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
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
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
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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.
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
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
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.