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William A. Levinson


It’s Time to Lose the Luddites

A ‘robot tax’ would do nothing more than derail almost limitless growth and a high standard of living

Published: Thursday, October 21, 2021 - 11:03

Luddism is, as depicted by Henry Ford, “...the theory that there is only so much work in the world to do and it must be strung out.”1 This dysfunctional paradigm is shared today by otherwise highly capable people such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, while former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for a “robot tax” on employers who introduce automation. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang has called for a universal basic income (UBI) to compensate for jobs lost to automation.2

These proposals can, if taken seriously and acted upon, do nothing more than derail almost limitless growth and a high standard of living for all Americans. They are, in fact, just variations on Luddism as depicted in a song for the Children’s BBC series Horrible Histories. It begins, “We were weavers highly skilled ‘till things were mechanized...” and goes on to describe how machines purportedly displaced workers. The result was a revolution in which the Luddites smashed the machines in question; robot taxes are simply a nonviolent modification of machine-breaking.

Luddites, early 19th century
Figure 1: Luddites, early 19th century

The Roman Empire tried the UBI. It didn’t work.

The universal basic income, or “basic living stipend” (BLS) as it is called in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, has been around for a long time. Honor Harrington is essentially a female version of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower with a spaceship instead of a frigate, and she is in the service of the Star Kingdom of Manticore—an obvious stand-in for England as its manticore resembles a lion. The Star Kingdom’s rival is the People’s Republic of Haven, which is modeled on revolutionary France; it even features a “Rob S. Pierre” among its leaders. Haven’s BLS, as demanded by the Dolists (as in “on the dole”) is a major driving force for its military aggression against other star systems because Haven’s economy cannot otherwise support it.

Haven’s economy may have been modeled in turn on that of Imperial Rome, as depicted in Daniel Mannix’s The Way of the Gladiator: “...The government was finally forced to subsidize the Roman working class to make up the difference between their ‘real wages’ (the actual value of what they were producing) and the wages required to keep up their relatively high standard of living. As a result, thousands of workmen lived on this subsidy and did nothing whatever, sacrificing their standard of living for a life of ease.... The Roman freeman would far rather have his dole and games than work for a living.”3

The reference goes on to describe how Rome’s former middle class called for higher taxes on the rich, who depended on slaves for their own incomes. The fact that there is similar talk in the United States in the early 21st century should be appalling to anybody who knows even the rudiments of economics. Note also that proposals for a high minimum wage that is not backed by corresponding productivity is a recipe for disaster. The Romans tried this, and it did not have a happy ending.

It should therefore be obvious that if a society pays people not to work, the payments must come at the expense of those who do. Rudyard Kipling addressed this long ago in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”:

“In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: ‘If you don’t work you die.’

“Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.”

We cannot pay people to not work and expect anything good to come from it, but what does automation really do to employment?

Luddites, then and now

Resistance to automation predates modern automation by centuries. Aristotle, a proponent of what he called “natural slavery,” i.e., the proposition that some people were slaves by nature, predicted that automation would make this institution along with low-wage labor obsolete. “For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, ‘of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods;’ if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”4

The obvious implication is that employers would not want low-wage labor, either, and this has been the actual effect of automation. Even were slavery still legal and socially acceptable, it is far cheaper to pay one worker high wages to run a cotton harvester or a backhoe than maintain a thousand slaves to pick cotton or dig holes, use other forms of unfree or semi-free labor such as serfdom or robata (a feudal tax in the form of labor), or rely on low-wage labor. Coal mining was once a dirty, dangerous, and poorly-paid occupation as depicted accurately in The Molly Maguires. Automation has made coal mining a high-wage occupation that many workers consider desirable despite the remaining hazards, as the average starting pay in Appalachia was $60,000 a year in 2010 regardless of education.5 This is because machines now perform the once literally backbreaking labor that was formerly done with pick and shovel.

The vallus, or push-scythe
Figure 2:
The vallus, or push-scythe.7

The Romans resisted the introduction of an animal-propelled push scythe, the vallus, lest it put slaves out of work—as if abolition of slavery would have been a bad thing.6 The advantages of this machine over workers with scythes are obvious. The animal pushes it from behind to avoid trampling the crop before it can be harvested, and the blades deposit the grain into the cart automatically. This technology was apparently rediscovered only in the 19th century after farm workers had wasted countless person-years of labor with far less efficient scythes and sickles.

John Henry the Luddite

The famous ballad of John Henry is about a railroad worker whose job was to use a hammer to drive holes for the placement of explosives to level ground for rail beds. He was so proud of his strength and his skill with a hammer that he challenged one of the new steam drills to see which could make bigger holes. He defeated the machine, but he died of exhaustion in the process.

“John Henry hammered on the right-hand side.
Steam drill kept driving on the left.
John Henry beat that steam drill down.
But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord,
He hammered his poor heart to death.”

John Henry admittedly had something of an argument because he was able to drive the steel 14 feet against the steam drill’s nine. He may, however, have been competing against J. J. Couch’s relatively primitive rock drill of 1849, which was later superseded by the far more effective Ingersoll (later Ingersoll-Rand) rock drill of 1871.8 The premise that a skilled laborer like John Henry could beat a machine becomes far more credible in light of the following explanation.9 Note that “hand labor was persisted in” because of the first machines’ deficiencies:

“No other machine made previous to the introduction of the Ingersoll rock drill could claim any of these essential properties. They were so defective and repairs were of such a serious and ruinous expense that no one would take the risk of steam drilling, and hand labor was persisted in; then the machines were so ponderous and massive as to be very unwieldy and laborious to handle and move about. In addition, the frame-work supporting the working parts was so clumsy that it was impossible to introduce the machine into narrow and uneven rock excavations, places where drilling machines are most needed.”

Ingersoll rock drill
Figure 3: Ingersoll rock drill.

John Henry and his contemporaries should therefore have realized that it was only a matter of time until machines displaced even the best hand labor. The Wright Brothers’ airplane (1903) was similarly of little practical use, but Sir Arthur Longmore tested the first airplane-carried torpedo in 1914. The Royal Navy proved in 1915 that an enemy merchant ship could be sunk by a torpedo bomber, and this development should have caused considerable alarm among the world’s battleship commanders. Charles Lindbergh flew only himself across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, but the owners of the world’s passenger ships should have realized even then that their days were numbered, and they should perhaps invest in airplanes instead. When the first robot put together a custom-ordered sandwich,10 restaurant workers should have similarly begun to retrain for higher-paying jobs that involve programming and maintaining the robots. Cattle and poultry farmers should wonder similarly if they need to get into bioreactors that can produce edible meat without the use of any animals whatsoever.

The Tudor Luddite

Luddism was and is not limited to uninformed people, whether self-made billionaires today or the otherwise highly capable Elizabeth I of England. Queen Elizabeth refused to grant a patent for an automated knitting machine for fear it would put weavers out of work; this was the same motive for the machine-breakers 200 years later.11

A famous Luddite, Elizabeth I of England
Figure 4: A famous Luddite (circa 1575, by Nicholas Hilliard)

The truth is that automated weaving machines increased the jobs’ productivity more than a hundred-fold, so garments cost far less while workers could be paid a lot more. The Biblical story of Joseph and his “coat of many colors” suggests that this garment was sufficiently costly and unusual to inspire envy. Clothing with complex patterns and colors are taken for granted today, and are affordable by all.

We have seen so far that automation had made slavery and even low-wage labor uneconomical, and has raised our standard of living enormously. Henry Ford wrote, “the only slave left on earth is man minus the machine.”12 Luddism is therefore absolutely antithetical to economic progress, high wages for working Americans, and an affluent standard of living. The Luddites have, if we start with Aristotle, claimed for more than 2,000 years that automation will destroy jobs, and they have been wrong for more than 2,000 years. What will happen, though, when machines really become sufficiently productive to do almost everything?

The future of automation

Thomas Edison asked himself during an interview almost 100 years ago what would happen when machines did everything.13 He concluded that “Manufacturers can then afford to pay any kind of wages.” Suppose, however, that machines really do become so productive that there is not enough full-time work to go around. The result is likely to be not loss of jobs, but rather reduction of the traditional work week.

We take the 40 hour work week for granted today, but the government determined in 1890 that the typical manufacturing employee spent 100 hours a week on the job.14 If we assume that people did not work on Sundays, as was traditional in that era, they must have worked more than 16 hours a day, which left less than eight hours for sleep. There were apparently calls for 10-hour work days in the mid-19th century, or 60-hour weeks, since people worked on Saturdays, but only in the 20th century did Henry Ford’s moving assembly lines make it possible to earn a decent living in only 40 hours a week.

It is therefore realistic to foresee a future, and not a very distant one, in which robot programmers, robot repair people, bioreactor operators, and so on work 24 to 32 hour weeks for the same income they now get for 40-hour weeks. Allan Benson, quoted in the Thomas Edison reference above, goes even further with this prediction from Henry Ford: “One day at luncheon Mr. Ford dropped the remark that he believed the time would come when nobody need spend more than 2 percent of his time in producing the food, clothing, and shelter with which to maintain himself.” 2 percent of 168 hours a week comes to fewer than four hours a week. This is unlikely to be realistic in the next 10 years, but it could, given rapid advances in technology and artificial intelligence, become reality by the middle of the 21st century—unless the Luddite mentality gets in the way.

Ford added that his employees had to work 40 hours a week primarily because of industrial inefficiency along with nonvalue-adding entities that consume value without contributing any. “Earning a living will be the smallest part of our troubles once we have learned to do without parasites and without waste. Too many activities are now nonproductive. That is partly because of our faulty industrial organization and partly because of parasitism.” Lean manufacturing and automation are probably just beginning to scratch the surface of the waste in question.

The Luddites are wrong unless management proves them right

While Luddism is usually a dysfunctional ideology with little basis in reality, there have been occasions in which dysfunctional management has proven the Luddites right. Ford’s workers resisted unionization until the mid-1930s because they believed, rightly, that the fruits of automation and productivity improvements would show up in their pay envelopes. The people to whom Ford delegated the management of his company, however, went against Ford’s own guidance with the result that the United Autoworkers soon gained a foothold.

Upton Sinclair explained clearly what happened: “Twenty men who had been making a certain part would see a new machine brought in and set up, and one of them would be taught to operate it and do the work of the twenty. The other nineteen wouldn’t be fired right away—there appeared to be a rule against that. The foreman would put them at other work, and presently he would start to ‘ride’ them, and the men would know exactly what that meant.”15 The fact that there was a rule against it showed that Ford had a no-layoff policy, but his successors found ways to circumvent it, and with consequent loss of morale and commitment.

Frederick Winslow Taylor had warned previously, “...after a workman has had the price per piece of the work he is doing lowered two or three times as a result of his having worked harder and increased his output, he is likely entirely to lose sight of his employer’s side of the case and become imbued with a grim determination to have no more cuts if soldiering can prevent it.”16

Taylor meant, however, reductions in the piece rate to avoid increases in the hourly pay. It is necessary to reduce the piece rate, and also the employer’s profit per piece, to offer customers lower prices to get them to buy the increased output. However, the changes must increase the worker’s hourly wage and employer’s hourly profit.

Suppose, for example, workers get 20 cents per piece for 100 units per hour, the employer gets 5 cents profit per piece, and the materials cost 20 cents. The customer’s price is therefore 45 cents per piece. Now assume that automation increases the output to 300 per hour per worker. The piece rate can be halved to 10 cents but the worker now gets $30 rather than $20 an hour; Taylor’s warning would come into play only if the piece rate was cut to 6.67 cents to keep the hourly pay at $20. The employer’s profit can be reduced from 5 cents to 2.5 cents per piece, but the employer now gets $7.50 rather than $5 per worker-hour. The price meanwhile drops from 45 cents to 32.5 cents, which means more can be sold and the workers can remain employed at the higher output.


Luddism is the delusion that automation and other forms of productivity improvement (such as motion efficiency) destroy jobs. The truth is that, if an employer tries to pay 10 people to do one person’s job, it can pay each of them only one-tenth as much. This is why, prior to widespread industrialization, people accepted slavery, serfdom, and low-wage labor as necessary evils if they even recognized them as evils at all. Automation offers workers high wages and an affluent standard of living that is consistent with the expectations of the 21st century, and should therefore be encouraged at every opportunity.

1. Ford, Henry, and Crowther, Samuel. Today and Tomorrow. Doubleday, Page & Co., 1926. (1988 reprint available from Productivity Press.) p. 157.
2. Ezrati, Milton. “A Robot Tax Will Help No One And Hurt Many.Forbes, Oct. 2019.
3. Mannix, Daniel. The Way of the Gladiator. Simon and Schuster, 1958. (This book apparently also provided some of the background for the movie Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe.)
4. Aristotle. (Benjamin Jowett, trans.) Politics on Slaves and Women, selections from Book I.
5. Dwyer, Devin. “Craving Coal Dust ‘Like Nicotine’: Why Miners Love the Work.” ABC News, April 6, 2010.
6. James, Peter, and Thorpe, Nick. Ancient Inventions. Ballentine Books, 1994, pp. 388–389.
7. Loudon, John Claudius. An Encyclopedia of Agriculture. Public domain, 1883.
8. Parkhill, S. M. “Rock Drills Shaped America: These Tools Helped Fashion Roads, Build New York City’s Subways, And Blast the Way for Mount Rushmore.” The Morning Call, 1997.
9. Russel D. E. “The Ingersoll Rock Drill.” Manufacturer and Builder Magazine, vol. 11, Issue 7, July 1879, pp.153–154. (Also the reference for the Ingersoll rock drill image, public domain).
10. Robertson, Adi. “Autonomous robot will make you a sandwich based on simple commands.” The Verge, Dec. 13, 2011.
11. Conniff, Richard. “What the Luddites Really Fought Against.” Smithsonian Magazine, March, 2011.
12. Ford, Henry, and Crowther, Samuel. Today and Tomorrow. Doubleday, Page & Co., 1926. (1988 reprint available from Productivity Press.)
13. Benson, Allan L. The New Henry Ford. Funk and Wagnalls, 1923, p. 256.
14. Whalen, Kelly. “History Lesson—How the 8-Hour Day Was Won.” PBS, June, 1990.
15. Sinclair, Upton. 1937. The Flivver King. Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1937. (1987 reprint.)
16. Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper Brothers, 1911. (1998 reprint by Dover Publications.)


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford’s Universal Code for World-Class Success (Productivity Press, 2013).


Useless opinion piece

What, exactly, does this author's Econ 101 essay have to do with maintaining quality standards?

It is an argument in support

It is an argument in support of lean manufacturing, as a start.


I do not read Quality Digest for political opinions. 

The article is about manufacturing economics

The underlying issues (manufacturing and economics) are nonpartisan, apolitical, and impartial laws of science and economics. It is the often misguided reactions to them that become political in nature. The difference is clear in Rudyard Kipling's The Gods of the Copybook Headings, which represent these nonpartisan and impartial laws that govern everything. Kipling's "Gods of the Market Place" relate, on the other hand, to popular ideas as to how we can get something for nothing, including but not limited to political "fixes."

Automation and efficiency improvements have similarly had dysfunctional political repurcussions for hundreds of years as discussed in the article, with even the Queen of England refusing to issue a patent for a knitting machine in the late 16th century and people arguing for "robot taxes" and universal basic incomes today. All three relate to what Kipling would call the Gods of the Market Place (i.e. restrict automation to preserve jobs) while the Gods of the Copybook Headings say that automation and efficiency offer a high standard of living for everybody.

Another example consists of green energy mandates. I read today that there is a massive energy shortage in Europe because there is less wind available, and the wind turbines that everybody said would displace fossil fuels don't run without wind. Wishful thinking ("wind turbines will deliver green energy") does not unfortunately carry over into reality and Kipling pointed this out more than 100 years ago. I regard wind turbines as a useful adjunct to fossil fuels because they deliver emission-free energy when they work, but they are clearly not a reliable replacement for fossil fuels.

Kipling (and Henry Ford) says we must work with the nonpartisan and impartial laws of science, economics, and human behavior (a square deal for all stakeholders) because, when we try to circumvent these laws as depicted in Kipling's poem, it rarely works out well.

It is unfortunate

Yes, it's unfortunate that that's the world we live in today. Vaccines and masks have somehow become political statements in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 700,000 Americans. So if you publish an article that sounds as though it's shot through the lens of an Adam Smith/Milton Friedman/Chicago School economic theory, it tends to sound conservative, which in these times makes it sound "political."

I enjoyed reading this, and while I don't see your article as inherently political in nature I don't think I agree with some of your conclusions, either; they seem overly optimistic to me. In most American companies today, if you can put in a machine that does the work of 10 people then the company tends to fire those 10 people. It's really not difficult to envision an inflection point where automation does more and more of the labor, and there are fewer and fewer jobs for humans to go around. If we ever hit the singularity and AI becomes just "I," and machines don't need us to learn anymore, then what? 

This is hard for me, because I have spent a lot of years trying to optimize production systems, and it's bothered me that sometimes a process improvement project has eliminated jobs, because it's now a much more efficient process. I have been told by union members that they didn't want me there because every time one of us (quality improvement professionals) showed up, some jobs went away. They saw Quality as another strategy by the company to cut head count. 

Management proved the Luddites right

If management eliminated jobs in response to better productivity, it did exactly what Ford and Taylor warned against 100 or more years ago with the result, as the union pointed out, they wanted no part of Lean. This is exactly what happened at Ford in the mid-1930s when a new machine was brought in, and workers were fired under flimsy pretexted or pressured into quitting.


This does strike me as having political overtones...while probably relevant to business in general for this venue some ties to quality would be good...Deming used to say something very close to, "The factory of the future will contain two living beings, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog; the dog will be there to keep the man from tampering with the machinery." So there's maybe a tenuous tie...