The Cooking the Books column from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
The online magazine Quartz (17 February) put up a video interview with Bill Gates under the headline 'The robot that takes your job should pay taxes, says Bill Gates'.
Gates didn't say anything particularly profound. The point he made was that robotisation would release workers for other kinds of work, but that this would have to be paid for, one source of money for this being a tax on robots, i. e., on capitalist firms installing them. The other kind of work he had in mind was catering better for some particular human needs:
'what the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs. You know, all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique. And we still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there.'
It does make sense to use work resources freed up by robotisation to meet these, and other, needs. This is what would happen in socialist society since it would a society directly geared to meeting human needs. But we are not living in socialist society, only under capitalism where this is not the case. So it's not that simple.
Robotisation is no different in principle from the mechanisation that has gone on since the beginning of capitalism. It is, in fact, the latest application of machines to production. Machines have always displaced living labour but, despite dire predictions by some, this has not led to steadily increasing unemployment. Capital accumulation has continued, with the displaced labour (though not necessarily individual displaced workers) being transferred to other industries (making the machines as well as in new industries) and also in the 'service sector'.
This sector includes providers of personal services to workers (and capitalists) for profit, but, also, in large part, services provided by the government and paid for from taxes. Apart from its own administration, national and local, the government provides for health care and education, for the benefit of the capitalist class by providing and maintaining an educated and healthy workforce to produce their profits.
These are part of the necessary expenses of running the capitalist system which capitalists are prepared to pay for out of taxation, which in the end is a burden on their profits. But there are limits. They want these expenses kept to the minimum necessary to benefit them, not to provide an adequate service for workers and their dependants.
Gates favours some of the benefits of the increased productivity that robots bring being used to 'do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs.' He should ask himself why this has not happened already. Why are services for the elderly and those with special needs not adequate? Why are there not smaller classes in schools? After all, sixty years ago automation was said to hold out the same promise.
The answer is that capitalism is not a system geared to meeting human needs, certainly not the needs of worker's dependants who don't contribute to production. As a profit-making system, its priority is profits and conditions for profit-making.
Robotisation under capitalism will not benefit people in the way Gates said he would like. The service sector may well expand but mainly for those who can pay. The needs of those who can't will still be neglected and grossly inadequate.