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Misunderstanding Luddites

I’ve been known to hurl the Luddite insult every now and again (pretty boorish, I know) so this piece by Richard Conniff at the Smithsonian caught my eye. In it he explains some of the real history of the protests:

As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves “were totally fine with machines,” says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”

This was generally my understanding of the movement, but it’s clear they were less hostile to technology generally than I appreciated. So it turns out they weren’t really eccentrically principled anti-techonological utopians, but were pretty much just regular protectionists with a little flair. Fittingly, those Luddite arguments about “standard labor practices” and “high-quality goods” are the same antique arguments workers use today to justify tariffs and other protections. And when used to extremes, they’re also just as obsolete.

One technology the Luddites commonly attacked was the stocking frame, a knitting machine first developed more than 200 years earlier by an Englishman named William Lee. Right from the start, concern that it would displace traditional hand-knitters had led Queen Elizabeth I to deny Lee a patent. Lee’s invention, with gradual improvements, helped the textile industry grow—and created many new jobs.

That’s not to deny that new technology can’t disrupt actual human beings’ livelihoods and the state has an important role to help displaced workers transition more easily, but public policy can’t hem in (ahem…) technological progress that improves efficiency and creates “many new jobs.” Anti-trade arguments are arguably even less compelling given the moral component of directly denying developing world workers the opportunity to escape extreme poverty.

For the record, I’m still using “Luddite” as an anti-techological progress catchall – some things we just shouldn’t move on from.

(via The Daily Dish)

Categories: Protectionism
  1. Bill
    March 19, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    Perhaps I’ll start using the term “troglodyte” again. Always looking for that perfect label!

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