It’s Labor Day. And, on this day, it occurs to me that I could use a new job. Not because I’m unhappy with my current job; it’s just that I see a connection between a few of my previous posts that it’d be great to have a couple of months to think about and tie together into a book or something. So, the new job would have to be one that grants sabbaticals right of the gate. Maybe I’d better stick with what I’ve got.
The first post was “Technology and the Future of Work” from last April. The second was just the other day, “Liberty, Laws, and Property.” And, the third, was from last October entitled “Fred Clark: Unemployed in the Affluent Society.”
The problem I see, this Labor Day, is that compared to recent centuries, wealth is fairly abundant, but the amount of labor necessary to create that wealth is very much diminished. And, yet, because of the history of how wealth was traditionally created, we generally tie the legitimacy of one’s claim to property to some sort of labor that goes into creating that wealth. Then, we allow (even encourage) the laborer to contract away much of that claim to an employer – someone with specialized access to tools needed to create wealth (large machines, in many cases) or maybe specialized access to the demand or markets for certain types of labor.
But, now, with the demand for labor at very low levels, the individual has very little leverage when negotiating away their claim to property (e.g. the employment contract). This leverage is further reduced by the fact that the person has certain basic needs – food, shelter, health care, etc; and, by and large, can’t simply walk away from the table in most cases. (If demand for labor is high, then you can simply go on to the next employer; if not, you have to take what you can get.)
Meanwhile, employers (those with specialized access to tools or markets) can accumulate great wealth because they can bundle together the shares of access to property traded away by the laborers (value created by labor but not retained by the laborer) and pocket that value for themselves. They’re able to do this because they are operating in an environment featuring a cocoon of infrastructure and property laws; among other things. Absent this environment, their deals with laborers (and with makers of the specialized tools and with the markets they have specialized access to) would be worth precisely nothing. Without this cocoon, you get Somalia. Which is why, despite Randian fantasies of “going Galt,” the employer class never seems to voluntarily absent itself from “government oppression.” They benefit from the rights decreed in their favor and burdening everyone else as described by Jeremy Bentham:
Rights and obligations, though distinct and opposite in their nature, are simultaneous in their origin, and inseparable in their existence. According to the nature of things, the law cannot grant a benefit to any, without, at the same time, imposing a burden on some one else; or, in other words, a right cannot be created in favour of any one, without imposing a corresponding obligation on another. In what manner is a right of property in land conferred on me? By imposing upon every body, except myself the obligation not to touch its produce. Rights and obligations, though distinct and opposite in their nature, are simultaneous in their origin, and inseparable in their existence. According to the nature of things, the law cannot grant a benefit to any, without, at the same time, imposing a burden on some one else; or, in other words, a right cannot be created in favour of any one, without imposing a corresponding obligation on another. In what manner is a right of property in land conferred on me? By imposing upon every body, except myself the obligation not to touch its produce.
So, because the people who profit by contracting with laborers are dependent on the cocoon of infrastructure and property laws, laborers acting through their government are not entirely powerless to leverage a new deal. And, because of the disparity of profits made possible by this system, it’s not entirely unjust to use that leverage. I tend to envision such a system featuring secure access to necessities such as food, shelter, and health care; but it should not be so luxurious as to turn our current hyper-abundance of labor into a shortage.
On the other hand, drawing off some of the labor force would, to some extent, be a feature, not a bug. If labor were not quite so abundant, that would increase the negotiating leverage of the remaining laborers. This line of thinking runs deeply, deeply against our Puritan roots. Sloth! Idle hands are the devil’s work shop! Back in the days when those roots were taking hold, the situation was different. As described by Fred Clark, channeling John Galbraith:
Goods were vitally necessary; the loss of available labor to produce those goods was extremely detrimental to society; and, therefore, the penalty – deprivation of all or most of an individual’s income – was appropriate. The penalty was so justified that there was no moral obligation to help someone who wasn’t helping themselves by working.
Those conditions are no longer so operative. Maybe it’s time we consider a new New Deal; even if it makes John Calvin cry.