The Agenda

A Quick Additional Thought on the ‘Cheap Labor’ Meme

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.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Sports

Hurray for the NBA

Last month, just before the Final Four, I did a Q&A on college basketball with our Theodore Kupfer. Teddy K. is back, by popular demand, joined by two other experts: Vivek Dave, an old friend of mine from Michigan, who has long lived in Chicago, and David French, National Review’s Kentucky Kid, now ... Read More
Economy & Business

Trade Misunderstandings

I was distracted by other policy topics last week but not enough not to notice Peter Navarro’s article in the Wall Street Journal, headlined “China’s Faux Comparative Advantage.” Considering Navarro’s position in the White House, it is unfortunate that it demonstrates some serious misunderstandings ... Read More
U.S.

Joy Reid Denies Writing Homophobic Blog Posts

MSNBC personality Joy Reid's former blog, The Reid Report, published a series of anti-gay posts, which she claims were added to the site after it was shut down, by a hacker intent on destroying her reputation and nascent cable-news career. Reid, who discontinued the blog roughly a decade ago, apologized in ... Read More
Culture

Monday Links

A Supercut of Epic Movie Explosions. Can You Solve These 10 Medieval Riddles? The cost to make a Margherita pizza: $1.77. How much restaurants charge on average for a pizza: $12. The actual costs of restaurant foods. Vintage animation lessons -- how to make things cute. London's "Great ... Read More
World

On Trade, No One Is Waiting for Washington

President Donald Trump’s flips and flops on trade are now as ubiquitous as his 5:00 a.m. tweets. Many predicted that trade-expansion efforts would come to a standstill and world commerce would suffer amidst all the uncertainty. Instead, the precise opposite has happened. In the last few months, it’s become ... Read More
National Security & Defense

Trump’s Syria Quandary

President Trump raised eyebrows recently when he ended a tweet lauding the airstrikes he’d ordered against chemical-weapons facilities in Syria with the words “mission accomplished.” The phrase, of course, became infamous in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, when President Bush used it in a speech ... Read More