In a capitalistic, free market economy there are, generally speaking, two basic factors of production: labor and capital. Of course, in the US we have a “blended economy” where some of the economy is free (or relatively so) and the other portion is centrally controlled to varying degrees. As a whole this can be either through direct ownership and operation (e.g. socialists and fascists) or through regulation and a fiat control structure (the US, etc.). In a blended economy a third major factor of production emerges: the politician.
However, it seems prudent to focus on the free market version for now. Too often, labor and capital are viewed as being antagonistic to one another; this could not be further from the truth. In fact, the two are largely compliments; however, they can at times be substitutes. Most young, developing economies have one characteristic they all share which is an abundance of labor. Likewise, most developed (advanced) economies share a characteristic which is an abundance of capital (although to varying degrees). So, what are these things called capital and labor?
• Labor: Productive contributions of humans who work, involving both mental and physical activities. In other words, the things we do.
• Capital: Money, land, or assets used in the production of goods and services. In other words, the things we have done.
One clearly begets the other. Far too often it is assumed that capital is merely money. Instead, it is simple tools such as a hammer, complex machines such as a tractor, or even a piece of land. Even “human capital” represents an act or work to increase future production. We might fairly characterize this as delayed gratification; when someone puts off current period consumption creating a surplus that can be used or leveraged to increase future production and consumption. A great example of this might be when a small business owner “reinvests” his/her profits into the business. They are putting off consumption until a (hopefully) later date. The increase in the level of consumption at the later period merely represents the “interest” that delayed consumption earned.
So, capital is the product of labor in all cases; however, not all labor results in capital—the determination is based on how the laborer spends their earnings. If I am a fence builder and have an extra $200 over my budget and choose to spend it on personal consumption, I am less likely to increase my profits in the future without some other change in circumstance. Conversely, if I spend it on a nail gun, I have increased the likelihood that my future profits will increase due to growth in efficiency and productivity.
Capital is an enhancement of labor, not a diminishing factor. Now, does increased mechanization sometimes result in a reduction of labor required to produce a given product? Yes. However, that labor potential is not destroyed it just requires a refocus on its next best use; this is similar to the principle of comparative advantage in trade economics. The last time I checked, the US had the second highest worker productivity in the world, behind Japan. This is largely due to the increase in productivity caused by capital inputs like machines, etc.
The ability for us to have the luxuries we enjoy is due in large part to that wonderful relationship between labor and capital. It is unfortunate that cheap politics encourages the idea that one factor is subordinate to the other in all cases; thus people tend to look at owners of capital and laborers as being in a position of competition with each other.