The social machine: Jobs are a means, not an end

The purpose of an automobile factory is not to “create jobs,” as the politicians like to say. Its function is not to add to the employment rolls with good wages and UAW benefits, adding to the local tax base and helping to sustain the community — as desirable as all those things are. The purpose of an automobile factory is not to create jobs — it is to create automobiles. Jobs are a means, not an end. Human labor is valuable to the extent that it contributes to human prosperity and human flourishing, not in and of itself as a matter of abstraction.

There are cases in which this is so obvious that practically everybody understands it. When we talk about building new pipelines (and good on the Trump administration for getting out of the way of getting that done), our progressive friends sometimes sniff that many of the new jobs associated with that work are “temporary.” (“Temporary jobs” is a phrase usually delivered with a distinct sniff.) Here is a little something to consider: Unless you are building the Second Avenue Subway in New York City, all construction jobs are temporary — buildings get built. Projects come to completion, and work gets finished. It is in the nature of construction jobs to come to an end. And it is not only construction: A technology-industry friend attending the recent National Review Ideas Summit in Washington bluntly shared the view from Silicon Valley: “All jobs are temporary.”

Consider this thought experiment: Say that a Star Trek fan manages to invent something like the replicator from that science-fiction series, meaning that all purely material desires can be more or less fulfilled instantly: “Tea, Earl Grey, hot!” and that’s that. Such an invention would be devastating for the employment prospects of billions of people, including pretty much everyone on Earth not working in a purely service-oriented or intellectual capacity along with a great many people working in service jobs, too: There are no chaiwallahs on the Enterprise.

But we would be enormously better off in real terms.