The Rabbi of Ludd


New at Reason: What chance do the forces of anti-progress stand against techological innovation? Better than you think, sez Ron Bailey.

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  1. When is Joel Mokyr going to write a new book? Sounds like this is a re-tread of “The Levers of Riches” published in 1989, spiced up with some of what was re-treaded in “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.”

    BTW, wouldn’t that be Neo-Ludditeism? Ned Ludd was a man (well, most certainly a fictional man), and the Luddites were his followers (or they claimed to be at least).

    “The European Union’s effort to slow the introduction of genetically enhanced crops is a contemporary example of this process at work.”

    Well, that and people don’t buy the stuff – in Lyon if you put a GM labelled product against a non-GM product and people will buy the latter. I swear this manichean universe libertarians live in is very amusing.

    Though Bailey attempts to avoid the use of technological determinism, ultimately he falls into tha trap, as most Americans do. You are all a bunch of Whigs, no matter who hard you try.

  2. Jean,

    But to choose a non-GM over GM food, you have to have free access to information. And Ron Bailey consistently avoids the issue of whether he would ALLOW the VOLUNTARY labelling of food as GM or non-GM. Not REQUIRE, mind you, but ALLOW. And as I never tire of pointing out, if packagers and grocers are allowed to label which is which, import barriers will be unnecessary to curtail most of the European market for GM food.

    Agribusiness in the US is consistently against a free market in information. They prefer an FDA regulatory regime in which all labelling information not mandatory is forbidden, along with food libel laws and SLAP lawsuits.

    As for Luddism, it’s misleading to portray it as motivated by irrational hatred of technology as such. It was much more about a very rational hatred of change imposed from above by a class that had attained its position by forcible robbery. The bulk of land enclosures were still a living memory; and the Combination Acts, Laws of Settlement, and Poor Laws, taken together, amounted to a Stalinist police state for the working class (internal passports and all). Much of the work force in northern factories was sold as virtual slave labor from overpopulated London parishes by the Poor Law magistrates.

    Had the overwhelming majority of England not been robbed of its land by the ruling oligarchy, and had this nation of small property owners been free to organize cooperative work and exchange in any way it saw fit, in a genuine free market, I believe they would have been quite friendly to the idea of labor-saving technology.

    As a host of industrial historians (Lazonick, Montgomery, Noble, Marglin) have shown, there are usually several equally feasible ways of organizing labor-saving technology into the production process. The one chosen is not the most efficient in terms of unit cost, but the most effective in assuring labor discipline.

    I have written about these issues at much greater length in the “Subsidy of History” heading of my essay “Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand” on the Articles page of my site.

  3. I’m with Ron on this one. But haven’t I read this somewhere before?

  4. Kavin Carson,

    Doesn’t the US argue that even voluntary labelling should be banned? I would guess that they posit this based on the PPM decision in Tuna-Dolphin I. Of course I don’t know if the PPM decision was ever cleared up after Tuna-Dolphin, since that panel decision was never adopted by the GATT council prior to it becoming defunct in 1994, no WTO jurisprudence to my knowledge has taken up the question even when it was available to do so (such as in Turtles-Shrimp).

  5. Kevin Carson,

    Well, I wasn’t arguing that Luddites were anti-technology per se; there motivations were, as you’ve demonstrated, far more complex. As to Britain’s legal structure, etc., you are right; it was an incredibly oppressive regime which punches holes in the idea of “free labor” being a paramount concern of early capitalism.

  6. I don’t know what the US is proposing in the WTO re European labelling. But in the US, the food industry has been heavily behind FDA bans on voluntary labelling of non-irradiated, non-GMO foods, etc. So I would expect the same stance against Europe.

    Of course, the patron saint of that industry is Dwayne Andreas, formerly of ADM, who said “The only place you’ll find a free market in anything, anywhere, is in the speeches of politicans.” He also said “The competitor is our friend; the customer is our enemy.”

    Just more evidence that the Bretton Woods system and GATT, while called “free market” institutions by neoliberals, are in fact an exercise in mercantilist statism on a larger scale than ever before in history.

  7. Kevin Carson,

    That sounds about right.

    You’ve heard of St. Monday I assume? When workers in Britain would take off Monday to deal with or continue weekend hangovers? There’s a great book concerning issues of social and labor control in America (specifically in a town along the Erie Canal as I recall) titled “A Shopkeeper’s Millenium” if you’ve never read it.

  8. Where I work it’s the boss who turns every holiday into a four or five day weekend. We say she’s got St. Jack Daniels Day off.

  9. [If technological decisions are left to people freely acting in markets, those who favor a new technology can vote “yes” by buying it or switching to it. Those who oppose it can refuse to buy or use a new technology; but, as Mokyr notes, they “have no control over what others do even if they feel it might affect them. In markets it is difficult to express a no vote.”]

    Accepting Ellul’s framing of the debate in this way, which attempts to judge market driven technological progress by the standards of political democracy (voting), yields a much higher relative moral ground to political democracy vs. capitalism then it deserves and of course this skews the debate in the neo-Luddite’s favor. Besides this, the example is wrong, abstaining from the purchase of a product and/or purchasing an alternative obviously has input with the purveyors of said product. This input, from a single individual may be quite small (though, in the great majority of cases, larger then one vote in a political plebiscite) but it is no less real, (since its the reason for it) then the supply and demand dynamic. Also, the market allows for the satisfaction of the desires and tastes of very small minorities to an extent that is impossible in political democracy.

  10. “And Ron Bailey consistently avoids the issue of whether he would ALLOW the VOLUNTARY labelling of food as GM or non-GM. Not REQUIRE, mind you, but ALLOW.”

    I would be shocked (and dissapointed) if Ron Bailey was against allowing voluntary labeling of
    ANY product.

  11. Bart,

    I am for voluntary labelling of any damned information the consumer WANTS to know, regardless of what anybody else thinks is alarmist.

  12. Kevin: Of course, I don’t expect people to have read my entire “oeuvre,” but I have actually already come out in favor of voluntary labeling quite some time ago. See my October 16, 2002 column “Sticky labels” at URL:

    Thanks Rick for your faith in me.
    Ron Bailey

  13. I can’t get the URL to work, Ron, but I’ll take your word for it. I’m glad to hear it.

    And if we can get the unelected WTO bureaucrats to agree with you, eliminating European trade barriers will be a moot point. For that matter, there are probably a lot of people in this country who would prefer to buy non-GMO food if the FDA didn’t forbid them to find out which is which.

  14. I am all for labeling foods as GM, but only if you include all foods that have been intentionally manipulated through genetic/selective reproduction.

    In other words basically all foods.

    I will never understand why an increase in the efficiency of crossbreeding creates such hysteria.

    Labeling foods as GM is like placing a “WARNING THIS PRODUCT CAN KILL YOU” label on water. Technically true, but ridiculously alarmist.

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