Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The "Work Ethic" Con

I don't think I've written about this before, but if I'm repeating myself, well, suck it!

I think the concept of "work ethic," which had value at one time, has become maladaptive and is now mostly something employers can take advantage of to screw workers. It is an essentially communist concept that is not appropriate in a (nominal) free market capitalist state like the US.

At various times in human history instilling a "work ethic" into one's children was adaptive and necessary. If one is a hunter/gatherer or a subsistence farmer, then the work output of one's child will both affect the child's odds of survival, as well as the odds of the child's siblings surviving, and in many cases your own odds of surviving. Similarly, I think instilling a "work ethic" in children one intends to pass, say, a family business on to is adaptive. If the children have no work ethic, the business will fail once the parent steps away.

In such circumstances, the child gets a benefit in later life from adopting the "work ethic" mentality, in increased chance of survival and a higher standard of living. One gains benefit for working hard commensurate with the work done, all things being equal. But now, in many cases in the US and I would imagine in the rest of the modern, industrialized world, workers are exorted that "hard work is its own reward" and to work hard because it is the right thing to do, despite the fact that they often receive no benefit for working harder, and often someone else (the employer's shareholders, for instance) receive the benefit.

And that is just the antithesis of a capitalist system. "Working hard for the good of the company" when one does not receive a benefit commensurate with that hard work is the way things would work in a communist state as envisioned by Marx (not the bastardized "communism" of China or the Soviet Union): everyone works hard for the overall good. But the US isn't a communist system, and when a worker works extra hours without compensation, for instance, someone is benefiting: it just isn't the worker. It's the employer.

It disproportionately benefits companies and employers to have a workforce with a strong "work ethic," since those workers, believing they have a moral obligation to work hard, won't be as likely to expect compensation commensurate with the work they are doing. All things being equal, they will work hard despite poor pay and benefits, bad working conditions, and mandatory unpaid overtime. It's to the advantage of employers to continue to encourage the inculcation of children with "work ethic" so that the employer can benefit.

But, you see, in a capitalist system, work is not, in fact, its own reward. In a capitalist system the worker should seek to get the most return for the amount of investment he or she is willing to put in. As Republicans like to say when it is suggested that it is immoral for drug companies to withold life-saving drugs from those who can't pay and that higher safety standards in products would hurt the economy, companies are in the business of making money, and so should the worker. Workers are paid by companies to do work that will earn the company (and its shareholders) profits. The products and services a company produces are just MacGuffins. Those aren't why the company exists. It exists to make money, and, in a capitalist system, one should not do more work than one is compensated for in order to generate more profits for someone else.

Workers in a capitalist system should work as hard as they are compensated for, and no more. They should never do work "because work is its own reward," because in truth there is a reward, the worker just isn't getting it. In a capitalist system there is no moral value to work or lack thereof; workers work as hard as they need to obtain the goods and services they desire. Work is valued by the compensation it is worth. We accept that producers of goods want to produce a product as cheaply as possible and sell it for as much as possible. But the false moral value placed on work that is implicit in the concept "work ethic" leads us to falsely believe that it is reprehensible for workers in a capitalist system to seek to get the most compensation possible for the least investment (work). But that is no different. It is simple supply and demand. It is no more immoral for the worker to seek to do as little as possible for as much pay as possible as it is for companies to try to reduce production costs and increase the prices they charge.

"Work ethic" is a trick. Of course those who benefit from it want to perpetuate the myth of moral value to work. But work has no inherent moral value, and the fact that some nomadic shepherds wandering in the desert 2,500 years ago said it does doesn't make it true.


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