Saturday, August 23, 2008

Philosophising About Hard Work

Saturday's a time for some thinking about philosophical issues. On this occasion I take a brief look at the virtues of hard work for those undertaking it.

Wall Street Journal (22 August) in which Tony Woodlief asks: ‘Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho: How Can I Teach My Kids to Enjoy Work?’

I thought perhaps the best person to consult for wisdom on the virtues of work would be that psalmist of markets, Adam Smith.

But as it turns out, Adam Smith's philosophy of work was that it requires one to lay down "a portion of his ease, his liberty, and his happiness." My sons agree wholeheartedly. Further, Smith measured wealth in terms of one's ability to hire others to do the work. I've not caught anyone paying to have his chores done, but I suspect it's a matter of time. Needless to say, "Wealth of Nations" is coming off our shelf for the time being.”

Much as it pains me to say it, I think the Frenchman was right. Maybe early Americans worked hard not because they found inherent pleasure in work but because they dreamed of a world with delivery pizza and videogames. And now that we've achieved that pinnacle of economic satisfaction, we're eager to follow Adam Smith's advice and take it easy.

Much as it pains me to say it, I think the Frenchman was right. Maybe early Americans worked hard not because they found inherent pleasure in work but because they dreamed of a world with delivery pizza and videogames. And now that we've achieved that pinnacle of economic satisfaction, we're eager to follow Adam Smith's advice and take it easy.

Left-leaning theologians like N.T. Wright and Miroslav Volf, meanwhile, agree that work should be seen not as a pietist's grim duty or as an avenue to wealth but as a way of participating in God's creative order. Liberal Tom Lutz's "Doing Nothing," a book that ostensibly sets out to justify Slackerism, likewise has a beef not with work but with purposeless work.

I'm a small-government guy, but when it comes to a work ethic, I find myself siding with the left. Humans need work, and they need to see that their work has a purpose. Come to think of it, you'll hear that from any of America's countless business gurus. We're all Marxists now

You can’t help liking Tony Woodlief. He has a family oriented honesty that gives pause to thought. His awkward conclusions irritate too. So it’s best that you read the article HERE:

However, I am not so sure that he’s got Smith (or Marx) right.

Adam Smith considered the real cost of anything was the ‘toil and trouble’ of making it yourself, as in the pre-history days of hunter-gathering when everything a person wanted had to be made for themselves – feeling cold? go into the forest and hunt a bear to make a coat; your hut leaks? – gather some brushwood and cover the gaps or gather all the bits and built another hut; you’re hungry – gather from the forest some berries, and fruit, and hunt a smallish animal to make the main treat.

Smith was speaking philosophically about the real cost of anything you needed. Your own labour could give you a surplus with which you could obtain the fruits of nature from somebody who had other things to spare. Labour was the cost of acquiring things; wealth was the amount of such things that represented the ‘necessities, conveniences, and amusements of life’. It was not the labour.

If it wasn’t so, then everybody would have to labour hard and long but would also be extremely poor, far beyond what a decent saint could tolerate in their vows of poverty (the latter living off the scraps of those working around them). The hut needs fixed because it is leaking badly? 'Sorry, there’s no food and you’ll have to get wet and like it, while I go to yonder territory and gather what I can – perhaps in a few days I’ll have the time to tend to the hut, but then perhaps not.'

How taking Wealth Of Nations from the shelf would prevent Tony’s boys reading about reality – obviously Tony hasn’t read or understood it, so why he fears his boys (4, 6, and 8 years old) would be corrupted by it, escapes me. They could read Genesis and the ‘sweat of thy brow’ bits, instead.

As for de Tocqueville and dreaming about working to ‘a world with delivery pizza and videogames’, I doubt it. The early Americans were working to get the wherewithal to live well for the rest of the year.

The desire to ‘take it easy’ is not something new; it’s the fact that while that desire to 'get by' is universal across all societies, there is always a minority who want to do better that 'get by' and they work hard trying to find inventive ways of doing better, but unfortunately the self-deception that they can rest after they’ve succeeded by a lifetime of toil is a receding horizon:

And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants.” (TMS IV.1.10: pp 183-4)

What Tony Woodlief sees in hard word ‘as a way of participating in God's creative order’ other might see 12-18 hour days in paddy fields, or mind-numbing shifts in coal mines.

Without in any way deliberately mocking such religious-inspired images of the ‘creative-order’ attributed to an invisible God, its possible to intellectualise the inevitable amount of work that is and always will be ‘purposeless’ in the minds of those who have to do it.

Where does all this leave Tony Woodlief’s three young boys?

In Adam Smith’s time there were plenty of young boys, as young as six upwards, who didn’t ‘waste’ time playing; they were sent to work by and with their parents for a few pence a week which could have added a shilling-and-sixpence to the family’s meagre weekly budget, giving them the enjoyment and fulfilment that Tony yearns for his boys (echoes of the ‘Labour Sets You Free’ horrors of Nazi Germany).

Somehow, I am not so sure that his boys see it that way – at least, as well-brought up boys, they would not be overly prepared to say so in front of him. Might be better to get them engaged in sporting activities…

PS: I note in passing Tony’s comments on his son’s ‘slacking’ while nominally working, but were they slacking or exercising innovative capacities?

There are already signs of the Smithian ethos on our homestead: My 6-year-old tries to reduce how often he carries his clothes hamper to the laundry room by wearing the same outfit indefinitely. My 8-year-old, meanwhile, leaves the water hose stretched out where I trip over it, so that filling the dog's water dish takes less walking.

This is predictable and very laidable!.

Smith notes the behaviour of children in work in his day; Smith noted a similar outcome in Wealth Of Nations:

Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object, than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things. But in consequence of the division of labour, the whole of every man's attention comes naturally to be directed towards some one very simple object. It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or other of those who are employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, wherever the nature of it admits of such improvement. A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. Whoever has been much accustomed to visit such manufactures, must frequently have been shewn very pretty machines, which were the inventions of such workmen, in order to facilitate and quicken their own particular part of the work. In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication, to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour.” (WN I.i.8: pp 20-21) [Incidentally, Smith was misled here by an anecdote]

I hope Tony praised his boys for their ingenuity in seeking easier way to complete their tasks, instead of, I fear, chastising them. That their solutions may have been 'unstable', they nevetheless provide an ideal platform to instill in them the positive virtues of trying to improve the way things are done.

It is that search for improving productivity that led from the forest via shepherding and farming to Tony’s ability in the world this created to sell-up in the city and move to a 20-acre homestead in the American countryside to induct his children into the virtues of hard work. Just a thought.

[Thanks to a correspondent (Adolpho Mendez) for drawing Tony Woodlief’s article in the WSJ to my attention - see comments to my post below]



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