Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why Work?

Dorothy Sayers
The title of this post comes from one of Dorothy Sayers' wartime essays which forms part of the collection Letters to a Diminished Church.   Sayers' reflections on the economic contrast between wartime and peacetime make a surprisingly relevant backdrop for thinking about unemployment, and about what makes work meaningful today.

In Sayers' thought, good work is one of the ways in which human beings are to reflect "the mind of the Maker".  Work well done is "the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God."

Thus unemployment is a spiritual tragedy, not simply because the unemployed person lacks purchasing power but because he or she is denied the opportunity to fulfill a divine calling.  But worthless work - work that is undertaken simply to make money, not to do well a thing that is well worth doing - is a spiritual tragedy also.

Keynes (no doubt with his tongue in his cheek) wrote, "If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment... " Whatever the economic effectiveness of this idea, nobody could imagine that the work so created would be work worth doing.  Indeed, the question of whether a particular job is worth doing, or a particular commodity worth producing, is typically abstracted away from economics under some rubric such as "the incommensurability of individual preferences."

Similarly, proposals whether Keynsian or neoliberal to rectify unemployment by accelerating economic growth shy away from the question of whether the jobs so created would be jobs worth doing. Part of the resonance of Paul Krugman's wacky idea that what we really need is a space alien invasion comes from the sense that at least we would all agree, then, that the stuff we had to do was really worth doing.

This is also what Sayers says about the Second World War economy. But in peacetime, "A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand."

How can we build a world of meaningful work that is not "founded on trash and waste"?

Image: Wikipedia 
All books mentioned here may be obtained from your local independent bookseller or by mail from Hearts and Minds Books of Dallastown, PA. You don't need me to tell you about the mega-corporate alternative, but which one really builds community?


John Roe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Roe said...

see for some ideas

John Roe said...

Also see this page which makes the interesting point that in a resource-constrained economy, available working hours can be thought of as a "commons" in the sense of Hardin's famous article.