Work and Liberty

Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively. specializing in American intellectual history. His most recent book, The Rebirth of Liberty: The Founding of the American Republic 1760-1800 is now available in a 350-page attractive Bicentennial paperback from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533.

Here is something that is puzzling to adults. A small child can bound about, running from here to there, never appearing to tire. Yet, set the same child the task of walking from one place to another, and before he has taken a dozen steps, he is apt to look up at a parent to announce, "I’m tired. Carry me." If the parent does not comply, the child is likely to beseech, whine, cry, and may even conduct a sit-down strike. It does not make sense to the parent; the child is just being contrary. How could a few steps tire a child who is forever exerting himself much more strenuously, and for longer periods of time?

The child may be contrary, but he is not just being contrary in refusing to walk. It is too common a happening to be accounted for in that way. A more plausible explanation is that it does tire a small child to walk. It does not tire him to run, especially if he is going nowhere in particular, but it tires him to walk. An adult, by contrast, tires rather quickly if he tries to run but can walk with relative ease. It is no new discovery that small children are different from adults, but how different and in what ways may be insufficiently pondered. There is a clue in some of these for the connection between work and liberty.

Before looking into this connection, however, there is another and related matter that needs attention. Adults watching children at play often say something like this: "If I only had as much energy as a child, I could really accomplish something with it." Do children really have more energy than adults? Probably not, taking one with another, though the age of the adult would make a difference. There is, of course, no way to measure the potential energy in any person. What is known is that adults can and do sometimes expend a tremendous amount of energy. Take, for example, a woodcutter, someone who is accustomed to chopping with an axe. He can do so all day long, with only a brief respite here and there. The chances are good that no small child actually expends anything like that much energy in the course of a day.

The small child appears to have so much energy because his energy is largely undirected, unconcentrated, and randomly exerted. He has not yet entered into the economy of energy arena. So long as he is at play—what is called in school nowadays "free play" —he has all the energy he needs and wants. When he "runs down," he can quit playing and sleep; there is no playing left undone, nor any energy scarcity to concern him. To the small child, there is an almost absolute distinction between work and play. When he is healthy, he has boundless energy for play, but he tires and gives up quickly when assigned tasks—work —which must be completed, even walking from one place to another. The reason is now before us. Once the child is assigned a task that must be completed, the task becomes work, and the child enters the realm of economy where energy is scarce, must be conserved and directed.

Why is it easier for a small child to run than to walk? Because running belongs to the world of play, to the realm of boundless energy where there is no need to conserve or concentrate it. Walking belongs to the adult world of work where energy is scarce. To go from child’s play to work is to go from something like paradise to purgatory, to go from a bounty of energy to a scarcity of energy. It is understandable, then, if the child resists the transition and even revolts when he is pressed to do it.

Organized Play

There is, of course, an intermediate realm between the play world of the small child and the workaday world. It is that of organized play, of games and contests. Actually, organized play has all the characteristics of work, save one. In organized play, there is a definite task to be completed, a time limit, and participants must concentrate and conserve their energy. In baseball, for example, the task is to score more runs than the opposing team, in a set number of innings, and energy must be concentrated on the various tasks, such as hitting, as well as conserved for certain moments in the game. The one difference between organized play and work is this: the task to be completed in play is arbitrary. By contrast, the task to be completed in work is integral to and grows out of what is being done. For example, the woodcutter chops the tree into logs that will fit into the fireplace. Though the lengths may vary within certain tolerances, there is nothing arbitrary about what he is doing if the wood is to be burned in his house in order to give off heat.

Organized play has two frequently inter-related purposes. One is to provide children with a relatively painless transition from free play to economy and work. The other is to provide entertainment and recreation for participants and spectators. The first is probably much more important than the second, for the transition involved is one from the primitive level of the lower animals into the civilized world of man. The penchant for play man shares with other animals; work is one of the most important of the distinctions between him and them. It flows, of course, from his power to reason—to see connections that are not. necessarily direct and to engage in a series of purposive acts to provide for his well-being.

Work has now been under attack for some time. Nowadays, it is most commonly opposed as the "work ethic." The term "workaholic" has even been coined to describe a malady supposedly afflicting those who are "addicted" to work. But "work ethic" is only the latest in a line of terms used to stigmatize those who believed in the honor and dignity of work. It was called the Protestant ethic and also the Puritan ethic, though not everyone who used these terms attached a stigma to them. It appears, though, that those who refer to work ethic usually do so in a disparaging way.

Work Under Attack

The assault upon work is by no means confined to intellectuals, as the above might suggest. Many efforts have been and are being made to place obstacles in the way of those who would work. Labor unions have sought for years, often with success, to reduce both hours of work and the amount produced by each worker. In a strike, they attempt to stop all work within a plant and prevent those who would work from going in. It may be objected that theirs is not opposition to work itself but to the conditions of work under an employer or in an industry. That may be the intent behind it, but the method is to stop work. By indirection, they may well damage employers, but the impact on work and would-be workers is direct and immediate.

Governments, too, have joined in the assault on work. Child labor laws prevent the employment of young people in many undertakings. Wages and hours laws either limit hours of work or penalize the employer for overtime work. More, government taxes those who work—penalizes them, so to speak —and rewards many of those who do not. The most extensive instance of this is found in the Social Security program: those who work are taxed to provide benefits for those who have retired or are not very gainfully employed. (Again, the theory holds that the worker is taxed to pay for his own retirement, but the practice is as stated above.) It also is done in welfare and related programs.

Education as a Barrier

Governments are frequently carrying out a delaying action against work with their sponsorship of formal education. Compulsory attendance in schools is the counterpart to the child labor laws, a tacit opposition to work. Government support of higher education has greatly extended the period of unproductive activity for many people. This is not to deny the many values of formal education, but it is to point up some of the dangers of it.

In many respects, formal education belongs in the category of games and contests rather than work. Many of the obstacles put inthe way of graduation are not arbitrary, but they have a similar artificiality to those in organized play. The student productivity is devised and artificial, bearing no immediate relation to providing goods and services. The student does not bear an integral immediate relation to society; too long a period in school, cut off from productive relationships with people, breeds opposition to society. The tree that does not bear fruit is cut down. The perpetual student, perpetually unfruitful, is under an implied threat of a similar fate. Probably, to maintain his own self-esteem he withdraws his esteem from society, may revolt against it, or just hold it in contempt.

To make matters worse, Progressive Education attempted to sever the connections which have always been fragile of schooling with later life and the workaday world. Childhood, they said, has its own purposes and ends; it is not a prelude to adulthood but something worthwhile and fulfilling in its own right. The tendency of such theories when they are applied is to make schooling an end in itself. The effect of this is to make school into only a game or contest, not a game which is a transition to the workaday world but one which is both artificial and arbitrary. Social promotion, which is well-nigh universally practiced today, illustrates this theory in practice. Social promotion incarnates the values of children—homogeneity, mainly—and ignores the value of disciplined preparation for later life.

Progress or Regress?

This campaign against work is described as being progressive by its proponents. Every reduction in hours of labor is progress, they have said. To prohibit child labor was described as progressive. Education which was not primarily preparation for a life’s work was specifically called Progressive Education. Progress toward what, however, has never been made clear. Progress toward a time when men would no longer labor? Progress toward everlasting leisure and perpetual "free play" time? But that would not be progress, if there were a possibility that it could occur, which there is not. That would be retrogression, retrogression to the level of small children, to irresponsibility, to an absence of economy of time and energy, to some phantom golden age of perpetual childhood.

Perhaps, the most devastating thing about this campaign against work is the attitudes and habits it inculcates. It tends to make work distasteful, something to be avoided, something to contend over even as children bicker about the tasks assigned to them. It misconstrues the role of work in life and civilization. It treats work as if it were an arbitrarily contrived cultural convention rather than what it almost surely is: at the very core of adulthood and meaningful life.

Samuel Smiles was on the mark when he wrote the following:

"Work is one of the best educators of practical character. It evokes and disciplines obedience, self-control, attention, application, and perseverance; giving a man deftness and skill in his special calling, and aptitude and dexterity in dealing with the affairs of ordinary life.

"Work is the law of our being—the living principle that carries men and nations onward. The greater number of men have to work with their hands, as a matter of necessity, in order to live, but all must work in one way or another, if they would enjoy life as it ought to be enjoyed.

"Labor may be a burden and a chastisement, but it is also an honor and a glory. Without it nothing can be accomplished. All that is great in man comes through work, and civilization is its product. Were labor abolished, the race of Adam were at once stricken by moral death."

Much could and should be said about the virtue, value, benefits, and ennobling character of work, but there is one particular connection which merits special notice. It is the connection between work and liberty. It has been generally recognized that work is necessary; some, even many, have proclaimed it good, and everyman knows that it is good in moments of achievement, at least. That it might be integrally tied up with individual liberty, however, has not been much examined.

The Release of Energy

The most elemental connection between work and liberty is the liberating role of work in the release of energy. We may not ordinarily think of finding a way of releasing energy as being a problem. If not, it is probably because we are accustomed to think of the conservation of energy as a problem. But conserving energy is only important because we have something useful and worthwhile to use it on. Releasing it is more basic, if not more important.

Man is, by nature and normally, a bundle of energy, energy seeking an outlet, energy which must be exerted else it will dissipate and we will deteriorate. Work is the only way that energy can be constructively liberated. Child’s play releases the energy, but not constructively. Organized play releases energy, but the purpose is artificial and arbitrary. Child’s play is natural; games are cultural; work is truly liberating and civilizing. The first two release energy, but man at work employs energy to liberate himself. Energy is in control of the small child, so to speak, when he is at play. Man is in control of energy when he is at work. This control over energy is both the deepest meaning of freedom and the means by which man exercises his liberty.

There is, of course, a much more obvious connection between work and liberty. Work is the means by which we get our livelihood. Saint Paul declared "that if any would not work, neither should he eat?’ He thereby not only called attention to the connection between work and eating but also laid it down as a rule that all who were able should work. He had just explained why in an earlier passage (II Thessalonians 3:8): "Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you:’ "Chargeable" is the key term here and it may be sufficiently rendered as "dependent" or a "burden?"

Work Affords Independence

Work is the way to individual independence. Those who do not work, if they eat, are dependent on those who do work. They are a burden. To be compelled to work to support those who do not is in some degree slavery, the degree being dependent on the extent of the labor so compelled. It is well noting, too, that neither the slave nor the master is free, in the full sense of the word. The master is "chargeable" to the slave for his livelihood and material well-being. He is bound, also, in a system of armed might which maintains the slavery and in servility to the political masters of the armed force. This is true whether slavery is thought of as something which once existed in the South, or in Rome, or Greece, or as that which exists anywhere and any time that some portion of the population is compelled to support the rest. Welfare recipients in our day sometimes adopt the posture of slave masters, demanding their benefits and organizing to enforce their will.

In short, for liberty to exist fully, those who can must work. If they do not, those who do the work lose some portion or all of their liberty. And, those who do not work subsist in a dependence which is demeaning, and they experience only an illusory freedom.

Idleness Leads to Mischief

There is yet another essential connection between work and liberty. It has long been observed that only those who have a large measure of self-discipline are ready for liberty. What this means, in the main, though not entirely, is that only those who are work-oriented are ready for liberty. The reason for this may be best approached negatively. There are three ways by which man may release energy: in play, by constructive acts, and by destructive acts. Man at work is not usually a threat to anyone. A man committed to his work—work-oriented—can hardly be a threat to anyone. Anger cannot survive embroilment with work, for then the mind and energies are so focused in constructive use that there is nothing left over for destruction.

It is not so with the idle. They are subject to and are often bent toward destructive acts. John Wesley put the matter this way:

Do you labour to get your own living, abhorring idleness as:you abhor hell-fire? The devil tempts other men; but an idle man tempts the devil. An idle man’s brain is the devil’s shop, where he is continually working mischief:2

This mischief, whatever its source, is often a threat to property, to peaceful men, and to the well-being of society.

Work not only keeps people busy and out of mischief, but it is also a major source of discipline from within by which an individual controls himself whether he is at work or whatever. Those who do not have self-discipline must be disciplined from without. When those who lack self-discipline become numerous they must be held in check by government. The use of this external force promotes the expansion of governmental power in ways that curtail the liberty of all. Government-imposed discipline tends to get extended over everyone to the detriment of individual liberty. Nothing so aggravates the problem of governance as widespread idleness.

Christian Influence

There is much evidence in history to support the view that there is a close connection between work and liberty. More pointedly, there is much evidence in history that points to a close connection between the work ethic and individual liberty. As Catholic Christianity spread in the early Christian era, slavery declined and virtually disappeared. The Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the sixteenth century either fostered the demise of serfdom or many of the vestiges of it, and presaged an assault on slavery around the world. The connections here are not far to seek. Christian teachings dignify labor; they make it something not to be avoided or placed on slaves but worthy of everyman. The Protestant ethic, as it has been called, added another dimension. It made every useful work into a calling, added a dimension of nobility to it, even. Slavery is not only an abuse of the slave but also a degradation of work, and, by implication, of those who work.

As respect for work spread, so did respect for the individual, and, in the wake of these, protections of individual liberty. The protections of liberty came, mainly, by way of containment and curtailment of the power of the state. This is not to say, of course, that individual liberty was simply a product of a work ethic. It is rather to affirm that the two have gone hand in hand and that there appears to be an essential connection between them.

There is further historical evidence to support this view. As the vigor of religious belief has declined in the last century, belief in the nobility of work has gone with it. Supplanting these has been a hedonistic emphasis upon leisure and play. Almost simultaneously, individual liberty has been increasingly circumscribed and curtailed and government power vastly expanded.

Idleness and Crime

Here is another kind of evidence. As the campaign against work has gained hold in the United States, crime has increased, and continues to increase. It has long been the claim of reformers that crime is the product of a bad environment such as develops where there are poor living conditions. This is to look at the matter only most superficially. Actually, both poor living conditions and crime are the result, mainly, of idleness. Much of the crime in the United States is committed by young people, in their teens and twenties. Commonly, those who commit the crimes—crimes of violence and destruction—are unemployed or only occasionally employed. Lacking a work ethic, they are often devoid of all ethics. They have often known nothing of the liberation of work and quite often lose all liberty through being jailed or imprisoned.

How Much Work?

A disclaimer is now in order. This writer does not profess to know how much, or how long, or with what intensity people should work. He does not know at what age children should shift from free play to organized play or from organized play to work. He does not know at what age each child should enter school or at what age he should leave. How much men should work and how much of their time be devoted to recreation is not known to him. Whether a man should work four, or six, or eight, or ten hours per day eludes his powers of discernment. That work is good, that play can be refreshing, that schooling can be helpful in learning, to these things he can attest.

What is reasonably certain is that neither government nor any other organization or group knows how much or how long anyone should do these things. Government has no more business setting hours of labor than establishing the number of hours we should sleep. Government has no more business deciding at what age children should enter or leave school than determining in what month a child should be toilet trained. Government has no more business sponsoring idleness than compelling people to work. By the first it burdens taxpayers and encourages licentiousness; by the second it imposes slavery.

Individuals differ as much from one another in the amount of time they can and will work as they do in the amount of time they can and will sleep, probably even more. Some men can work long hours fruitfully and with no discernible ill effects. Others cannot or do not wish to work long at highly disciplined labor. Some jobs require intensive concentration and are best done for short periods of time: others can be routinely performed for much longer periods. Some children gain fulfillment from much schooling, others from very little. Many youths wish they could go to work at an earlier age, and there is no good reason why they should not. These are matters best left to the decisions of individuals (or the adults responsible) and worked out in cooperation with whoever else may be involved. Work is normal for man, but there are no norms for how much each of us shall do.

Shortage of Jobs?

There is something else that should not be left on the table, as the saying goes. The labor union campaign against work, which has produced much of the legislation limiting work, has not been grounded upon some supposed distaste for work. It is premised, rather, on the notion that there is a shortage of work. This notion has even been provided with a theoretical explanation and given the name of technological unemployment. The theory is that the use of tools and machinery replaces workers and thus reduces the amount of work to be done.

Obviously, tools and machinery are often used to accomplish much more than could be done by a much larger work force performing by hand. It does not follow, however, that there is less work to be done. Everyman knows, if he only thinks about his own undone tasks, that there is more work to be done than is ever likely to get done. This is so because there is no end to the way human wants may be satisfied by the performance of work. People do have preferences, however, as to what work most needs doing, and they limit the amount they will spend to get something done. Some things they will pay much to get done; for other things they will pay much less Technology does not produce unemployment; if wages are too high the result is unemployment. There is no shortage of work, but there is always a scarcity of means to employ workers.

The effect of the campaign against work, whatever its theoretical justification, is about the same. It is a campaign against civilization. It is a campaign against the growth and fulfillment of individuals. It is a campaign against discipline and order within society. And, it is a campaign against individual liberty.