Labor as a source of value, and its problems.

Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” argues that modern societies ought to rely less on the labor of the individuals which compose them. Put simply, specialization of roles in which humans work and the assistance of industrial processes have reduced the human labor required for a given level of productivity. This amplifies certain problems with labor as a source of value in such societies.

A major problem with labor as a tradeable commodity is fairly obvious, but easily overlooked: labor is derived from people. In exchanging other sources of value for particular labor, one is requiring that human beings perform the desired labor – often regardless of whether they wish to do so for any reason other than compensation. This is almost certainly a necessary evil which we can not completely eliminate, but it must be managed carefully to reduce its approach to its most extreme expression in the form of slavery, in which the humans themselves become the commodity.

A second problem, which can exacerbate the first, is the accumulation of capital and its use in trade for labor. Without the abstraction of a monetary system, capital in the form of various resources is quite clearly the direct product of labor in the majority of cases. The accumulation of resources facilitated by inheritance and their abstraction into sums of currency obscures this relationship, with the result that individuals controlling large quantities of capital may avoid labor almost entirely, while depriving those who provide it of all but a pittance of the value they are responsible for creating.

The result of these issues is a class of persons who must be greatly overworked to sustain themselves, because of their reduced share in the benefits of their labor and because of a process that has probably been occurring for much of human history and which further reduces the compensation seen by the working class and the ability to find work, leaving many without work to do, and therefore without a means to secure their livelihood. This process is a continual decline in the quantity of work required to sustain human society, and therefore in the economic value of labor.

Even before modern industrialization, there was clearly some decrease in labor requirements of society driven by specialization. Trading with a specialist in manufacture of certain goods or performance of certain services relieves one of having to learn the necessary skills oneself or undertaking tasks in which one is unskilled. New opportunities to work arise in teaching these skills, but they can be taught by apprenticeship to a skilled worker in the regular course of their work, and one who specializes in teaching may teach many students, so it is unlikely that this can be anything but a loss in the amount of work which needs to be done.

A further decrease has come about through industrialization. Machines have taken the place of men in the most simple and repetitive tasks, and have since found their way into ever more complex roles. Again, there is some new work, in devising new machines and in their operation and maintenance, but this is both less in quantity than the work previously done by persons and require greater skills than the tasks of the machines themselves, so that displaced laborers may find it difficult or impossible to adapt.

These problems, and their direct impact on human beings and their ability to live well, are among the major reasons that I have come to support strong social welfare programs – ones which already exist to varying degrees outside our United States. If the labor needed to sustain a society is to continue to decrease, it seems reasonable that we ought to set a minimum standard of living which may likewise increase in step with this declining need. By providing to all the means to maintain themselves, the overwork in which some are forced to engage may be reduced and spread to others, who will no longer be blocked from contributing by the simple lack of work to do. A reduction in allowed working hours would also contribute to this benefit and is already done in other nations which remain productive despite what might seem to some outside them to be a sort of organized shirking. Public funding of higher education could help greatly in creating new opportunities to contribute for those who find no work they can do, and as Russell pointed out, the finer things of human culture have largely been the result of idleness and would see an increase if more leisure were available to more persons, even if only a small number might contribute in this fashion.

Such a system might be built upon taxing those with the most capital, who could very likely still remain quite wealthy while supporting a productive society and economy from which they might benefit. Changes could be made gradually to reduce the disruption of transition – though not too gradually, given that there is real suffering which we allow to continue as long as we delay a shift of value from work and materials to our fellow human beings.


3 thoughts on “Labor as a source of value, and its problems.

  1. Carl Lee Wiles II

    I get so frustrated when I can’t get people to even listen to this logic – at its core I think it comes from a culture built upon the idea of “Every Man for Himself” – and I think therein lies the crux of the problem – its a race to the top – but its also a race to make sure no one else takes your place at the top. It is a sad state of affairs, one that is exceedingly prevalent here in the US, if not nearly so much as abroad.

    I am not sure that I understand what has made the attitude focus to such a degree in such a fashion – I know that there was a time that “everyone” typically cared about their neighbors, that there was a sense of community. Now, about the only thing that brings us together is war or tragedy. Why can’t we work together towards a brighter future for all people?

  2. adam strange

    This comes from the root idea that all human motivation is the result of reward and punishment. this assumption is wrong, but it is still prevalent in society. the idea goes that without reward and punishment nothing would get done. morality itself would break down and society would cease to function. we need to highlight example where this is not the case to break this cycle.

    1. MilitantlyUnhelpful Post author

      A great point, and one that Russell addresses to some degree. We consider total idleness, not having any employment or being imprisoned, to be a form of punishment. I think there would be a large return on investment in our unemployed, on average, more than enough to justify not worrying about cases that are “just” a drain on resources.


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