Some Thoughts about Work, Part 4
Then I realized that it is good and proper for a person to eat and drink,
and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun
during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot.
He that will not work shall not eat.
I have advanced the thesis that “moral law of labor,” which says that every able person ought to work, may be false. Historically, most people have believed it because it seemed obvious that only hard labor stood between human beings and disastrous scarcity. Thus, Paul told Titus that Christians ought to work to produce “daily necessities.” But in recent centuries, I allege, we have discovered that capital, when invested, can make our work so productive that in effect capital replaces labor. That is, it replaces labor aimed at producing daily necessities. People may continue to work if they choose; my prediction is that we will not have to. Now it’s time to reply to certain objections.
First objection: capital cannot replace human labor; it can only replace certain particular forms of labor with other forms of labor. I already admitted, in part 2, that there is no clear line between necessary labor and non-necessary labor. I also admitted that some job classifications are unnecessary at one point in time and yet necessary at a later time—and necessary for the production of basic goods. For example, consider the creation of large-scale irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia. Before irrigation, agriculture produced enough goods for a limited population. With irrigation in place (and with it various social and legal inventions to make the system work), a much larger population could be supported. Before it was invented, “irrigation master” was not a necessary job classification; later on, without irrigation masters people would have starved. Thus, though capital transformed ancient agriculture, it only changed the kind of work people did; it did not free them from work altogether.
Reply: to overturn my prediction (that capital will eliminate or almost eliminate “necessary” labor), this objection relies on the assumption that the number of people working new jobs will equal the number displaced by the new technology. There is a sense in which this assumption has proved true, at least in the past. But there is a more important sense in which it is false.
In the past, “creative destruction” has driven people from old jobs into new ones (e.g. cottage weavers in villages became factory workers in cities). So economists sometimes generalize and say that creative destruction always produces as many or more new jobs. But that ignores the difference between labor for necessities and labor for non-necessary goods. When old “necessary” jobs disappear, some of the new job categories are non-necessary jobs. In the 20th century, the percentage of Americans working on farms dropped precipitously (while farm production rose). The children of the farmers moved to cities, where only some of them went to work making necessities. Therefore, against the first objection I reply: capital can so effectively produce necessities that human labor aimed at necessities dwindles. We might celebrate the fact that capital frees people to produce non-necessary goods, but no disaster occurs if they choose not to.
Second objection: the moral law of labor holds true even if capital can produce daily necessities for us, because we are created to be workers. This objection concedes that capital is so productive that most people may be freed from the need to produce basic goods. But perhaps this should be lamented rather than celebrated. Consider another bit of wisdom from ancient Israel, the verse from Ecclesiastes quoted above. The wise man (probably not Solomon as traditionally thought) observes that people can do nothing better than to find satisfaction in their work.
It seems that human beings are created to work; work stems from our very nature. Much of the satisfaction of life comes from productive labor. The second objector suggests that the moral law of labor reflects a deep truth about the good life for human beings; just as we are meant to be lovers, we are also meant to be workers. God has given each person a unique set of talents and capacities, and it is God’s will that each one of us use those abilities to benefit ourselves and other people.
Reply: the second objection depends on ambiguous use of “labor.” The moral law of labor says that every able person ought to work. The second objection admits that capital can produce necessities for us so we don’t have to do that kind of work, but insists that we ought to work anyway. What is this work that we ought to do? It is labor that fulfills our nature, that uses our capacities to benefit others, and that honors God’s call.
Okay! We ought to work, if “work” means, “doing things that fulfill our nature.” But that isn’t the same thing as producing daily necessities.
There’s something right in the second objection. I would put it this way: God has made us to be “makers.” Part of what it means to be created in the image of a creator God is that we ought to be creative. (See Being at Home in the World, where Mark McLeod-Harrison and I affirm and discuss these ideas.) When people are freed from the need to produce daily necessities, they can make culture, new culture. To paraphrase Andy Crouch: if you don’t like current culture, don’t complain about it; instead, make more. Sing new songs, cook new dishes, play new games. In a myriad of ways we will honor God’s gifts by doing useful things, but they may look more like play than work. Why should play be reserved for children?
Third objection: overturning the moral law of labor robs laboring people of dignity. Protestant leaders like Martin Luther objected to the medieval notion that priests, monks, and nuns had “higher” callings from God. All honest, productive labor honored God, Luther said. The shopkeeper, the miller, the woodsman, and even the peasant laborer have equality before God. Recognizing the dignity of labor helped establish the dignity of laborers. It prepares society for more radical ideas of equality and prepares the ground for democracy.
Now, the objector says, if we say that there is no moral law that people ought to work, we open the door to the pernicious idea that some callings are better than others. Perhaps we won’t think of “religious” callings as higher; perhaps we will say “creative” people (artists and computer programmers) have the higher callings. If we deny people at the bottom of the socio-economic heap the dignity of labor, what do they have left?
Reply: the third objection gets things backwards. Those of us whose lives are made easy by reinvested capital need to imagine what labor is really like for those who still work as our ancestors did. Back-breaking labor is not what gives dignity to human beings; rather, it is the intrinsic worth of human beings, constrained by circumstances to perform such tasks, that confers dignity to necessary work. If, as I predict, the day comes when reinvested capital produces most or all daily necessities, many people will not be able to “compete” in the labor marketplace. They will not be able to “earn” a significant income in a competitive labor market. After all, who can compete with a robot driver?
Fourth objection: even if it were possible for capital to produce our daily necessities, our market economy requires that people work. Saving and investing capital is only half of a capitalist economy. Production has to be balanced by consumption. A capitalist system produces goods only in the hope that people will buy them, so consumers need to have incomes. If people don’t work, how will they have income to buy products?
Reply: we will need to invent ways of putting purchasing power into the hands of people who don’t work. Exactly what those ways will be, I don’t know. But already modern economies have found ways to chip away at John Smith’s order (for the Jamestown colony in 1608): “He that will not work shall not eat.”
Today we think it unremarkable that many people live as many years after “retiring” as they did “working.” We should remind ourselves how unusual, historically speaking, that is. Historically, most people worked until they were too ill, often dying. Invested capital has made our economy so productive that we can afford to have millions of unemployed consumers. We have adapted our thinking to this unprecedented situation by telling ourselves that retired people have “earned” the income they spend; thus, their condition doesn’t really violate the moral rule: all people who are able should work.
But that’s just false. “Retired” people violate the moral law of labor just as much as the traditional independently wealthy “dilettante.” The point is this: in both cases we have people who do not work or work only when they choose, and yet they have access to purchasing power so they can buy things in the market. And people who live on state support—through food stamps, disability payments, and other social security payments—are yet another group of people who do not work and yet have money to spend.
We need to get used to this idea. For a market system of production and consumption to work, those who buy things have to have money to spend on the goods produced. If, as I predict, many will not be able to participate in producing goods, they will need to be given purchasing power even if they don’t work.
This idea outrages many of us, precisely because it finally abandons the moral law of labor. It says that people ought to have money to spend in the market even if they didn’t earn it. I can’t pretend to make the notion easy to swallow. But maybe it will help if we look at production and consumption from the point of view of the 1%.
Very wealthy people own much of the means of production; in many cases their “work” consists of managing investments of capital. They look down on the economy from lofty financial heights. Some of them “earn” enormous amounts of money simply by leveraging other people’s money. But sometimes things go wrong. When things go badly wrong, we call it a recession. And when the economy goes into a recession, very wealthy people discover it is in their interests to “get the economy moving again.” Policy makers search for ways to encourage consumer spending in the face of low consumer confidence. Many economists point out that the most effective way for government policy to encourage consumer spending is to increase expenditures on food stamps; almost as effective is spending more on unemployment benefits. These measure put money into the hands of people at the bottom, people who will almost certainly spend it quickly. I’m confident you see the point: The people at the top need to recognize that it is in their interest to put purchasing power in the hands of people at the bottom. It doesn’t’ matter whether those people have earned it. It’s good for everybody if they have it.