Notes From Babel

Labor unions, and other compromises between capitalism and socialism

with 4 comments

First, on the off chance there is any doubt still left in your mind that public sector unions are a disaster, Kenneth Miller’s review of Steven Greenhut’s Plunder! gives a nice primer that you can consume in less than 10 minutes.

Though I’m pretty reflexively anti-union, I’ve come  to acknowledge they represent what is almost certainly an inevitable and necessary binding agent between a technologically and politically empowered industrial elite and a displaced working class.   As I explained in recent posts on the progressive movement here and here, unions and industrial regulations, though anti-competitive and anti-individualist, were in part a response to the destructive forces of rampant competition and individualism.  The most shrewd, competitive, and fiercely individualist of Americans helped create the most wealthy, productive economy in the world.  Yet, discontent with those elites seemed to grow in proportion with their success.

What would America’s economy be like without those rampant capitalists? This is the counter-factual the labor movement would have us imagine.  An America in which no individual need work more than just a few hours a day, allotting the balance for reflection and consumption.  I have to admit, I find it enticing, too.  And as far as I can tell, there are only two main objections, both of which are hard to make.   First, that man is made to work.  Second, that economies cannot long endure without hard, sustained effort.

The problem with the first proposition is that it is a value statement, not a fact statement.  Though I believe it to be true, it is not the sort of truth that wins any converts.  More problematic, most people probably do believe it, but will disagree on what exactly is meant by “work.”  While early 19th century Americans toiled hard on farms for a mere subsistence, their work defined them and gave them pride.  This probably cannot be said of modern laborers who work fewer hours than any other point of human history, yet vie for workweeks that contain less and less work.  Whatever modern laborers think man is made for, it is not for working.

The second proposition leaves me skeptical. Surely, we could devise a path to universal comfort not too unlike what folks like Edward Bellamy and Robert Heinlein have sketched out, in which “No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”  Oh, there would be sacrifices: inefficiency, a decline in the rate of growth and innovation, the yield of freedom to bureaucrats. But it could work, on paper. The problem is always with the first proposition: that man is made to work, to see the results and consequences of his own efforts and choices, and, ultimately, to be an individual in the world.

Man belongs to society, but not exclusively. He belongs first to God and to nature, and to himself. Attempts at socialsm have first to contend with these lienholders.

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Written by Tim Kowal

January 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] written before that, despite my conservative biases, I’m mesmerized by the progressive/utopian ideas of Edward Bellamy and early Robert Heinlein, in which man is provided a comfortable living as a […]

    • Those shrewed elites can become wealthy by being selfish and exploiting the working class. Remember, the working class generate the revenue.

      John Ambrose

      October 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm

      • That’s not entirely true. Neither labor nor natural resources create wealth. Some of the world’s nations with the largest supplies of labor and natural resources are nonetheless among the world’s most impoverished and oppressed. It is the rule of law and other institutional advancements that turn these raw resources into riches. And public sector labor unions undermine these institutions. Beware them.

        Tim Kowal

        October 19, 2012 at 8:07 am

  2. 4th Paragraph: ‘While early 19th century Americans toiled hard on farms for a mere subsistence, their work defined them and gave them pride. This probably cannot be said of modern laborers who work fewer hours than any other point of human history, yet vie for workweeks that contain less and less work. Whatever modern laborers think man is made for, it is not for working.’
    Since the 1960s, the consensus among anthropologists, historians, and sociologists has been that early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure time than is permitted by capitalist and agrarian societies;[6][7] For instance, one camp of !Kung Bushmen was estimated to work two-and-a-half days per week, at around 6 hours a day.[8] Aggregated comparisons show that on average the working day was less than five hours. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_time

    John

    February 7, 2016 at 10:46 am


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