Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On work

What if you, gentle reader, an ordinary productive middle-class citizen could unconditionally guarantee that no one, would ever go hungry, homeless, untreated, uneducated, and could even afford a few basic luxuries? Not just for the disabled, not even for just the stupid and unfortunate, but also the artistic, the eccentric, and the downright lazy? We're not talking about making sure these folk have Ferraris and face lifts, just good food, safe housing, competent medical care, decent education, etc.

What if you could offer such a guarantee for a mere 1%, one one-hundredth, of your productive labor? All the rest you could spend on luxuries for yourself.

I think anyone but the most die-hard euthanize-the-disabled radical Libertarian would admit that even if the choice entailed allowing some of the lazy to leech off the system in return for guaranteeing that no one would starve, a mere 1% of one's productive labor is small enough that our natural humanistic impulses would actively compel such a trivial sacrifice for such a large humanistic gain.

Perhaps 1% is too low. How about 10%? 50%? 90%? "What do you think I am, some kind of socialist?" Well, if you agree to the 1%, (to paraphrase the old joke) we already know what you are, we're just haggling over the price.

There used to be several valid counterarguments to this line of reasoning. First, even if we employed 100% productive labor, we still couldn't guarantee that everyone was fed. Second, if the percentage were too high, then so many people would opt out of being productive for lack of luxury that we couldn't grow our economy to make more luxury to provide more incentive. Third, if we're not maximally productive, someone else will be more productive, buy more guns, kill us all and steal our stuff—or just buy us out for $24 worth of beads.

These counterarguments, though, depended on certain physical facts: That our surplus production was so low that it that we had to allow physical reality to coerce people into being as productive as possible. This was indeed the case under Soviet Communism and mid-twentieth-century Chinese Communism: The surplus was so low that instead of allowing physical reality to force people to work, those governments had to coerce people to work by force of arms. And you can't force someone to be productive: productivity requires willing cooperation.

But the physical facts have changed. We are now in an absurdly paradoxical double-bind: Our productivity is so great and increasing so quickly that the price (in terms of human time) of goods, necessities and luxuries, has fallen so low that people could, in theory, acquire most of what they want with only minimal productivity. But the whole point of the economy as it's currently constructed is to encourage people to be maximally productive. But maximal productivity grows the economy and make necessities almost free and luxuries cheap, which makes people less productive. Really, the only way out is to dump our surplus production into something that doesn't grow the economy (cough Iraq War to the tune of $450,000,000,000).

What use are Bill Gates' $37 billion? There's no possible way he and Melinda can actually personally consume such wealth, even with the most profligate and immoral wastefulness. But if he can't use that money to force people to work (and force it is: Try getting a subsistence level job after you've lost, for whatever reason, a middle-class career; good luck with that) what good is it? And just having $37 billion isn't enough: He's got to have enough money to not only force people to work, but he also has to have more than Larry Ellison so he can also force the exceptionally productive to work for him.

No one is going to come in with guns and steal our stuff. Even the Muslims (much less the Chinese or the Russians) realize that military conquest would render the West useless. Islam is a seriously fucked-up ideology, but perhaps if we stopped overthrowing their governments, propping up dictators, stealing (or allowing those selfsame dictators to steal) their oil, invading their countries, and oppressing their citizens they might have a chance to develop a more rational outlook. I'm just sayin', ya know?

The point of all our efforts is to free ourselves from all tyranny. Not just religious, social and political tyranny, but also the tyranny of reality, of physical necessity. For a long time, we could free only a few from the tyranny of reality, and it made sense to carefully restrict who could be free: those who could most efficiently increase total productivity. The rest remained enslaved to hunger. Because reality is not itself a moral agent, we can tolerate the tyranny of necessity. But reality, if not today then tomorrow, no longer need tyrannize us.

It is the habit and tradition of human beings in societies to translate consequential ethics into deontic ethics: Because some action has a beneficial effect (consequence), we assign a moral value to the action itself (duty*). We have, with good reason, translated the consequential benefit of work to value of work itself. So long as the consequences remain in force, the translation is not only equivalent, but more efficient: It is much easier to evaluate classes of actions rather than try to foresee the specific effects of every individual action.

*"Duty" is the root of "deontic".

But when the consequences change, the duty becomes incoherent. This translation and evolution is the root of much of religious stupidity:
  1. Lifelong marriage has the beneficial effect of economic stability
  2. Lifelong marriage is therefore a duty
  3. All duties come from God
  4. Lifelong marriage is thus an obligation imposed by God regardless of the consequences
It's much easier to fix a duty using God, but it's not necessary to do so, and even secularists and atheists hold on to the duty when the underlying consequences have changed. And we are doing so with regard to work.


  1. You make it sound so easy... maybe it is. My main concern is sustainability - will it WORK and sustain society for the indefinite future. That's really my only concern. I really don't care if everyone wants to be a lazy ass and do nothing and get paid - I know I'd LOVE to live like that, so I can't begrudge it to anyone else. My concern with sustainability is my concern that too many will take that route, increasing over time.

    So, if it works, and it stays at only 1%, then great, I'm on board. My worry is it would not work (for the reasons noted above) and that the percentage, whatever it starts at, would start creeping higher and higher and higher until the system collapses (much like people fear will happen to SS).

    Are there any examples of societies where this has been done and that percentage stayed stable over a significant period of time (like 100 or more years?) Or do you think is it too soon for the benefits of modern production for that to have ever happened anywhere?

  2. The point of all our efforts is to free ourselves from all tyranny. Not just religious, social and political tyranny, but also the tyranny of reality, of physical necessity.

    Eric Hoffer called this being "between the Devil (man-made tyranny) and the Dragon (the caprice of nature)."

    I find it interesting that people assume an inherent laziness to man. Every experience I have with people who have every excuse not to work is that they very much want to work. Doing something useful is eminently rewarding.

  3. It isn't that people are lazy, it is that people don't really want to do what it is they get paid to do. I mean, you can be lazy and still do things that net no economic value - like my wife, she used to love to put together arrangements of Cacti in pots. She spent hours and hours and hours on it. It was a lot of work. So her doing it was not lazy. But she also did not get paid to do it and even if she did, it would be nowhere near enough to support us (she makes the big $$). So if she no longer had to work, that is one thing she might do with her spare time.

    There are a lot of things I enjoy doing as well that I never get to do because I'm too busy working. (And my liesure time is all taken up with toddler duties most of the time).

  4. DBB: It isn't that people are lazy, it is that people don't really want to do what it is they get paid to do.

    People wanting freedom from economic authoritarianism? If you allow that, people might start questioning Our F├╝rher or even (gasp!) disobeying God! Oh! the horror!

  5. I've found that being in a considerable amount of debt is motivation for me to work. That, and motorcycles.

    My intellectual motivation for a better society loses out to my naturaly impulse to accumulate cool stuff.

  6. Kent: To the extent that you're working because it's an excellent way to get cool stuff doesn't seem in any way incompatible with a desire for a better society.


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