Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A Political Science Manifesto for the Age of Populism: Driverless Cars

David M. Ricci

In A Political Science Manifesto for the Age of Populism, David Ricci argues that the rise of populism in the twenty-first century is a product of growing resentment caused by mass economic and creative destruction. In the following passage, excerpted from the sixth chapter, “Humanism,” Ricci looks at the development of “driverless cars” to illustrate the downsides of creative destruction.

“Autonomous vehicles” are being developed by the wealthiest high-tech and car companies, including Google, Apple, Amazon, Tesla, Mercedes, General Motors, and Ford.[404] There is little or no popular demand for this product.[405] Nevertheless, to justify their intent to supply us with autonomous vehicles whether we want them or not, entrepreneurial corporations with deep pockets claim that their new product, when it will become feasible, will avoid mistakes made by human drivers. If that is the case, we are told that – if workable vehicles are successfully developed, and if society will tax itself to pay for the expensive infrastructure needed to guide them electronically along America’s roads – these vehicles of the future will save a significant number of lives by preventing traffic accidents.[406]

In truth, this is mainly an argument of convenience. Large corporations do not have consciences but are designed to seek profits.[407] To that end, workable driverless vehicles have the potential for generating stupendous profits – actually, not just stupendous but colossal – because, in the process of installing those vehicles, tens of millions of American car and truck owners will be compelled, like it or not, to pay to replace what they are now driving.[408] The costs of this creativity will spread to the support system for cars and trucks, entailing closure of gasoline stations, neighborhood garages, parking lots, and accessory stores, and forcing the reconfiguration of roads, houses, factories, stores, and offices.[409] It is hard to estimate how much consumers will have to spend on the driverless replacement vehicles; it is hard to estimate how many workers will have to find new jobs (some servicing and deploying the new machines); and it is hard to estimate how much society will have to pay to refashion its present patterns of rural, suburban, and urban life.

That horseless carriages (especially cars and tractors) replaced transportation and farm horses was an earlier case of creative destruction. At that time, millions of American blacksmiths, hackneymen, harness makers, footmen, farriers, carriage makers, hostlers, saddlers, wheelwrights, draymen, grooms, stable owners, breeders, knackers, and auctioneers gave way to people who worked for car manufacturers and auxiliary services.

Some progress was surely achieved.[410] But what was the price in personal stress, anxiety, and despair? No one knows. As decades passed, it is probable that most of these displaced people found other jobs, many in manufacturing. Thus over time, we usually assume that they substituted one sort of employment for another.

But how long did that substitution take? And how much suffering did the people who participated in substitution endure while it unfolded?[411] And how many years will substitution require this time around? And will that happen completely, with everyone finding new employment even though many good American jobs are being outsourced and, in factories and offices, automated out of existence?

Some pundits nowadays suggest that permanently unemployed or underemployed citizens might be allocated some kind of guaranteed income, although not much.[412] But will that provide recipients with meaning in life? That question deserves to be asked plainly and repeatedly. To put the matter in terms we have already considered, why is America permitting the “autonomous vehicles” project to go forward for the benefit of shareholders without taking into account the interests of people who we might regard as stakeholders?[413]

[404] The phrase “autonomous vehicles” is a distortion of grammatical truth fashioned by public relations experts because they assume that the term “driverless cars” (and trucks and trains and buses) would sound to many people ominous.

[405] There may be some, but not much, demand for such vehicles. For example, some companies are probably hoping to buy and deploy driverless trucks, which, unlike truck drivers now employed by the same companies, would not demand vacations or pensions or overtime pay.

[406] For an example of this argument, see https://medium.com/waymo/ lets-talk-self-driving-cars-72743d39cad8.

[407] On corporations being more interested in profi t than conscience, see Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profi t and Power (New York: Free Press, 2004). Against this critical view of how large commercial organizations behave, pro- market thinkers are likely to emphasize the vocational sentiments of entrepreneurs rather than the get- along- together skills of bureaucratic managers. This is the approach in Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York: Free Press, 1996).

[408] I am writing about cars and trucks. But of course this class of entities includes also buses, trolleys, locomotives, motorcycles, fork-lift carts, and more. I am also writing about America. Worldwide potential profits are far larger than those forecast for America, because there are now more than a billion people-driven cars, trucks, and buses in the world. See www.carsguide.com.au/car-advice/ how-many-cars-are-there-in-the-world-70629.

[409] See Ford, The Rise of the Robots, pp. 175–186. The American Trucking Associations estimate that there were 3.5 million truck drivers employed in the United States as of 2016. See www.trucking.org/News_and_Information_ Reports_Industry_Data.aspx.

[410] The benefits and costs, personal and social, of moving to horseless carriages are discussed in Ann Norton Green, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), esp. pp. 244–274.

[411] There is a terminological nuance here. One can speak of “substitution” as when workers move from an old to a new job and the main consideration is whether they maintain or lose income. But one can also observe that, when old jobs are eliminated and new ones created, the new jobs will have characters different from the old, requiring different skills and attitudes and providing different satisfactions. In that case, even if the old rate of pay is maintained in a new job, the transition may generate substantial emotional costs. On this point, see Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us (New York: Norton, 2014), p. 33. Ridley, The Rational Optimist, p. 114, assumes that when creative destruction destroys jobs, it creates new ones. However, he does not discuss whether or not the new ones will be similar or equal to the old ones, and in what respects.

[412] Annie Lowrey, Give People Money: How a Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World (New York: Crowne, 2018), p. 8. The logic here is that a guaranteed income cannot be generous because a large payment might tempt able-bodied people away from working at all. See also Phillippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[413] When we see a disaster approaching, I believe it is reasonable for scholars to study the situation, to teach about it, and to publish suggestions, radical if necessary, about how up-coming damage might be avoided or mitigated. Often, however, only mild generalizations are offered, as in Ford, The Rise of the Robots, p. 285: “If … we can fully leverage advancing technology as a solution – while recognizing and adapting to its implications for employment and the distribution of income – then the outcome is likely to be … optimistic. Negotiating a path through these entangled forces and crafting a future that offers broad-based security and prosperity may prove to be the greatest challenge for our time.” A more dramatic and ominous discussion of the personal and social dislocations that automation has brought, and will still bring, appears in Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income is Our Future (New York: Hachette Books, 2018). As Yang says, p. 68, “The challenge we must overcome is that humans need work more than work needs us.” In classic political science terms, which Yang does not use, what his book describes is the need for a new “social contract,” to help what he calls the many “normal peop

About The Author

David M. Ricci

David Ricci is a former chair of the departments of American Studies and of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Inte...

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