Men at Work

by Kevin D. Williamson
Revisiting the alienation of labor

No man has hired us
With pocketed hands
And lowered faces
We stand about in open places . . .
No man has hired us.
Our life is unwelcome, our death
Unmentioned in ‘The Times’

      — T. S. Eliot, choruses from The Rock

‘What is most striking about our collective plight today is how much it resembles the problem we face as individuals.” That striking insight comes from David Loy in The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory. That problem, he writes, is a sense of separation of the self from the outside world, which brings with it feelings of frustration and powerlessness. Mr. Loy offers the familiar Buddhist diagnosis, that the feeling of separation is “a delusion that causes us to seek happiness by manipulating the world in order to get what we want from it, which just tends to reinforce the sense of separation.” Mr. Loy is a very engaging writer, though Americans who are attracted to Buddhism as a sort of un-religion might note that he is an “authorized teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage of Japanese Zen Buddhism.” American Buddhist journals have a fascinating fascination with religious titles and pedigrees — abbot of this in the lineage of that — and a positively Clementine emphasis on apostolic succession: all of the grandeur and hierarchy of the Catholic Church without your judgmental Irish grandmother.

At the risk of doing an injustice to Mr. Loy’s argument, the fullness of which cannot easily be communicated in this limited space, it must be understood that the thing that worries him here is not optional. “Manipulating the world in order to get what we want from it” is a pretty good definition of work, which is fundamental to our lives, so much so that in most of the ancient religions it is regulated in much the same way as sex and diet. Buddhism has a very developed philosophy of work — “right livelihood” being one of the requirements of the Eightfold Path — while the Christian story of the Fall is in the end an attempt to explain why we must labor: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” What happens in the meantime? “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” The message is the same elsewhere: The literal meaning of “karma” is “work.”

The problem of work, and the related problem of unemployment, is per Mr. Loy’s observation one in which the collective experience is recapitulated at the individual level. Unemployment at the individual level often is traumatic: Economic stress is difficult in and of itself, but it also can disturb family life, may lead to isolation from one’s friends and community, and may provide an occasion for shame, even when that shame is unjustified. Because we are the richest people that human civilization ever has seen, there is no reason for anyone to go wanting for the mere essentials of subsistence; because we are the richest people human civilization ever has seen, it is very difficult to be satisfied with the mere essentials of subsistence.

From a historical point of view, there are effectively no poor people in the United States or Western Europe. Those who go without shoes or sleep on the streets do so almost exclusively for psychiatric rather than economic reasons. (Our wealth makes their neglect more of a scandal, not less of one.) At the national level, mass unemployment constitutes a heavy brake on the economy. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the Affordable Care Act would result in fewer Americans working — on a scale equivalent to the loss of 2.5 million full-time positions. The White House greeted this as a liberation: No longer would Americans be “trapped in a job” by the mere need to provide for themselves and their families. The usual see-no-evil gang was out in force, demanding that these not be counted as “lost jobs” — as though an employee cannot eliminate a job as effectively as an employer. There are, after all, two sides to every transaction.

USA Today went so far as to call Eric Cantor a liar for understanding that fact: “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor falsely claims that a new report confirms the long-held Republican belief that ‘millions of hardworking Americans will lose their jobs’ because of the Affordable Care Act. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report says more than 2 million people will decide not to work, or will decide to work less, due to the law — not that they will ‘lose their jobs.’” USA Today being USA Today, its writer (in this case the lamentably incurious Robert Farley) and editors did not exhibit the intellectual wherewithal to take the next logical step: “More than 2 million people will decide not to work . . . at what wage?” The Washington Post has a partial answer to that question:

After obtaining coverage under the health-care law, some workers will choose to forgo employment, the report said, while others will voluntarily reduce their hours. That is because insurance subsidies under the law become less generous as income rises, so workers will have less incentive to work more or at all.

The design of the subsidies — like many programs in the social safety net — represents “an implicit tax on additional work,” CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf said.

The CBO attributed the decline in workforce participation primarily to this effect. But there were other, less important causes, too, including the likelihood that some employers will cut people’s hours, hire fewer workers or offer lower wages to new workers to avoid or compensate for a new fine on employers that do not offer insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours a week.

If we assume that these workers can count, and we assume that they know their own affairs, then the conclusion is not simply — never simply! — that “more than 2 million people will decide not to work,” but that the wage paid by this particular manifestation of the welfare state (in the form of insurance subsidies) is better than the wage on offer for doing work.

With one hand, the state puts downward pressure on wages — especially for those at the bottom end of the earnings spectrum, who are, by economic definition, those regarded by their employers as most easily replaced, and who therefore bring relatively little negotiating power to the table. With the other hand, the same state inflates the wages of non-work, not only through the new health-care law but through various other manifestations of the welfare state, including the ever-longer extension of unemployment payments. We are sometimes scandalized to learn that these programs spend a great deal of money on people who do not really need them. That is the minor scandal. The major scandal is that so many people do need these programs.

What is lost in the conversation we have about economic policy is the forgone human value that is the real penalty for mass unemployment. That is where our Keynesian aggregate-demand managers and fashionable uptown Communists like Jesse Myerson and narrow-minded writers for USA Today go well and truly astray. The make-work fallacy is not just a gigantic economic oopsie — it is an insult to the very humanity of our friends and neighbors, an implicit accusation that they have nothing of value to contribute to our shared community life.

Capitalism is not nearly as beady-eyed and green-eyeshaded as its critics would have you believe. Imagine transporting Mick Jagger and J. K. Rowling back in time even a few hundred years and presenting to the Sun King these two English subjects, richer than pharaohs and so celebrated that neither could go to a shop or stroll down the street without causing a sensation, and then explaining that they are, respectively, a singer of songs and a teller of children’s stories — not for Her Majesty, but for the common people. We are good to our poets. And we are very good to our plumbers and mechanics and builders. It is a testament not only to our wealth but to our spirit that people in Brooklyn can use the phrase “celebrity butcher” without falling down on the sidewalk laughing. I cannot imagine going back to the 1950s and trying to explain to my father, who worked in a butcher’s shop, that there would be such a thing as a celebrity butcher, and that people would pay $85 to take a two-hour class from one.

Not every butcher is a celebrity butcher. Some butchers are chain-store butchers, which probably is not as much fun and probably does not pay as well. And there are much, much less rewarding jobs than that. The difficulty and unpleasantness of work has no relationship to its pay. Some people make a great deal of money doing unpleasant things, but the fact is that very highly paid people tend to enjoy their work, and there are a not-inconsequential number of people who make a very good living doing things that they enjoy so much that they would do them for free if they were in different occupations. That split is in some ways more important than the crude $/hour difference in various occupations. Money is only one of the ways in which we are compensated; others include pleasure, economic security, and prestige. There’s a world of difference between being a $55,000-a-year professor and being a $55,000-a-year drugstore manager.

But both the celebrity butcher and the Walmart butcher put food on the table, literally and figuratively. The literally part may have something to do with our stressful relationship with work. A few years ago I had lunch with a lefty writer and activist who expressed his longing to quit his office job (he was an administrator in some kind of professional office, as I recall) and learn a trade such as plumbing or electrical work. Partly it was because he did not like his current position that much and desired a change, but there was something more to it: “I want to be able to explain to my children what I actually do for a living,” he said. I knew just what he meant. Some years before, I had visited the home of an acquaintance that was the most magnificent private home I had ever been inside: a gorgeous stone manor set on grounds that would have been the most prized park in a fair-sized city. I asked my host: “What do you do to be able to live in a house like this?” He was a little confused: “You know what I do. I’m the president of XYZ Corporation.” “Yes, yes, I know what you are, but what do you do? What do you do all day that makes all this possible?” Lots of telephone calls and meetings, near as I could tell.

Karl Marx wrote about the “alienation” of labor in a modern capitalist economy. Back when “artisanal” referred to something other than the offerings of your celebrity cheesemonger in Brooklyn, there was a more intimate connection between workers and their products, Marx believed. That made production, exchange, and consumption a different and more organic sort of emotional experience, taking needs and desires from the soul’s interior and making them “objective,” his term for physically manifest. “When looking at the object,” he wrote,

I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses, and, hence, a power beyond all doubt. In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. . . . Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.

In a modern information economy, a great deal of human labor is consumed by tasks of rote administration, and it can be difficult to see how we have contributed to the well-being of our community, not having anything physical to show for our efforts on behalf of the XYZ Corporation save the mansion in which its president lives. That does not mean that we have not in fact contributed something of value, but that the contribution leaves us unsatisfied. We want to be able to tell our children what we do for a living: I make cars. I help sick people. I write books.

On that subject, F. A. Hayek shows a strange family resemblance to Marx: He could be, in his quiet way, scathing on the subject of the salaryman, more biting than Sloan Wilson documenting his piteous Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The prevalence of salaried employees working at large institutions bodes ill for society, in Hayek’s view, because it is only a short step from private institutional man to public institutional man. Marxists sometimes described their utopia as one big factory or one big company, and Hayek worried that this idea would naturally appeal to salaried functionaries working in big factories and big companies. Hayek most valued the man of independence, financial independence being a support of intellectual independence.

Which is to say, even one of the godfathers of capitalism was known to look askance at the white-collar beehive. Who can blame the worker bees if they come to suspect that they are missing out on something? They are right to suspect that there is perhaps something more to be had than rote compliance with Mohammed’s labor-relations directive: “Pay the worker before his sweat dries.”

In my mail today I received a manifesto of sorts from a gentleman who represents something called the National Center for Economic Gardening. The “gardening” in the name is intended as a contrast to “economic hunting,” which describes an economic-development strategy in which communities offer various incentives to persuade enterprising individuals and firms to relocate to their area. “Economic gardening,” by contrast, seeks to develop local people and institutions into entrepreneurs rather than recruit them from the outside — “an entrepreneurial alternative to the recruiting game,” as my correspondent puts it.

“American capitalism,” he writes, “is like a beautiful woman with a bad temper. You want to live with her forever but wonder if you are actually going to make it through the day.” His manifesto gets pretty manifesto-y, with a lot of bitter talk about the hollowness of the American Dream. The attitude of the American capitalist, he writes, is: “If you are poor, it is pretty much your own fault.” But the partisans of capitalism do not in the main think that way, even the extreme ones. I am the capitalist your Mother Jones warned you about, and I do not believe that.

Capitalism is what happens when property rights are respected — nothing more, nothing less. It is the voluntary self-organization of economic affairs. Our friends on the left are increasingly vocal in their dislike for the very idea of property rights, what they call the “myth of ownership.” The argument is a familiar and sophomoric one: Property rights are simply a social construct and the collective has an a priori claim on everything because . . . because because, because of the wonderful things he does and we’re off to see the wizard. (“But who would pave the roads?”) The common version of the argument is that the state “allows” the individual to accumulate wealth by granting him protection and access to infrastructure, which is just another way of saying that (1) the collective owns the individual because (2) the individual exists at the mercy of the collective. No. 2 happens to be true in most cases among social primates such as ourselves: The collective could and sometimes does oppress, pillage, enslave, rape, and murder the individual, but “you owe us because we did not enslave you even though we could have” is a pretty uninspiring argument, even for the champagne radicals at Rolling Stone. Property rights are in fact a social construct, the purpose of which is to prevent war, which is the only other way of determining the use of scarce resources.

And they’re all scarce resources, including (especially) labor. It is not the case, as Mr. Myerson puts it, that “actual human workers are increasingly surplus to requirement.” (Consider those words for 60 seconds and then tell me again how it’s capitalists who take an instrumentalist view of humanity.) The purpose of labor is not to collect a paycheck and spend it, thereby pumping up aggregate demand. Jobs are a byproduct of the productive process, as Ronald Coase argued in “The Nature of the Firm.” They are not an end in and of themselves, though we mistake them for such, which is perhaps why we have a sometimes distorted view of them. (I know what you are, but what do you do?) We could put the entire population to work in one of those WPA-style make-work programs that so enthrall the likes of Robert Reich (and our friend Conrad Black), but we would soon all be dead of starvation or cholera. The views of my economic-gardening correspondent (and those of Paul Krugman, newspaper columnist, if not Paul Krugman, economist) notwithstanding, money sloshing around from hither to yon does not put a chicken in anybody’s pot. Poultry farmers do that.

Work is not created — work creates.

Every man and woman sitting idle because there is no work to be had — or because idleness literally pays better — is a potential poultry farmer gathering no eggs, somebody who could be growing roses or baking bread or proofreading romance novels. Say’s Law — that we produce in order to consume — is not a mere economic abstraction, and scarcity is not the product of economists’ imagination. They are features of the real world — they are physical facts. Every barrier that politicians put in the way of dealing with scarcity through free exchange and the division of labor — every tax, rule, and regulation — not only separates a worker from a paycheck but, more important, separates a worker from work, from the process of production and experimentation that enables us to, among other things, eat, and live in houses, and read J. K. Rowling books to our children.

Pope Francis is right to worry about the economics of “exclusion,” but he is wrong — and destructively wrong — about the instruments of that exclusion. The diversity of human interests, human desires, and human abilities is in effect infinite, and so too, therefore, are the uses of labor and opportunities for employment. Surely there are many paths to a “right livelihood” waiting to be discovered. And yet there sits official Washington, along with its supramarginal gyrus in the media, trying to figure out how to “create jobs” like an ape doing one of those monochromatic jigsaw puzzles with half the pieces missing, desperately working at “manipulating the world in order to get what we want from it,” forcing together pieces that do not fit.

And that is the perverse price of politics: that there are so few jobs to be had when there is so much work to be done.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.