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September 2, 2011

Labor vs. Drudgery

“If all the year were playing holidays,/ To sport would be as tedious as to work....” –Henry IV, First Part

Like most Americans during this three-day holiday, I come to praise labor, not actually do any of it. Has there ever been a people that sermonized more about the importance of the work ethic – but was so enamored of labor-saving devices?

“If all the year were playing holidays,/ To sport would be as tedious as to work….” –Henry IV, First Part

Like most Americans during this three-day holiday, I come to praise labor, not actually do any of it. Has there ever been a people that sermonized more about the importance of the work ethic – but was so enamored of labor-saving devices?

American efficiency, American organization, and therefore American prosperity has been an example around the world – at least since Henry Ford, that half-genius, half-crank and all-American revolutionary, put the world on wheels. And sagely raised his workers’ pay to unheard-of levels so they could buy the Model Ts they were putting together.

With the retirement of the fabled Steve Jobs at Apple, there has been a spate of articles over the wire recalling other great entrepreneurs of American history – from John D. Rockefeller to Arkansas’ own Sam Walton. A swath that would include such different types as Edison and Disney. Such figures, each distinctive, may have done more in their own idiosyncratic way to elevate the American standard of living and general comfort level than any politician, labor leader or intellectual.

The captains of industry and commerce who regularly pop up in American society have a way of revolutionizing the way we live without ever being recognized as the social reformers they are. It would come as surprise to learn that they thought of themselves in such terms while they were making their fortunes. (Well, maybe Andrew Carnegie did.) But the profit motive they understood very well. The social advances they made possible came as a byproduct of what they loved to do, what they were born to do. Theirs was a labor of love.

A few kinks have developed in the American image since those tycoons’ time – episodes like recurrent panics, the Great Depression and our own era’s Great Recession. Not to mention regular lapses in that once vaunted made-in-USA craftsmanship.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) spoke of the “creative destruction” that is a free economy, and don’t we know it today, when so much of that economy is in flux. It takes faith, hope and charity to let it operate freely, and it remains to be seen whether the creative or the destructive aspect of capitalism will survive the suffocating embrace of ever bigger, ever more debt-burdened government.

Still, no other country’s economic system seems to have responded so flexibly to the challenge, mystery and psychological thriller known as the “science” of economics. Maybe because of the simultaneous American admiration and distaste for work. It all depends on the kind of work – creative labor or just drudgery.

Surely no other civilization – if that’s the right word for this American experiment, hurly-burly and adventure – has labored so hard to make labor obsolete, or at least the kind of labor that demeans: the dull, rote, repetitive, unthinking kind that corrodes the dignity of the individual.

Whether it was the Shakers in their neat little colonies full of music and workmanship (‘Tis a gift to be simple, 'Tis a gift to be free …) or Jefferson at Monticello, Americans long have been fascinated with labor-saving devices. Inventing and perfecting remains our favorite form of labor. Natural-born tinkerers, we seldom think of such work as work at all, it’s so much fun.

Indeed, one of the most powerful arguments that can be made in this country against even the most entrenched of institutions – whether slavery or the welfare state – is that such a system will result in the creation of a permanent, dependent underclass.

In American society, independence is a good word, dependence a bad one. We are all for community, but flee the collective. We are happy to help others stand on their own, but resent freeloaders. We associate work with freedom and self-respect, not servitude and shame. Which is another reason slavery, the curse and bane of American history, could not last. Neither will any collective effort that denigrates the individual, not in this country.

The idea and reality called class exists in America, too, but we resist acknowledging it, which may explain our remarkable social mobility. For myths shape reality much more than the other way 'round. Our myth is called the American Dream, and it holds out the hope of equal opportunity, not egalitarian results. Maybe that’s why, though ours is not a classless society, it is also not a class-bound one. May it never become one.


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