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Skilling and Deskilling Technological Change in Classical Economic Theory and Its Empirical Evidence

Florian Brugger () and Christian Gehrke ()
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Florian Brugger: Department of Sociology, University of Graz

No 2017-02, Working Paper Series, Social and Economic Sciences from Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Karl-Franzens-University Graz

Abstract: The paper provides a summary account of the views of the classical political economists on the effects of technical change on the demand for labour, and in particular for skilled versus unskilled labour. The views of the classical economic theorists, from Smith to Ricardo, Babbage, Ure and Marx, are then contrasted with the historical record of the bias of technical change with regard to de-qualifying and skill-enhancing tendencies in the 18th and 19th century that emerges from studies of economic historians. The paper shows that some of the classical economists made a serious effort to account for heterogeneous labour in a changing technical environment. While Smith and Marx envisaged the de-qualification of the workforce as the main characteristic of technological development and as a purposely intended consequence of the introduction of new technologies, other authors like Babbage also took into account capital - skilled labour complementarities and skill-enhancing effects of technological change. While for Smith the deskilling bias is a by-product of progress, Marx and Ure regarded directed technological change as a bourgeois weapon in the class struggle for the reduction of the bargaining power of the proletariat. Economic historians found strong confirmation for Marx’s hypotheses that technical change was used as a weapon against the proletariat. But most empirical studies found no evidence for a deskilling tendency of industrialization as a whole. According to those studies industrialization was accompanied by a polarization of labour. On the one hand, industrialization deskilled part of the labour force and on the other hand it sharply raised the demand for highly skilled workers.

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Date: 2017-05-31
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