Men at Work
Revisiting the alienation of labor

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.