Work and Meaning

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

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.

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74 Responses to “Work and Meaning”

  1. #1 |  Jason Kuznicki | 

    Two things are clear to me now.

    1. I need to write about the law of equal freedom. It’s clear that this concept hasn’t been sufficiently emphasized, from its philosophical roots to its implications in current public policy. This may take more than one post, and it will certainly require lots of Herbert Spencer.

    2. I need to write about Karl Marx. I’ve read him and have learned a lot from him. I think Marx is about 80% wrong, and that 80% is in all the most catastrophic parts. But a post titled “Why Libertarians Need to Know Karl Marx” would be useful and informative.

  2. #2 |  DaQuail | 

    Welll this thread is heated… I would like to contribute that a free market need not be libertarian. To define the free market according to libertarian ideology (no initiation of force) is begging the question, considering that markets are a basic part of human economic life, and markets have always sold goods that everyone here would consider blatantly immoral. For example, the quite unrestricted bitcoin market sells services like hacking and fraud. (not to imply that the whole market’s immoral)

  3. #3 |  Other Sean | 

    Jason…I hope you mean stuff like this:

    “…estranged labor estranges the species from man. It changes for him the life of the species into a means of individual life…For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.”

  4. #4 |  mosesmalone | 

    hey Jason…get a job

  5. #5 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    Since we’re quoting feminists, how about Virginia Woolf? “To depend upon a profession is a less odious form of slavery than to depend upon a father.” Even work that isn’t fulfilling in and of itself is better for most than the alternative, dependence upon a father or other paternal provider of support.

  6. #6 |  Deoxy | 

    I don’t have time to read all the comments today, so maybe this point has been made, but this:

    The only way for a woman (snip) to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.

    This is a joke. A rewarding career is nice, but it’s likely to pay less.

    Why? Because, essentially, that is a form of compensation. The job you love you will do for less pay than the job you don’t. The market takes that into account – jobs that most people do for the love of the job generally pay less than jobs that people don’t (all other things being equal, which of course, they never exactly are).

    There are several reasons why men generally make more money than women, but one of the big ones is this right here: women want a rewarding career, and their men generally have put them in a position to afford the pay cut to have it instead of something that pays better.

    (Other big reasons are having large breaks in their working career, usually for children but not rarely because they just can, and working fewer hours, with the same caveats. When these are taken into account, women make MORE than men for the same work. Some animals just more equal than others.)

    Stop picking on garbage men.

    The garbage man is a good example, not just being picked on. Few people want to do it, and it’s hard work, but it still doesn’t pay all that well.

    Like janitors, this is because almost anyone is capable of doing the job – the requirements are exceedingly low.

    Like janitors, having people do the job well is a great benefit to society… and it still doesn’t pay well, for the same reason. There are just too many people who can do the job.

    On market morality: markets are “morally neutral” in that they don’t care about the morality of the goods being sought or delivered, but at the same time, society’s morals influence the price, cost, and profitability.

    Contract killing is expensive and profitable because it carries high risk because society disapproves and the chances of failure are high. With sufficient societal disapproval, some things become, essentially, unavailable at any price – there is simply no one willing to risk themselves doing it.

    Drugs aren’t really disapproved by a very large minority of society, but the law makes it risky and therefore high profit (if you succeed), so there are plenty of people willing to do it.

    Contract killing is also risky and therefore high profit… but the demand is much lower, because society disapproves of it. As such, there are very few people willing to admit they are willing to do it.

    So, to a limited but still significant extent, the market reflects the morals of society as a whole.

  7. #7 |  phlinn | 

    @32: C.S.P Schofield
    The following quote seems relevant.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    ― C.S. Lewis

    @45: Jess
    This may not be what you are referring to, but saying it’s not a free market if slavery is allowed is like saying someone isn’t a scottsman because they’ve never lived in scotland. It’s eminently defensible by the base definition of the term, whereas the no true scotsman fallacy claims something outside the base definition. Slave markets, like crony capitalism, and various forms of pseudo deregulation are a form of cargo cult free market.

  8. #8 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Upset? I’d far rather have thoughtful posts than the sort of ideological rigidness which you often see from commentators. I’d rater, bluntly, have people on the right who are willing to THINK because I’m quite willing to admit that no government lasts forever.

    (Unlike idiots like Schofeld who claims gays die young)

    But… When you don’t see the value of your work (since it mostly vanishes into capital), and can’t afford a place to live fit for habitation, utilities, food and a little clothing…then those became rather the only issues which matter, Jason. Capital keeps on pushing out wages, so this issue is only going to get worse.

    The Nordic counties are states where a fairly high percentage people are, by and large, free to seek other things than work-as-work, precisely because the power of big business is limited and the state works with people individually. The Nordic peoples are *fiercely* individualistic.

    I’d also note that Marx cribbed heavily from Proudhon, adding statist elements.

  9. #9 |  Mairead | 

    46 Jess: I hereby submit to Lefties that this “no happiness for janitors” bullshit is privilege speaking, and they should run that shit by some actual janitors in order to receive some valuable instruction.

    I don’t believe you’ve any idea what you’re talking about. My stepfather was a janitor at Armour’s. He didn’t like it, nor did he know anyone who did. It was dangerous, backbreaking work for minimum wage, and nothing more. He took the job only because that’s all he could get when he got demobbed in 1945.

  10. #10 |  Bruce Coulson | 

    Work, for the vast majority of people, is something they do to survive. It has been this way for all of recorded history.

    From my personal experience as having worked in local delivery, garbage collection, customer service, and food service, I met many people who took pride in doing their work well; but I don’t recall ever meeting someone who genuinely enjoyed the work, found it fulfilling, and wouldn’t have left their employment in a second if they were able to. It may be possible to find ‘self-actualization’ in such work, but I never encountered anyone who had done so.

    The market can only support so many workers in any job. Only so many people can make a living in jobs that are consistently challenging and rewarding on a personal, emotional, and intellectual level. The others have to make do with hobbies and working at something that the market will pay them for, no matter what their opinions on the work involved.

  11. #11 |  David | 

    On work, I’m reminded of a homily in which the priest noted that God worked for 6 days, and then rested, as part of a point that both work (and rest!) are good things.

    I think the word “market” is used in so many different ways and in different contexts, that may be part of why some people disagree with you.

    For instance, I don’t think that the “market” is always correct about the value of a stock/company (in part because it’s not a perfect market, there is imperfect information between different market participants, etc.). Free-market forces are subject to cartels, monopolies/oligopolies “unfairly” influencing prices, etc. So I support at least some level of market regulation, not because I think a free market is immoral, but more because I tend to see it as amoral, and paradoxically some level of regulation helps keep a market “freer” (e.g. by discouraging fraud).

    In both healthcare and education, I think that the current systems combine some of the worst aspects of both a market and a highly-regulated system to help produce huge costs and limited choices. While my philosophical preference would lean towards a freer market in both, I also think that given where they are now, moving in either direction (freer market or more regulated) would produce greater efficiencies.

  12. #12 |  yonemoto | 

    markets are not morally neutral. Undistorted, they represent the morality of freedom of choice, because your participation is up to you. Free markets are silent on other issues of morality, like, say, lying or cheating. So to have a moral society with free markets does require some effort on the part of its members to be moral actors, but the existence of free markets requires moral restraint (and thus is not morally neutral).

  13. #13 |  Jess | 

    Mairead, my grandfather was orphaned at 8, and worked in the fields picking corn, etc. by hand with mules pulling the wagon starting when he was 10. This work was harder on the body than anything a janitor ever attempted, but he was only a kid so it was OK. And while he never made minimum wage on the farm, he did get fed so there was that. However, he made the most of his opportunities once WWII started.

    My grandfather is a happy person, even now toward the end of his life, and he would have been a happy person as a janitor too. You shouldn’t misunderstand your stepfather’s problems as being somehow typical of everyone in similar situations. Maybe it’s all you heard growing up, but I repeat my advice to actually talk to a real janitor rather than the internalized pissed-off stepfather you carry around in your head.

  14. #14 |  Jess | 

    phlinn, I’m like Humpty-Dumpty, and I actually agree with you that we can define “free markets” to exclude slavery, just as the FSF can define “free software” in the way that makes most sense. I mean, it’s really old law that a contract without the agreement of all parties subject to it isn’t a contract at all. The pwogs always want to win before the debate begins, by defining terms in some ridiculous way. It’s because they’re just not very smart.

    Hey pwogs: I support free markets only when they don’t include slavery. Can you respond to that without claiming that I do support slavery or that I don’t support some free markets?

  15. #15 |  Danny | 

    Well thank goodness for supercat.

    Because, you see, all a liberal needs is somebody with “more sense” to explain to them how markets work like you would to a four-year old.

    This is because all liberals are blithering idiots who think every good generated in the economy just falls off of some great big tree ad infinitum.

    So a long, windy, sanctimonious typed-out lecture on the internet will set things straight and make them see it your way.

    Good luck with the conversions, pilgrim.

  16. #16 |  Bruce Coulson | 

    tO #63

    Sure; it means you support regulations on markets.

    You see, free, unregulated markets sold slaves for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. You think this is wrong, and should be excluded. Clearly, the majority of modern governments and economies agree with you. (Although whether this is because of an advance in moral sense or in technology is another question.) But this is a regulation, forbidding a certain good from being brought to market. Property can’t enter into contracts, and slaves were property. So, you can define ‘free market’ as ‘everything can be sold except slaves, because we don’t allow slavery’, but in doing so, you automatically concede that a regulation is needed.

  17. #17 |  glasnost | 




    There’s talking here, but not communication. This is not a point about how I think libertarians are in favor of slavery. The point is understanding the tension between liberty to engage in economic transactions and other types of liberty. There are many types of economic transactions plausible between various entities that end up subverting or diminishing the liberty of others.

    This is something that I find that libertarians have an exceptionally hard time dealing with. And once we diversify beyond “liberty” as the only acceptable metric of the value of human society or individual existence, and start talking about “well-being”, the universe of undesirable transactions gets larger.

    It’s neccessary to make sure everyone accepts the validity of the concept of liberty-reducing economic transactions (freely made between A and B, damaging C) – the recognition of liberty for some that diminishes the liberty of others – and not just as a concept, but as a real situation that happens frequently on earth. Once you get to that point, the debate becomes empirically informed, which is exactly when economic darwinism and laissez-faire falls out of the running as a viable governance platform.

    Libertarianism is fine as a philosophy. And it’s entirely possible to be a philosophical libertarian that ends up governing as a social democrat. The problem begins with the specific choices made in translating respect for liberty into policy choices. Here Jason would actually agree.

    The problem with Jason’s point is the fantasy that simply removing state supports and interference would allow the private sector to create efficient and prosperous outcomes. The creation of efficient and prosperous outcomes is a phase that the players in a market go through between death and death: only continuous interference in the market by exogenous forces prolongs it.

    It’s great philosophy, and crappy historical analysis.

  18. #18 |  glasnost | 

    To elaborate a little further, once you accept that you must limit the freedom of everyone to make certain kinds of transactions because those transactions limit the liberty of others, or rely implicitly on those limitations, then all you have left is to figure out which transactions have to be prohibited. From my point of view, you’re already a social-democrat at this point.

    Although maybe it’s neccessary to accept one more premise, which is that this is not about liberty but wellbeing, of which liberty is exactly one component. Eventually libertarianism slides into utilitarian justifications about how well markets work, how prosperous they make people, and how efficient they are. I can’t argue with a libertarian who believes that everyone should have maximum freedom compatible with avoiding philosophically defined transgressions on liberty, specifically including when having it makes everyone involved empirically more miserable and less prosperous than known alternatives. But when we get into empirical claims, it’s a new ballgame.

  19. #19 |  Jess | 

    glasnost, I’m intrigued by your novel political analysis. Everyone who supports the existence and enforcement of laws (or, from your “implicitly” parenthetical, societal customs) is a “social-democrat”?

    That’s fascinating, but it doesn’t really contradict Jason’s original condescension.

  20. #20 |  Stormy Dragon | 


    I think the real problem is that most people are using “free” in a political sense, when “free market” is an economics term. And all that term means is that it is a market where no single buyer or seller has the ability to unilaterally determine the terms of trade (particularly price) for the market. So it is correct to say that a free market is morally neutral in that a market may qualify as free in the economic sense while still permitting or enabling the infringement of freedom in the political sense. (e.g there can be a free market in slavery as the slaves aren’t buyers or sellers).

  21. #21 |  supercat | 

    #63 | Danny | “This is because all liberals are blithering idiots who think every good generated in the economy just falls off of some great big tree ad infinitum.”

    I used to be a liberal, myself. Even though I’d taken economics courses, I believed Bill Clinton when he explained how his health-care plan was going to make affordable services available to people. I didn’t quite understand how it was all going to work, but it wasn’t hard to believe that President Clinton and his advisers would be able to figure out things that were beyond my understanding. Eventually, I came to realize that the basic principles taught in Econ 101 don’t just apply in the absence of government programs to overcome the limits implied thereby; they assert themselves with a vengeance against government programs that would seek to overcome them. If a politician says a program will have good effects, but the Econ 101 principles predict it will have bad effects, odds are very good that the program will have bad effects and the politician will act surprised.

  22. #22 |  supercat | 

    #43 | Jess | “supercat, you identify in the last paragraph a real problem with health insurance of all sorts, not just that provided by the government.”

    Allowing people to truly choose their own health insurance, rather than having such decisions pegged to their employers, would help to resolve some of those issues. People who would attach a high value to a particular standard of care would be willing to pay more in premiums to get it; those who don’t attach such a high value to it could pay less in premiums, leaving the more expensive resources to those who would value them more.

    //In fact, one could imagine a program of government support that wouldn’t have the deleterious effects on the price signal that all current ones do: just give those in the program who need health care all the cash they need to buy it, and let them spend that cash as they see fit. (I’m only half serious here, but you see what I mean.)//

    In some circumstances involving well-defined casualties, that would make sense. For example, if cosmetic surgery following a mastectomy would cost a certain amount, an insurance company could offer a woman who needed a mastectomy a choice between receiving the surgery or accepting a cash payment as a “cosmetic allowance”. Since it would be rare for women to undergo mastectomies just to receive a cash payment, such payments would not create perverse incentives. Unfortunately, while some medical casualties are well defined, some are not. Offering a person cash as an alternative to pain treatment creates a perverse incentive for that person to claim to be in as much pain as they can. The only way I can see to allocate pain-treatment resources based on people’s level of pain, without creating perverse incentives, is to see how much of their own money people are willing to pay for treatment. If someone can formulate some other metric that would be immune to people’s efforts to game the system, I’d be interested to hear it. Can’t think of any, though.

  23. #23 |  Fnord | 

    And I would say that it’s a peculiarly isolated and privileged perspective to consider the “self-actualization” of work more important than “paying the bills” part. Funny, I thought a tunnel-vision focus on touchie-feelie feel-good goals at the expense of reality was supposed to be a progressive stereotype.

    En Passant:
    Observing that working to pay the bills provides freedom to pursue a passion outside of work, calling that “working for self-actualization”, and suggesting that “working for self-actualization” then demands that free markets be treated as a end in themselves a reasoned argument. An amateur musician supporting his hobby as a trash collector doesn’t see the freedom to work as a trash collector as an end in itself; the end is the music.

    To the extent that markets produce wealth that allows people passionate about music to support themselves well enough to do music as a hobby, they’re a great tool (likewise, for that matter, for their ability to ensure that someone collects the trash). As an empirical matter, they frequently appear to do a good job of it.

    But as an end in themselves? That’s missing the point.

  24. #24 |  Fnord | 

    *is not a reasoned argument.