digital Business. In his talk, McAfee outlines the many ways that technology will replace humans in most blue-collar, white-collar and professional jobs.

Before any of you start to panic, relax. This is a good thing! Creating material abundance with far less human effort frees people from the need to devote the vast majority of their time to monotonous, repetitive occupations. Less human effort, not no human effort. It’s not that the demand for human labour will be totally gone; it just won’t be high enough to sustain the forty-hour workweek for most of the population. Imagine a standard twenty-hour workweek – or, dare I say it, a ten-hour workweek – with a standard of living higher than that which we currently experience. More free time to spend with family and friends, personal autonomy and material abundance.

If it sounds unbelievable, consider the fact that the society we live in today would have been deemed miraculous to someone from 1914. A person from that time would have never imagined that poverty could shrink so profoundly.

There is great cause for optimism but also great cause for concern. Our leaders – if they’re even aware of these issues – have done nothing to prepare for the boom in technology. What’s more, they’re fixated on creating jobs, which is the exact opposite of what they should be doing.

The busy hands fallacy is the belief that people should be working without consideration for what kind of work they do or for the social consequences of such work. Many of the jobs in existence today do far more harm than good.

Remember my friend’s insistence that we can’t put the tobacco companies out of business. Too many people would lose their jobs. Under the logic of capitalism, someone who works for a tobacco company – a company that makes money by selling poison – is granted higher social status that someone who is unemployed. Doing harm is more respectable than doing nothing.

It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, so long as we do something.

Just in case you think I’m resorting to hyperbole, let me illustrate just how dangerous cigarettes truly are. A typical argument among those with libertarian sensibilities is that people who smoke choose to accept the consequences of their actions, and that they should be allowed to poison their bodies if they are so inclined. Smokers, the libertarians claim, aren’t hurting anyone but themselves.

Science disagrees.

I bet you’re expecting me to pull out some article about the dangers of second-hand smoke. I can see your eyes glazing over as I write this paragraph. “Sure, Rich. Sometimes people get exposed to second-hand smoke. Okay.”

Well, you’d be wrong.

I’m not going to talk about second-hand smoke because everyone already knows about the problems it can cause. Instead, I’m going to educate you on a little subject called epi-genetics.

Epi-genetics is the study of the many ways environmental factors can interfere with our DNA’s ability to copy itself. It just so happens that cigarette smoke is one of these environmental factors. So if a man smokes cigarettes, it can interfere with his body’s ability to produce sperm. Sperm are created with minor “errors” in the proteins that read and duplicate the genetic code. This is especially true if he starts smoking at a prepubescent age because his body may start to incorporate the “errors” into the template that it uses to create sperm. And as for you ladies, well…A woman doesn’t produce new ovum; so anything she does to her body at the age of 12 will still affect her if she decides to have children at 28.

This means that the children of a smoker will be far more likely to experience health problems such as diabetes, lupus, obesity, asthma and many other debilitating conditions even if neither parent was smoking during conception or pregnancy.

The libertarian argument is just flat-out wrong. If you choose to smoke, you aren’t just hurting yourself; you’re likely hurting your own children and grandchildren. In light of these facts, can you honestly say that we should continue to produce cigarettes just to keep people employed? Employed doing work that doesn’t need to be done. Work that shouldn’t be done.

Consider the many other ways the Busy Hands Fallacy results in socially harmful behaviour. Earlier this year, we discussed the fact that companies overproduce goods just to keep themselves in business. There are more cars, iPods and laptops than there are people to use them.

What’s more, most products are designed to fail to stimulate repeat purchases.

These business practices are inherently wasteful, and they result in a situation where we use far more resources than Earth can produce in a single year. If you were to apply the logic of finance to resource management, the conclusion becomes inevitable: as a society, we are living above our means.

We do these things because we’ve come to accept without question the idea that we have to keep people working, which is a moronic way of thinking. We go out of our way to create problems just so we can pay people to solve them. It’s a waste of time, energy and resources.

We do this because we’ve decided that survival should be dependent on this totally fictional commodity called money. There are alternatives to this model. As I’ve pointed out before, it is within our power to provide for the basic needs of everyone on the planet. We could give them access to the essential life-sustaining goods for free.

“But wait,” I hear you say. “If we do that, then people will become lazy and sit around all day doing nothing.”

Wrong.

Tested, studied, empirically measured and proven wrong. When society agrees to cover the basic needs of all its citizens, civic engagement goes up; productivity goes up, and overall quality of life goes up. It turns out that humans are naturally industrious creatures. We don’t need the threat of starvation to motivate innovation.

If you want to do work that matters, there’s plenty available building the infrastructure and policies that we will need to adapt to the new paradigm. First and foremost, let’s stop trying to use nineteenth century thinking to solve twenty-first century problems.

_______________

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