Tyler Cowen: Robots Are “Harrbingers of a new libertarian age”

November 19th, 2013

Tyler Cowen has a cool piece in Politico Magazine (I didn’t know there was such a publication) based on his new book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, arguing that the robotic, revolution will usher in a “new libertarian age.”

The rise of smart machines—technologies that encompass everything from artificial intelligence to industrial robots to the smartphones in our pockets—is changing how we live, work and play. Less acknowledged, perhaps, is what all this technological change portends: nothing short of a new political order. The productivity gains, the medical advances, the workplace reorganizations and the myriad other upheavals that will define the coming automation age will create new economic winners and losers; it will reorient our demographics; and undoubtedly, it will transform what we demand from our government.

Building on Cowen’s earlier work, he argues that technology will reward those with talents, and punish those without it.

The rise of intelligent machines will spawn new ideologies along with the new economy it is creating. Think of it as a kind of digital social Darwinism, with clear winners and losers: Those with the talent and skills to work seamlessly with technology and compete in the global marketplace are increasingly rewarded, while those whose jobs can just as easily be done by foreigners, robots or a few thousand lines of code suffer accordingly.

But because of technological advancements, this “punishment” will still result in a much better lifestyle than can be imagined today.

These trends will only accelerate in the years to come, rewriting America’s social contract in the process. We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given a decent standard of living to one in which people are expected to fend for themselves. I imagine a world in which, say, 10 to 15 percent of the citizenry (or more, in due time) is extremely wealthy and has fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives, equivalent to those of current-day millionaires, albeit with better health care.

Much of the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but they will also have a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and cheap education. Many of these people will live quite well—especially those who have the discipline to benefit from all the free or nearly free services that modern technology makes available. Others will fall by the wayside.

And where does the libertarian age come in? It is very Randian:

This new digital meritocracy will prove self-reinforcing. Worthy individuals will rise from poverty on a regular basis, but that will only make it easier to ignore those left behind. The wealthy class will grow larger over time, and more influential. And the increasingly libertarian values of the wealthy will shape the public debate, strengthening the upper class’s grip on the commanding heights of the economy and society, and pulling policy in their favor.

Americans will also become more politically conservative, as the digital winners seize control of the narrative and the rest of the country grows more enamored of low or falling taxes, whether or not such tax rates prove possible to maintain. Americans will want to be promised something for nothing. They will look more toward local communities and tight local bonds to protect themselves against economic risks. Unlike the predicted breakdown in social order, these trends are already significant and observable in today’s America.