Occasionally, albeit rarely, I get a comment that one has a duty to work insofar one able-bodied vis-a-vis able-brained. This is a fairly complex comment which suggests either socialist or collectivist beliefs, that is, everybody has a duty to work and a right to eat in the sense that first and foremost people have a right to eat and those who can work therefore have a duty to feed them; or it suggests a protestant work ethic in which work somehow brings salvation; or lately, that I have to perform the sacrifice of working because my ancestors did so — this conceivably has to do with the modernistic myth of linear progression (our culture is the best because it is the most recent?!) and manifest destiny.

Incidentally, I do not believe in any of those.

Sometimes this thinking extends further. If you have a specialized or valuable skill, that is, valuable to others, not you, it is your duty to use it. For instance, if you are a highly skilled engineer, it is your duty to engineer even though you would rather be doing gardening. The rationalization behind this is that many more people can become gardeners but few people have the talents for becoming engineerings and therefore, this engineer talent must be used for engineering regardless of whether it makes the individual unhappy.

I have noticed similar expectations when it comes to being able to work harder or more efficiently. At one point I was working in a storehouse unpacking chain wheels and I noticed that I was about 50% faster than the other two guys. As they were unpacking 3 crates together, I was unpacking two. Yet, we were paid the same. The difference can be rather large. If you are paid by the hour and you are paid the same as the other and much slower guys, you might scale down your effort. Alternatively, if you were paid by the crate, you could go home much sooner. However, if work is a duty, you should work as hard as you can regardless of whether others are slacking.

The argument gets even weirder when the only “valuable” work is work that gets compensated with wages. I think much of the work in our culture is merely a more sophisticated manifestation of Keynes’s idea of digging holes and filling them up again. This is considered honest work even though it produces nothing aside from entropy which is paid for by government stimulus checks or someone slowly going bankrupt. I do something similar when I take my bike and ride 15 miles out and 15 miles back returning to my starting point. Effectively I have done nothing, but I have worked. However, since nobody paid me, it is not real work. If I was a professional cyclist and someone did pay to watch me ride around, it would be work

I don’t think I have a right to eat. I pay my own way and I do so in several ways. First, I worked quite hard for a number of years to accumulate a sum of money that allows me to play the role of a capitalist. This essentially means I fulfill the same role as a banker and moneylender but on a much smaller scale. Second, I do real physical labor, like lifting weights up in the air and putting them back down on the ground. I suppose alternatively I could dig holes in the ground and fill them up again. If a work ethic is inherently good, then lifting weights must be good. Third, I write this blog, which is probably the most beneficial, yet least compensated, thing I have ever done for other people. Apparently I change lives around or at least provide some of the motivation for it. Third and a half, there willis also be a book at some point, and I will get paid for that, so if the blog doesn’t count, maybe the book does count. Fourth, I copy-edit for a scientific journal. This is actual work for income and I earn more than I can use myself, hence Fifth, I work on something else which does not pay anything yet. This is called a start-up. I do believe that all of these produce value and I even believe that most of them provide value for others as well. Most importantly, none of them do any or much harm.

These are all things I do. Whether it is called work or not is fairly irrelevant to me. A housewife is not paid, but she does things which when done professional in restaurants, laundries, etc. are called work. Perhaps, the best example I can think of to illustrate the insanity of “work as a good/duty” is tribal people. Yes, they hunt and forage, but they only do so to feed and clothe themselves. Once they have done so, there is no need to hunt more or cut down more plants. In fact doing so would be considered a great evil. Yet, in our society producing and taken more than we can use is considered a virtue. Perhaps it would be if it wasn’t so destructive to our long term well being. In the developed world, we have so far been fairly isolated from all this since we have managed to outsource our worst and most polluting kinds of industries, but elsewhere, in developing countries (that may never develop) and in nature and the climate, they are certainly feeling the effects of our duties. No, a duty to work is not inherently and unequivocally good.

Originally posted 2009-04-28 02:05:10.