“I hear therefore with joy whatever is beginning to be said of the dignity and necessity of labor to every citizen. There is virtue yet in the hoe and the spade, for learned as well as for unlearned hands. And labor is everywhere welcome; always we are invited to work.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” 1837.
From the start, Americans have had a love-hate relationship with work. We tend to rhapsodize about labor, but, at least in our personal lives, we praise labor-saving devices and condemn “make-work” schemes. (Unfortunately, public policy is another matter.) Emerson and other pillars of American culture — whom for these purposes I will call the moralists — associated work with dignity and purpose. Historian Thaddeus Russell teaches us that when the slaves were freed from the Southern plantations, they were pounded with the gospel of work. “Slaves generally considered work to be only a means to wealth, but after emancipation, Americans told them that work — even thankless, nonremunerative work — was a virtue in itself,” Russell writes in A Renegade History of the United States. He reports that the Freedman’s Bureau admonished the former slaves, “You must be industrious and frugal. It is feared that some will act from the mistaken notion that Freedom means liberty to be idle. This class of persons, known to the law as vagrants, must at once correct this mistake.” Russell notes that “thousands of black men were rounded up for refusing to work.”
The message was that work is not just an honest and proper way to obtain the necessities of life without mooching off others. The activity in itself is a source of goodness, even saintliness, and should be engaged in unceasingly, taking time out only for eating sleeping, other bodily functions, and tending to one’s family duties. One didn’t work to live; one lived to work.
Whites had been subjected to the same harangue for ages: work was a reward in itself, apart from remuneration, because “idle hands are the devil’s playground.”
We must be clear that the message was not merely that work could be a source of satisfaction apart from the money. The message amounted to a vilification of leisure, indeed, of consumption. (Some conservatives seem to hold this view.)
In a good illustration of the “Bootleggers and Baptists” phenomenon, the moralists were joined in their labor evangelism by employers, who needed uncomplaining workers willing to spend long hours in unpleasant factories. People preferred leisure and looked for every opportunity to indulge in it. Hence, “Saint Monday,” which, as Russell notes, Benjamin Franklin sneered at because it “is as duly kept by our working people as Sunday; the only difference is that instead of employing their time cheaply in church, they are wasting it expensively in the alehouse.”
We get a different picture of labor from the economists. The classical economists and the Austrians (at least from Ludwig von Mises onward) stressed the unpleasantness — the “disutility” and even sad necessity — of labor. Adam Smith and other early economists equated work with “toil,” which is not a word with positive connotations. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith writes,
The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What every thing is really worth to the man who has acquired it and who wants to dispose of it, or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people. What is bought with money or with goods is purchased by labour, as much as what we acquire by the toil of our own body. That money, or those goods, indeed, save us this toil.
Frédéric Bastiat carried on this tradition by emphasizing that exchange arises out of a wish to bespared labor. One accepts the terms of an exchange only if obtaining the desired good in other ways would be more arduous.
For Bastiat and other early economists, exchange was the foundation of society. “Society is purely and solely a continual series of exchanges,” Destutt de Tracy wrote. It follows that the penchant for economizing effort — the preference for leisure — is a beneficent feature of human nature. (Somewhere, the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein has a character say that the wheelbarrow must have been invented by a lazy person.)
Further, Bastiat explained, technological advancement is valued precisely because it substitutes the free services of nature for human toil. In his uncompleted magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, he wrote,
It is characteristic of progress (and, indeed, this is what we mean by progress) to transform onerous utility into gratuitous utility; to decrease [exchange-]value without decreasing utility; and to enable all men, for fewer pains or at smaller cost, to obtain the same satisfactions.
By onerous utility, he meant utility bought with sweat and strain; by gratuitous utility, he meant utility provided by nature free of charge. When ingenuity is applied to the making of a good, “its production has in large measure been turned over to Nature. It is obtained for less expenditure of human effort; less service is performed as it passes from hand to hand.” Needless to say, this is a good thing. Of course, some of the freed-up time will be devoted to producing other goods that were unaffordable yesterday, but some will be devoted to consumption, or leisure. The proportion set aside for leisure will likely increase as living standards rise (assuming government interference doesn’t deny workers their rewards for higher productivity).
The goal of all men, in all their activities, is to reduce the amount of effort in relation to the end desired and, in order to accomplish this end, to incorporate in their labor a constantly increasing proportion of the forces of Nature.… [T]hey invent tools or machines, they enlist the chemical and mechanical forces of the elements, they divide their labors, and they unite their efforts. How to do more with less, is the eternal question asked in all times, in all places, in all situations, in all things.