When I wrote that post yesterday, I knew one thing would especially irk the left. I almost called attention to it in the text, but then I remembered I was supposed to be writing for the right. I’ll address it here instead:
Markets are never perfect, never fully free, never fully efficient. But they are the theaters of our aspirations, our goals, and our deepest values. When liberals snobbishly put down workers’ or consumers’ choices in the market, this is what they are denigrating.
Sure enough, a couple of progressives called me out on Twitter. I respect them both, but obviously I disagree. “I don’t understand treating the market as a moral good,” said Elias Isquith. “[This] is why I’m not a libertarian,” said Ned Resnikoff. Elias did say I was helping him to understand, so I’ll offer this post to him as a further help.
I have to say I think this is maybe the deepest disagreement that separates me from many people on the left. And honestly, it’s a dealbreaker. When I hear people say that the market and our choices in it are not moral goods, I sort of lock up. I can’t see these choices in any other way.
But to hear many on the left tell it, work and consumption are not a part of that larger, more profound self-authorship project that makes an experience or an undertaking an aspect of Who We Are. Work especially is just something we put up with, perhaps, because we need to pay the bills. And why do we need to pay the bills? So we don’t starve. End of story, I suppose.
I find that really, really odd. For all kinds of reasons. And I’d like to enlist the help of the late Betty Friedan to explain why:
The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way. But a job, any job, is not the answer—in fact, it can be part of the trap. Women who do not look for jobs equal to their actual capacity, who do not let themselves develop the lifetime interests and goals which require serious education and training, who take a job at twenty or forty to “help out at home” or just to kill extra time, are walking, almost as surely as the ones who stay inside the housewife trap, to a nonexistent future.
If a job is to be the way out of the trap for a woman, it must be a job that she can take seriously as part of a life plan, work in which she can grow as part of society.
Not work to pay the bills, not work to fill the time. Work to discover oneself. Work for fulfillment. Work for independence and for self-actualization. Work because the potential is there, and it’s a shame to leave it lying around for nothing, or to piddle it away on paying the bills… until we die and it’s gone.
Now, Friedan was no libertarian. She was solidly progressive in her politics. And that sort of proves my point — the experience of work, and having an income, and being independent in the world is potentially very important to anyone, regardless of politics. It’s from my perspective a peculiarly isolated, ivory-towerish claim to view productive work as ancillary to life and not as a key aspect of a life well lived.
We may differ on the political implications of the claim. Personally, I’d say it means that the realm of the market needs to be as free as the realm of religion, another in which people often find profound self-actualization. Regardless of where we wind up, these are the terms on which the debate should be conducted, I think: At least for some people, and clearly not a trivial number of them, work can give a profound sense of self-respect and achievement. Consumption too, for that matter. Does that lead toward market freedom, or away from it? That’s a reasonable question. But doubt in the reality of the phenomenon seems less reasonable to me.