The mistaken identification of wealth with money, which I refuted in an earlier installment of this series, results in yet another damaging fallacy: the idea that the only legitimate “employment” is work performed for somebody else in exchange for money. This cultural confusion has become so deep-rooted that even people who own their own businesses or function as independent contractors are classified as “self-employed” – which, despite the second component of that term, is somehow seen as distinct from being “employed,” which has become in the minds of many identical to working for a formal organization on a fixed schedule for largely fixed compensation. There is nothing wrong with the latter kind of employment; indeed, I am currently engaged in it, and it pays well. It is a practical and a tremendously useful way to earn a living for many. But the societal stigma against many individuals who choose not to pursue that path needs to end.
I am not here seeking to justify individuals who refuse to work out of sloth or rebelliousness – or individuals who choose to subsist off of the welfare system. Indeed, I am not at all seeking to justify individuals who refuse to work at all. Rather, I seek to effectuate a cultural re-identification of employment with doing actual useful work – physical or mental – irrespective of how much, or how little, money that work earns. If wealth is not money but rather useful goods and services, then useful employment is any activity that generates useful goods and services. Some such activities happen to be highly compensated with money, either because there is large market demand for them or because they are subsidized by private institutions or governments. But other such activities arise out of individuals’ volunteer efforts, hobbies and interests, and desires to improve their immediate environment. An individual who devotes himself or herself primarily to the latter sorts of activities can be as worthy of respect and just as productive as an individual who makes a six-figure monetary income.
First, it is essential to recognize that either market value or institutional advantages that result in monetary subsidies are not necessarily a reflection of genuine wealth creation or usefulness. For instance, numerous products of high culture – including philosophy, literature, and classical music – are not in high demand among the masses, who simply do not understand such products. The creators of high culture will not earn as great an income on the market as the creators of light magazines and popular music. However, these same creators will contribute a much longer-lasting value to human knowledge, refinement, and moral standards for generations to come, whereas the creators of more popular works are unlikely to remain in demand for more than two generations. There is nothing wrong with this differential in compensation, per se, as people who do not appreciate high culture are entitled to vote with their dollars however they please. But this state of affairs does invalidate any notion that the amount of money one receives from one’s work is in any manner connected with one’s worth as a human being or one’s contribution to improving one’s own life and the lives of others – both in the short term and in the long term. Many creators of more refined works have even decided that it is unwise to try to make a living from such works and depend on their approval by a mass audience; instead, they have decided to subsidize their own creations and the dissemination of these works by means of a monetary income they earn from another occupation. This allows for works of high culture to be created exactly as the author intended them to be; if the author is talented and has a consistent vision, such works will be much more likely to endure long into the future.
Another important recognition is that some work is either impossible to transfer to the market given present technology or is prohibitively expensive to transfer. For instance, if I wish to go into my kitchen and get myself a beverage, it would be highly impractical for me to hire another individual to do this for me. If I get the beverage myself, I do not either collect or spend any money – provided that I already own the beverage, the glass, and the living space. But it cannot be denied that the act of getting the beverage was desirable to me and improved the quality of my life. Likewise, numerous actions that an individual performs to improve his or her own skills – such as reading books, practicing musical instruments, and doing mathematical problems – cannot be outsourced to other individuals and retain their value for the individual, which arises from the act of learning new skills that the individual himself would be able to use in the future. Indeed, it is true that all of us, if we have even the slightest desire to live well, will perform a wide variety of work every day for which we receive no monetary compensation at all! If we did not perform this work, it is unlikely that we would be in any position to earn any money, either.
A popular source of contempt in contemporary culture is the individual who, instead of leaving the home to work for money, chooses to remain at home and maintain it in good working order. This is, in my judgment, the single most egregious consequence of the fallacy that employment is the same as working for money. Working within the home – especially when supported by the monetary income of another family member – is a tremendously useful and life-affirming occupation; it facilitates a division of labor where various family members can specialize in the tasks they are most skilled at performing, thereby making good use of the principle of comparative advantage. Moreover, it enables a greater degree of care for any children in the household and provides a source of relief for those individuals who simply do not like working outside the home on a fixed schedule.
I note that there is nothing in this implying that any particular gender of individual should choose to stay at home, or that a family cannot function well if all of its members choose to work outside the home. Rather, I argue that a productive family can exist irrespective of which of its members do or do not choose to work for money. Indeed, for a family which has accumulated sufficient money and physical goods, it is possible to maintain productivity and a high standard of living even if none of its members earns a regular monetary income. Even if an individual has never earned any money in his or her life and, say, lives off a vast inheritance, it is still possible for that individual to perform useful and productive work. Indeed, one of the arguments that the great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek made for the right of inheritance can be summarized as follows. Even if the vast majority of people who inherit their money will spend it unwisely, it is enough for one out of a thousand inheritors to be a great thinker and innovator. This individual, through his inheritance, will have the time and leisure to bring his vision to fruition, without needing to worry about providing for his day-to-day subsistence. The result could be a tremendous philosophical, technological, or artistic breakthrough that improves the lives of millions for centuries to come – and this result is worth the wasteful spending any other heirs might engage in.
Of course, the manner of productive work one does is often constrained by one’s current material situation. Many people will work for money, even if they wish to do something else, because they need the money to maintain the standard of living they wish to have. Increases in monetary income can go a long way toward improving both one’s access to leisure and one’s level of security and comfort. On the other hand, the same goals can also be achieved in part by spending less of the money one already earns and by living within one’s means – never letting one’s expenses exceed one’s income, which is akin to deficit spending for individuals, and not taking out interest-bearing debt, unless there is no other option, and the good the debt would fund could be seen as a necessity – such as a house. Devoting some time to managing one’s spending and establishing less expensive lifestyle choices is just productive as working to earn a salary increase.
If you wish to work to earn money, by all means do so. If you would rather focus on working in the home or doing volunteer work of any sort, this is excellent as well. Provided that one works and has useful outcomes to show for it, there is no need to feel any inferiority in one’s own case or any disrespect for others.
Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXX.