Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bio-Politics: An Object Lesson

A commenter over at Megan McArdle's (don't ask...):
"a certain floor of compensation for work"

That sentence summarize the problem with how work is conceived of in neo-classical and, for that matter, marxian economics.

Work is something that is not a good in and of itself, it is a negative that someone has to be "compensated" to do. Presumably because the person who is not working for wages have something better to do.

My fundamental objection to this view of work is that work is by no means a negative for an individual, but an intrinsic part of our "social being" in a society where most of us do not have activities like subsistence farming, etc. to keep us alive.

If you take the position that it is an intrinsic good to have people at work for a certain wage rather than to sit home and collect the identical sum doing nothing, then having as many as possible of the population at work is in fact, a collective good.

My argument is that to pay for idleness (Welfare, Unemployment "compensation", charitable handouts, etc.) fundamentally undermine the importance of work as a socializer, an activity that keeps people from doing things that are potentially harmful, deviant, or otherwise undesirable should they be not employed.

Look at most of continental Europe, where tight controls on hiring and firing, unionization, etc. have created an underclass of permanently unemployed, much like the underclass of mostly black ghetto dwellers in the US that is nearly permanently unemployable for different reasons.

To me, the danger of this underclass goes far beyond undermining the work ethic, incentives to work, etc. It goes to the heart of social stability in that persons who are idle at the margins of society and kept alive by handouts with no obligations are at high risk of doing things that upsets social order even more, like drug dealing, petty crimes, etc. because they are not occupied most of the time at a job.

So having said that, I am for a minimum wage, and at the same time, for the elimination of handouts without a reciprocal obligation to be at "work".

Count me in for eliminating programs like Social Security, disability payments, etc.

I lost track in there: We shouldn't compensate people for work because we shouldn't compensate people for idleness? If people would rather be idle than work, then doesn't compensation make perfect sense as a term? If people would rather work than be idle, then unemployment compensation makes perfect sense as a term and as a policy. Whatever.

Anyway: I just gave two closing lectures with the same punch-line. I said of both of my classes that my fondest wish is that they made my students a bit more useless. This wacko's idea of social engineering only makes my wish more fervent.


Praxis said...

In the past few months, almost all of my friends have gradually joined this pyramid scheme which, although dubious, is apparently not illegal. They all receive hundreds of dollars in the mail, which pays the rent and, no longer needing to work in kitchens or bars, allows them to devote more time to metal and skateboarding.

To my surprise, I've discovered some sort of moral resistance that has prevented me from joining this pyramid scheme, and it's made me think a lot about labour. I don't want free money, in fact, it makes me uneasy - why?

I see the thread here, begun on your post on the absurdity of philosophy qua career training. And I am excited about refusing work, if we define work in the way capitalism does. But it bothers me to see the need and valuation of money preserved, albeit detached from labour. Especially when the way in which this money is acquired abets some of the worst systems that capitalism has produced. (In my friends' case, they're mooching off internet gamblers - I mean, the number of ways in which this displays the evils of exchange value is kind of impressive.)

Am I a Conservative?!? A Conservative with really fun friends?

Will Roberts said...

No libertarian would agree that your friends aren't working--they're entrepreneurs!

I think this is one of the ways in which capitalism blackmails us with an either/or choice: Either work or steal, be productive or be a mooch.

You're surely right to see this as caught up with the monetarization of life.