A review of Jay W. Richards' The Human Advantage:  The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines

We live in an age of increasingly rapid change. This means challenges and opportunities will continue to come at us in breakneck succession. One major fear making its way into the public discussion these days goes something like this: Are we going to be replaced by machines? Will there be mass unemployment because there's nothing left for people to do? Do the mechanizations of today portend the demise of humanity tomorrow?

This myth of the machine takeover is the primary, overarching target of The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines, by economist and Catholic University professor Jay W. Richards. The short answer to all those questions is No. But as machines augment and replace more and more menial work, those people who learn to accentuate and capitalize on what is uniquely human will be the ones best poised to prosper through the flux.

Virtue Is the Key

Historically, there have been three versions of the American Dream. The first American Dream, pursued by courageous, risk-it-all immigrants, was owning a family farm. The second, largely achieved by their descendants, was owning a home. The third, Richards says, "is more universal but also less concrete: the collaborative creating and sharing of value itself." And this is something machines cannot do. Only humans can innovate and create.

Above all else, he says, it is human virtue that leads to human flourishing. Many virtues reflect old-fashioned, common-sense wisdom—humility, honesty, hard work, gratitude, faithfulness in marriage, and respect for others. In addition to these basics of good character, Richards identifies five virtues that will especially help set venturesome entrepreneurs up for success in an information economy:

• Courage—the willingness to risk failure

• "Antifragility"—by this term, Richards means more than resilience; he means the ability to grow through failure and suffering

• Altruism—providing benefit and value for others

• Collaboration—working with and learning from others

• Creative freedom—channeling human ingenuity into innovative goods and services

Richards devotes a full chapter to each of these character traits and argues that, while pursuing a life of virtue will inevitably involve struggle, it is the path to true happiness: as Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Happiness is secured through virtue."

Along the way, Richards debunks several unhelpful myths that impede human growth and prosperity: the zero-sum-game myth (the idea that one person's gain means another person's loss); the follow-your-passion myth (far better—and more promising—to look for ways to meet the needs of others); the post-capitalist myth (economic activity isn't necessarily based on greed, Richards says, because creating value with others is a uniquely human endeavor that brings its own rewards); the libertine myth (the idea that freedom means getting to do whatever we want); and the mother of all modern myths, the materialist myth, which says that humans are nothing more than highly evolved matter-and-energy machines.

In simple terms, the American Dream has always been about earned success. And virtue—always the unsung hero of the American Dream—will be more vital than ever in our higher-tech future. The liberating, invigorating, great good news is that our hyper-connected information economy provides endless new ways to pursue the creation of valuable goods and services, with ever lower barriers to entry. "Pursue happiness in this way," Richards concludes, "and you will find a way, perhaps a unique way, to live the American Dream."

is a freelance writer and blogger on apologetics and matters of faith.
This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #48, Spring 2019 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo48/help-still-wanted