A Quick Additional Thought on the ‘Cheap Labor’ Meme

by Reihan Salam

We’ve been discussing cheap labor in this space in a number of posts (here’s one and another and another). At the risk of raising the specter of “right-wing metaphysics,” I had an illuminating conversation last night that reminded me of an important point we’ve neglected so far. The friend I was talking to is a psychiatrist who has devoted much of the last decade to building a mental health infrastructure in the developing world, with a focus on countries in crisis. And he mentioned in passing the familiar trope that idle men between the ages of 16 and 24 are prone to a wide range of anti-social behaviors, including gender-based violence. 

One could argue, drawing on G.A. Cohen, that it is wrong to think of “cheap labor” as a reliable instrument of social control. Better that we tackle the relationship between “idleness” and anti-social behavior on the part of the men at the source, perhaps through the educational system. This view is premised on the belief that we are fairly plastic beings, susceptible to interventions of this kind. I think it is entirely possible that violent behavior can be contained, per the Randall Collins thesis, ably reviewed by Graeme Wood three years ago in the New York Sun

These insights are simple but practical. Mr. Collins concludes with recommendations: Educate soldiers about forward panic and how easily it can feed its own appetite (addictively, “like eating salted nuts”). Learn how to defuse dangerous situations by matching an aggressor’s bluster without seeming to top it. And, most interesting of all, he urges us to consider reviving the practice of dueling — which was, during its heyday, a way to reduce and contain violence, not a way to encourage it. One hopes to see trial runs of this practice after the next close tenure decision in Mr. Collins’s sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania. 

That is, we have promising social technologies for containing violence. One hypothesis is that the reduction of lead exposure and video games and other population-wide phenomena have contributed to the decline in violent crime in North America. But of course there are all kinds of non-violent antisocial behaviors, and it does seem as though work, including work most of us would consider less than stimulating, is a good antidote to the problems that flow from “idleness.”

This, of course, might just prompt a recapitulation of the debate over what constitutes purposeful activity. Is wage work the only authentic work? Why shouldn’t we pay parents for reproducing, and treat the work of parenting as work that is entitled to a social wage? I think that this approach is, with a few targeted exceptions, ill-advised, but I’m sure the debate will continue.  

For an illustration of what a post-scarcity utopia might look like, consider the “Robonomics” scenario from Jamais Cascio, which I find somewhat troubling.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.