Liberty Free Press
May 15, 2000

Work in a Free Society 
by Dr. Edward Younkins  
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce. 

Included in the concept of private property are the notions that an individual's work creates private property and that a person owns himself and therefore has property in the free use of his time, abilities, and efforts. Work requires the expenditure of time and energy. Man is in control of his time and energy when he voluntarily and constructively works. Control of one's time and energy both reflects the meaning of freedom and constitutes the means by which a person exercises his freedom. Roughly one third of an average individual's adult life is devoted to working. It is in work that we can find the foundations of profit, property and corporations all can be justified in terms of the perfection of the human being. 
Throughout the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian eras up to about the eleventh century, there was an emphasis upon the life of the mind (i.e., contemplation and education) and, at best, only a grudging tolerance of manual labor and merchant labor. However, by the early Renaissance, all forms of work had become so highly valued that families took their family names from the type of work they performed (e.g., Miller, Smith, Cooper, Shoemaker, Miner, Wright). During the Renaissance and Reformation, work was accorded a much more honorable role and the active life was praised more than the life of thought. By the time of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, the Church had defined work as both an individual's natural right and duty. As respect for work grew so did respect for individual rights and liberty which needed to be protected from the power of the state. By the time of America's founding, there was a realization that the institutional framework required to protect individual rights and ennoble work is one of capitalism including free markets, competition, private property, and limited government. 
The Work Ethic and its Critics 
The Protestant Work Ethic contributed to the spirit and growth of capitalism. Protestants, especially Calvinists, believed that man was depraved and that salvation, consequently, must come only through Christ's work on the cross to pay the price for man's sinfulness. The Protestant Work Ethic came from the response of those saved, who, in gratitude for the great gift of God's salvation, wanted to apply the salvation through their obedience to God's commandments one of which was to subdue the earth and be good stewards over it. As a result, men worked hard, were productive, and accumulated wealth. High living was forbidden since people had to account for the use of their possessions. Reinvestment naturally resulted, helping to stimulate the growth of capitalism. Through work, man served God. Planning, self-control, austerity, individualism, and devotion to occupations thereby pervaded the economic world. The Protestant Work Ethic stressed the sacred nature of property, the virtue of hard work, and the importance of independence, thrift, and accumulation. 
The Protestant Work Ethic not only added a dimension of nobility to work, it also viewed every productive job as a calling something that a man is meant to do. A calling is unique to the individual, requires the talent to do the job, and is accompanied by the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and renewed energy that its performance gives to the called person. When a man has a calling, he tends to have greater respect for what he does. 
Christianity raised work to participation in the creative work of God. People began to search for what the Creator intended for them to do with the unique resources He endowed in each of them. Every person has talents that allow for productivity that God wants each individual to cultivate and treat as gifts. God did not make the world complete but to be completed. Work was thus viewed as a way to co-create with God and cooperate with Him in bringing creation to its perfection. 
Today, when people hear the term "work ethic" they think of a broad philosophy encompassing a variety of religious and secular beliefs, meanings, and dimensions including, but not limited to the following: (1) Men have a religious and moral obligation to fill their lives with hard work and live an ascetic existence; (2) Men should amass wealth through honest labor and keep it through thrift, frugality, and wise investments; (3) Men are expected to work long hours, with little or no time devoted to leisure or recreation; (4) Workers should be extremely productive and produce a large quantity of goods and services; (5) Workers should be proud of their work and perform their functions to the best of their ability; (6) Workers should be loyal and committed to their company, their profession, and their work group; (7) Employees should be achievement-oriented, constantly striving for advancement; and (8) Workers should be dependable with an attendance record of low absenteeism and tardiness. 
There has been an assault on the work ethic and work itself during the last century. As the intensity of religious belief has waned during this period, there has been a corresponding decline in the belief in the dignity of work. Replacing these beliefs has been a hedonistic elevation of leisure, play, and free time.  
The image of productive persons has been constantly denigrated by authors, educators, media journalists, politicians, and other intellectuals. Not only do they attack the producer, his integrated thinking, the value of his product, and his individual rights (including his property rights), they also attempt to expropriate his profits for their own chosen projects. Work is portrayed as distasteful and as something to be avoided. In addition, the worker is depicted as a victim of capitalists, corporations, and employers who seek to exploit and reduce the worth of the worker. 
Attempts have been made to place barriers in front of men who want to work. Unions try to limit work hours and the productive output of each laborer. Minimum wage laws cause unemployment by pricing low-skilled workers out of jobs. Maximum hour laws either restrict the hours that a person can work or punish employers who have to pay a premium for overtime. Children are kept from working by child labor laws even if such work is agreeable to the child and the child's parents or legal guardian. Compulsory school attendance and prolonged schooling have kept many young people out of the job market. Social security and other retirement programs keep older citizens off the job market. Laws that encourage or mandate unionization and exclusive representation protect unions from competition and diminish the economic freedom of employers, union workers who may prefer to bargain independently or as a member of another union, and workers who are not members of the protected union. Unions often (1) impose limits on supervisory personnel performing production work and on assigning work outside of an employee's classification, (2) require a minimum number of workers on a given job, and (3) bargain for rules limiting the use of labor-saving machinery and methods.  
Occupational licensing laws, through education requirements, examinations, and license fees, create barriers to entry in many professions. Government jobs programs reduce economic freedom and employment opportunities. The jobs created by such programs are financed by diverting resources from the private sector. Such jobs tend to be deficient since they don't meet legitimate customer demands and cause unemployment through their crowding out effect. Laws that made it more difficult and more costly to close down or relocate a plant deprive employees and business owners of their freedom to decide for themselves and place the immobile firm at a competitive disadvantage compared to new firms. Immigration laws diminish people's ability to change employment or look for jobs in another country. In addition, both federal and state governments tax workers and employers and subsidize those who don't work. Then there is John Dewey's legacy, "progressive" education, which emphasizes "socialization" rather than cognition and efficacy and breaks the link between education and work by treating education as merely an end in itself. Rather than teach "socialization", educators need to encourage independent, individual judgment and to provide the reasoning skills and factual knowledge that a rational man will need when he enters the world of work. 

Work is Essential for Human Flourishing and Happiness 
The war against work is also a war against individual fulfillment and freedom. Work is at the root of a meaningful life, the path to individual independence, and a necessity for human survival and flourishing. It is also the distinctive means by which men concretize their identity as rational, goal-directed beings. Productive work is the process by which man controls his existence by acquiring knowledge and translating or objectifying his ideas and values into physical form. Work is a synthesizing activity, involving both cognitive and physical aspects, that permits the actualization of specifically human abilities and desires. Work is needed not only for sustenance but also for one's psychological and spiritual well being it is the means through which a man can maintain an active mind, attain purposes, and follow a goal-directed path throughout his lifetime. Productive work can serve as an integrating standard of one's life. 
Since men must work for their material well-being, employment is a major factor in most peoples' lives. Men, as conscious beings, depend upon their volitional efforts and logically reasoned choices to survive and flourish. Work is integral to a man's flourishing and happiness the positive conscious and emotional experience that accompanies or stems from achieving one's values and goals and exercising one's individual potentialities, including talents, ambitions, and virtues. Each worker is a rational being who is naturally motivated to pursue his own happiness, able to discern opportunities and barriers to his happiness, and cognizant that his happiness is, for the most part, dependent upon his own efforts. Each rational person understands that reality requires him to live intelligently in order to live a meaningful life. There is an inextricable link between reason, self-interest, productive work, goal achievement, human flourishing, and happiness. Without these, the only alternative would be consumptive altruism. 
Work is a concrete expression of rationality. Every productive human endeavor originates with mental effort and involves the translation of thought into a definite material form. Every creative work and discovery contributes to human existence by increasing man's understanding of reality or by making human life longer, more secure, or more pleasurable. 
Productiveness comprises an important existential content of virtuousness and is a responsibility of every moral person. At issue is not your field of work, the level to which you rise, or how much you accomplish. Since people differ with respect to their intelligence, talents, and circumstances, the moral issue becomes how you address your work given your facticity including your potentialities and concrete circumstances. 
A productive life not only builds character, it also requires virtuous work habits and adherence to basic ethical norms. There are many virtues associated with work including perseverance, patience, conscientiousness, self-control, obedience, cooperation, longanimity, constancy, honesty, integrity, fairness and justice. Virtuous workers are energetic, productive workers who: (1) think objectively, rationally and logically; (2) focus on reality; (3) ask clear, pertinent questions and listen carefully; (4) use time efficiently and effectively; (5) search for facts in their total context before judging; (6) organize one's life and work toward worthwhile endeavors; (7) set value-producing goals and strive to accomplish them. 
Those who do not respect the value of work tend to be unemployed, often lack any sense of ethics, and are more likely to turn to a life of crime. Thus is evidenced by the increase in crime that accompanied the assault on work during the current century. 
Work and Freedom 
There is an inseparable connection between meaningful work and individual freedom. In a free society, no worker is forced to stay in a job when he is free to accept another that he finds more appealing. Both the right to quit and the right to dismiss are based on voluntarism. In a free society, all employment contracts embody the perceived mutual advantage of both the employer and the employee who freely agree to have an economic relationship with one another. Although the bargaining power of the parties may vary over time and location, neither the employer nor the worker has an inherent advantage over the other. In fact, they are equal and autonomous with respect to the most critical and core aspect of work the freedom to accept or reject an employment contract. It is only the state's legal intervention that can artificially and arbitrarily favor either the employer or the employee. A truly voluntary relationship fosters peaceful cooperation between the worker and the company, and can turn a job into a source of one's happiness. When a person works to attain his personal goals through his freely chosen job he will gain a sense of personal worth. He will also gain self-respect by not being dependent on other people for his sustenance. 
For maximum freedom to exist, those who are able to work must work. If they fail to do so, both they and those who support them lose some of their freedom. Both dependence and slavery are demeaning. The state does not have the right to either sanction idleness or to force people to work either for their own benefit or for the benefit of others. People differ with respect to the amount of time they want to work, the kind of work they want to do, the standard of living they want to achieve, the amount of recreation they want to experience, and the amount of education they want to receive. These should be individual decisions reached voluntarily and cooperatively with other involved parties. Neither the state nor any other group or person can determine these types of personal choices. Although work (and other activities) are natural for man, there are no normative standards regarding how much of each activity a man is to do. 
Employment Ethics Means Respecting Natural Rights 
It is the employer who has the facilities, wants certain functions performed, has the job to offer, and is willing to pay for its performance. The employee furnishes the desired skills and receives a mutually agreed upon payment for supplying them in an agreed upon time period. The essence of the employment relationship is a voluntary agreement of exchange in which each party desires to gain something. Each party is morally and legally obligated to honor the terms of the agreement once the offer has been accepted. In a free society, the employer and employee are independent moral agents each acting in his own best interest without deception, coercion, or fraud. Employees have the basic individual rights of free choice one can choose to accept or reject the offer or make a counter-offer, but once the terms are consented to, the worker is required to honor them. If a prospective worker does not like the deal that is being offered he has numerous options such as taking steps to gain more education involving skills that are more in demand, move to other geographical areas or industries, join a union, etc. With the workers' freedom comes both more opportunities and more risks. The employer is also a risk-taker paying wages to employees before any profits are made. 
Although workers do not have an inherent moral right to health and safety protection, they can bargain to make such concessions a condition of the employment contract. Likewise, the employer does not have a duty to provide such protection although he can offer to make health and safety conditions part of the contract. If workers knowingly agree to work under risky health or safety conditions, they will have no basis for complaints in the event of resulting sickness or harm. Of course, since the employer's primary concern is with the profitability of the company, he should be concerned with employee morale, safety, health, and productivity since the workers are vital to the company's profits. Employers who ignore such concerns do so to their own detriment and experience high employee turnover, grievances, absenteeism, tardiness, and low morale. 
Since work is multidimensional, the employer has to consider many factors other than who is the "most qualified" on paper. Depending upon the circumstances, attributes such as personality, sex, race, looks, height and weight, etc., may be relevant considerations. Since the manger's primary concern is the well-being of the company, he ought to hire the applicant who he believes is most likely to do the best job in the particular circumstance of his business. 
No one has a right to a job in a free society since this would mean that another party would have the duty to provide him with the job. Rather, the right to work simply means that a man has the right to apply for work as part of his pursuit of happiness, without the interference of others. An employer does not owe a job to anyone, let alone to any one in particular. If an employer does not hire someone based on grounds other than lack of qualifications, he has not violated the prospective worker's rights. However, he may be morally at fault depending upon the circumstances. For example, it would be morally acceptable not to hire a black for a specific position if the manager believed that in doing so it would be damaging to the business (e.g., in a Chinese restaurant). However, the manager would be morally deficient if he were categorically prejudiced, not considering individuals from a certain group without reference to the nature of the particular job and the probable impact on the business itself. Unjust discrimination is a violation of business ethics but not a violation of rights. 
In a free society, job security exists only to the degree that there is a demand for the job which means to the degree that there are customers for the product or service that the job helps to produce. Logically, to the extent that one man's job is made secure, another person's job or opportunity to pursue one, is jeopardized. To depend upon job security from a labor union or legislation would shift responsibility from one man's life to others. 
There is nothing wrong with non-coercive unions nor with the union's members agreeing to go out on strike. However, the company has no moral obligation to rehire the workers. When workers refuse to work, except in the case when the employer fails to meet his side of the bargain or has used deception or coercion, there is a breach of the employment contract and therefore the strike is the same as resigning. Given this, the strikers may not use force or threats to keep others from working in their place. 

Copyright © 2000 / All rights reserved Back to Edward W.Younkins' Homepage