I unequivocally believe that the industrial revolution was a good thing. It improved our quality of life in an uncountable number of ways we take for granted. Modern medicine, modern media, modern transportation. Everything modern is a product of the industrial revolution. However, nothing is perfect; economist Thomas Sowell points out that in economics there are trade offs.
In my last post, I explored one of the negative consequences of industrialization. Here, I would like to elaborate more on its problems. These are the only four truly legitimate criticisms I am aware of.
Critique of the western world seems to be a unifying theme in virtually all factions of the American left-wing. This often takes one of two forms. First, they criticize the west culturally, for being discriminatory, racist/bigoted, imperialist, colonialist, and so on. Second, they criticize the west economically, through the lens of Marxism.
What they criticize as “Capitalism” is essentially the underlying mechanisms of industrialization. Their error is they criticize industrialization (capitalism) in economic terms (probably in an attempt to sound smart and sophisticated), when it really ought to be criticized in social terms. Moreover, when leftists do try to criticize our economic system in social terms, I find those arguments totally unconvincing because they display a lack of perspective. Sowell likes to ask, “compared to what?”, and I like to ask that of Marxists who denigrate Capitalism. Capitalists have nothing to prove; their system has been achieved, and under it has befallen prosperity. The burden is on communists to prove that their proposed system – which has never brought prosperity, is viable enough to possibly do so.
But just because people who have made bad arguments in the past does not mean there are no valid arguments for the same premise. And those are what I wish to explore in this post.
I will use the terms “scarcity” and “abundance” in a relative sense; relative to each other as opposite extremes. Without further ado, the problems with industrialization:
- It creates distance between workers and what they produce. They receive compensation, but in the cold form of money; they do not keep the products and services they create. Capitalism leads to specialization, relegating one’s work to that of a single task (or narrow slice of tasks) within an industry. Sometimes the direct benefit of one’s work is not obvious. All of the product of one’s work is enjoyed by someone else, and all that one consumes is made by someone else. One does not “own” their property in any sense of having helped make it, unless you mean in a very abstract sense. A person does not get the fulfillment of having built the house he lives in, of having sewn the clothes he wears, of having farmed the food he eats. Rather, he “consumes” “products” from the vast, economic “system”. The system that removes true fulfillment from work: the fulfillment of designing and working to make the very goods and services what you yourself consume. Indeed, in pre-industrial times, there was delegation and trading of responsibility, but it took on a very social and human nature, because you could personally know everyone you traded with. I am not suggesting that money or markets are a new thing, but they have really become a different animal under Industrialization – it’s greatest strength, but also with its pitfalls. In a globalized economy, you have no human connection to the people who made your shoes or built your furniture; your life is a series of cold transactions. Moreover, the system is swamped with “middlemen”, people who do not directly produce a clear product but rather have the job of keeping the system turning or “facilitating” production. Lawyers and bankers, for example. Or even managers and analysts. Finally, complicated economic hierarchies of interconnected influence arise. Suddenly, our the economy is in the hands of people we have never met and do not need care for, which removes agency from ourselves.
Industrialization degrades much of culture (bear with me; I can justify this). Two things come together to define what we think of as culture. The first thing is distinctiveness, or a difference between how one people does things and how another people does things. The second thing is a uniformity in the practices of a people who are generally geographically together. Same clothes, same architecture, and so on, within a specific area, is part of culture.
In a pre-industrial world, poor transportation forces a level of isolation between peoples. This allows peoples to develop their cultures independently. Consider the difference between American and Japanese animation; the geographic distance allowed the styles to develop independently for a period of time. When people don’t develop styles independently, we don’t call it culture, we just call it “the way everyone is”. When everyone is connected, everything bleeds together into a single monoculture.
Industrialization creates abundance, and abundance is the enemy of within-group/within-region uniformity. Scarcity is a big part of culture. Consider the Inuit. Why did the Inuit all live in igloos? Because of the scarcity of their environment. The igloo was the most efficient home to make given the resources available and the capacities they had. And because of scarce resources, they had no better choice but make it. But now the Inuit are no longer constrained to living in igloos. So the cultural symbol of the “igloo” is a memory, except in places where industrial abundance has not yet taken hold. Scarcity forces uniformity, and those elements which are uniform (and particular to a region or people) we name “culture”. When there is abundance, there is customizability; where there is customizability, everyone can be different; when everyone can be different, there are not elements uniform within the society that can be pinned onto it under the description of “culture”. If you hear about “culture” of industrialized countries, you hear described those things that have not succumbed to customizability. For example, with respect to zero sum resources, which are always scarce. Where there exist network externalities (such as in sports) or where things confer social status (such in clothing trends).
- It places our bodies in artificial environments. I have alluded to this subject before. Our bodies adapted to natural environments, ones with scarcity. Scarcity of carbohydrates, for example. Our bodies are not suited to environments with an abundance of sugar. Hence, the obesity epidemic. Or take, for instance, addictive things like TV or video games. We can become fixated to these things to the detriment of all else. Why? Because our bodies are adapted to the savanna, where such things are a non-issue, and dopamine-chasing can be a net positive, not swallowed up by such pursuits, and there is always something fulfilling that can be achieved in a day’s work. What we come to enjoy in the modern world is not that which grants us true advantage, it is that which sufficiently drip-feeds us dopamine independent of whether we’re actually achieving something.
- Industrialization has endowed humans with with powers we are perhaps not responsible enough for. Industrialization has given us the atom bomb, which can level an entire city in a single blow. It has taught us about fossil fuels, which when burned can create a global pollution problem. People have always killed each other and pillaged the environment, – but industrialization increases human capacity (for good and for bad). There should be special focus of the effect on the environment, because it is a zip tie.
None of this means that we should forsake industrialization. The free market confers, by its definition, freedom. Economic freedom is a type of freedom in its own right. But freedom comes at a cost. Freedom requires a population responsible enough to, by their own voluntary volition, not abuse it or succumb to its pitfalls. It requires self-discipline. The following should be undertaken by a self-disciplined man to avoid the pitfalls of industrialization.
- Where possible, when you have to do something, do it yourself, rather than pay someone else to do it for you. A clear example: it is advisable to do your own yard work rather than pay someone else to do it for you (even if it may be more efficient to pay to have it done by someone else). Working for yourself, enjoying the fruits of your own labor, brings fulfillment. Teach yourself how to do things (like how to do plumbing work, or how to fix a car, or how to build furniture) that you would otherwise hire a specialist for. The government would prefer that everything happens in financial transactions, because it makes human activity more taxable and controllable. Do not let them decide how you operate the economy.
- Remember your tradition. Learn, if only for your own enjoyment, the way your ancestors used to do things. I think the Japanese people strike a good balance between tradition and industrialization. They remember their old ways of doing things (kimonos, samurai, etc.), and maintain in everyday life much of their tradition (their food, architecture, etc.), but they are by any definition an “industrialized” people.
- Regulate your habits, and do not succumb to addictions. For example, do not become addicted to sugar; else you become obese. Do not become addicted to video games or the like. Become addicted only to things that bring you true fulfillment, and of your own volition.
- Where present, we should be wary of human capabilities that bring about irreversible outcomes.