Friday, August 21, 2015

Trade-offs for humane investment

In Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, J.C. Scott, like many skeptics of markets, laments the loss of autonomy for wage labourers who left their smallholder farms to work in factories where employers dictated the terms of their work.

Today we're celebrating increasing autonomy in the workforce. But if it's what we've been seeking all along, why did so many give up owning their productive resources in the first place? The question is similar to the question of why, if we're so much richer today, many of us have gone back to eating what our grandparents used to eat. Understanding the answers means thinking about investment.

When we suspect something can make us better off, we’re willing to give up some stuff we'd like to have or do now and put those resources toward its acquisition. Near-subsistence farmers might take leaner meals until they can buy a plow or fertilizer that will allow them to grow more food with less effort, while in a modern economy investment could be a car to travel reliably or education to increase earning potential.

When women entered the workforce, they were less likely to have time to prepare laborious, home-cooked meals. Facing the constraints that they did, they were willing to give up some food quality to improve their wealth, human capital, and independence. As people have become wealthier they’ve overcome those trade-offs and reclaim what they gave up.

When farmers sold their land to move to the city, it was because they (finally!) believed that the trade-off could bring improvement. City life was dirty, crowded, and, yes, the workers could no longer direct their own work days. Remember, though: they weren't giving up the lives that family farmers live today, but long days of back breaking work for everybody from the youngest capable child to the oldest able grandparent in the family, with no significant change in well-being for thousands of years.

The first wage labourers gave up some negative liberty (freedom from the influence of a boss) for more positive liberty (the ability, through wealth, to make more choices without painful trade-offs) - a sacrifice more critics of markets ought to understand. The Industrial Revolution was fuelled by workers' belief, however poorly articulated, that this was an investment in something better for themselves and their children.

With the rise today of flexible work schedules, the sharing economy, or even just the wealth that made possible the end of child labour and the rise of the 40-hour work week, we have more than regained the autonomy of those who eked out a living from their small plots of land.

Much of the world is still lifting itself from poverty, but we mustn't forget what a long, unpredictable, and investment-heavy process it was for us. Thanks to the sacrifices made by generations of those who finally found it worthwhile to invest in a better, more humane existence we are, in the most spectacular way, having our cake and eating it, too.

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