Saturday, May 28, 2016

On the Value of Work in a Social Democracy

A career and a job where one does economically and socially useful work is an important part of any successful, healthy and wealthy society. But more than this, it gives people an identity through the job that they have and a social dignity lacking in long-term unemployment.

There are of course a lot of difficult, boring, dirty and sometimes dangerous jobs that have to be done, but a technologically advanced society like ours can use its inventive genius to create more and better machines and automation to do these jobs, so that human beings aren’t forced to do them.

But not all jobs are like the ones described above. For many people, their jobs – while often challenging or requiring hard work – are nevertheless safe, interesting, rewarding, and sometimes enjoyable. Some people are lucky enough to have jobs they absolutely love.

A really decent society run on social democratic principles would provide full employment and not leave people on welfare to become a deskilled, demoralised, dependent and depressed class of people, some of whom descend into irresponsible hedonism and drug abuse.

And there is certainly something to be said for the principle that people should not be allowed to simply live off welfare for years on end as long-term unemployed, but not as in the vicious and victim-blaming right-wing hysteria of libertarians or neoliberals – the latter having increasingly imposed a vicious, disgusting and punitive welfare system over the past 30 years.

The whole point of a society run on social democratic and Keynesian principles of full employment is precisely: we shouldn’t even need a big welfare bill for people of working age, because by means of (1) macroeconomic management of the private sector and (2) government employment programs at decent wages, there would only be a small body of unemployed anyway (essentially people in seasonal and frictional unemployment).

To achieve this today would require not just fiscal policy to create jobs in the private sector but government employment programs to find and create economically and socially useful work, e.g., in public infrastructure development, housing, social services, etc. That of course requires much more government planning than we currently have and perhaps ditching parts of the current welfare system (except for people who cannot work) for a system where people not employed in the private sector are provided with work at better and decent wage rates in public sector jobs. Private sector jobs probably do need to pay more, as in MMT-style job guarantee programs, but even in recruitment and distribution of people between the sectors more planning probably has its virtues too.

One could have a universal basic income under such a system, but everybody who is fit for work should be provided with a job appropriate for them and their skills to obtain income above the universal basic income. Such a system in, say, the United States would, I strongly suspect, start to do something substantive to fix the social problems of the African American community and white working classes too.

In that respect, a social democratic and, for that matter, old-fashioned socialist system is certainly not about shoving the human race onto welfare or the dole, but it is about bettering the human condition through a system that really does value work and employment and provides it for its citizens, as compared with a dysfunctional laissez faire capitalism that repeatedly fails to provide full employment.

In that respect, there is also something to be said for this Marxist take on this subject, even though I would shun the doctrinaire aspects of Marxism and reject a command economy. But, as the author says, it is true that there are some people who do not wish to work, and:
“Socialism is not about putting everyone on the dole, but putting everyone to work, doing work with dignity, respect, honor, satisfaction, and human fulfillment. Not everyone wants to work. Not everyone wants to be a civilized human being. Those who don't want to work, those who want to be predators, they will feel the hammer of the state, hard enough to satisfy any authoritarian.”
I wouldn’t go that far, however. The “hammer of the state” is a bit too much for me, unless the people in question are criminals. But a sensible punitive demand that people – especially young men – should not be lazy and irresponsible work-shy hedonists is not objectionable by any means.

Now today, while there is plenty of manual labour and unskilled labour that could be done under such a system even in the first world nations, there is also a very great deal of economically and socially useful work that can be done by intellectuals trained at universities, e.g., in the natural sciences, engineering, medical science, neuroscience, computer science, and the more useful social sciences.

Above all, governments in the Western world could also begin to employ people in much larger programs to start really helping with Third World development, e.g., health care, public infrastructure, disease control, education, etc. Promoting Third World development by allowing a space for independent economic development, import substitution industrialisation, utterly reformed international institutions and direct assistance by Western labour would be far better than the current system of neoliberalism.

It is undoubtedly true that as technological development soars, automation, robots and artificial intelligence will make it more and more difficult to find work for people of value, but nevertheless economically and socially useful work will still be of great value, even if the working day and working week will probably shrink as compared with today.


  1. Lk
    thats why i think if we will combine MMT style good paying JG with my idea which i presented in your recent post about automation (trouble brewing) and before.

    If we will combine good paying JG with my idea
    It will create 2 good conditions. will not subsidize low paying jobs which are dangerous and not in demand (since JG will assure good paying public jobs). will create a situation where it will be profitable for capitalists and inventors to invest in not fully automated capital which require human workers,in areas where people can gain good salary and exciting job which they will like to work in.

  2. Work is just leisure you get paid to do in any society that values good job design and job enrichment. What the BS (basic stipend) merchants fail to highlight is that leisure costs money which the poor, without a trust fund to fall back on, will not have.

  3. I would support such moves only if it was done with a view of those who have become unemployable by normals standards because of mental health issues, much of which has been exacerbated by poverty, homelessness, and repeatedly being fired from a job. That would mean a broader scope of what constitutes a job, what constitutes a work schedule, and more so - just looking at "contribution to society" and being "productive" in the most inclusive sense of the term.

    This gentleman did a great service to his community and to society as a whole, I think anyone will agree - and did it while being on disability. His freedom from a work schedule and the debilitating, demeaning & cruel demands of the job market enabled him to have time to be able to do such work. Let's open the door for the Brice Phillips of the world to be seen as fulfilling a great role in society based on them doing what they wanted to do, not what we demand of them:,2184733&dq=brice-phillips+radio&hl=en

  4. Note that I'm using "the hammer of the state" just as a colorful metaphor for ordinary state coercion; I've lifted the metaphor from Nathan Burney's excellent webcomic The Illustrated Guide to Law.