Thoughts on Work and the Work Ethic

August 22, 2021 Updated: August 24, 2021


Most of us who grew up in middle-class America were inculcated with what Karl Marx called “bourgeois” values. One of those fundamental values was that when we reached adulthood, we would go to work. I don’t recall this being explicitly taught. It seemed to be the natural order of things that we unconsciously absorbed, as if by osmosis.

The need for us to get a full-time job in adulthood, and hopefully some part-time jobs during our teen years, was a self-evident requirement of life. Since nobody is born into this world accompanied by a lifelong supply of the things that sustain us, we need to figure out a way to obtain those things. Since few of us in these modern times know how to grow food, make clothes from scratch, build homes and cars, and so forth, we need to procure those things from others.

There are two options for how we can get things from others: We can pay for them, or we can steal them. A world in which everyone stole from everyone would be an economically unviable, wretchedly impoverished hell. Rational humans have chosen the more civilized alternative: We pay others for the needful goods they supply us with, occasionally by barter, but usually using the medium of exchange we call “money.” We earn money by working.

There are exceptions to this general rule. Some people don’t have to earn a living because they’ve inherited wealth or because someone else (parent, grandparent, sugar daddy, and so forth) is supporting them financially. Or perhaps they have sufficient savings from working previous jobs that they no longer need to work. This arrangement works well for some, but many people drift aimlessly without purposeful labor in their lives, sometimes with tragic results.

However, there are people who rebel against the apparent truism that work is an economic necessity for most of us. A prominent example is anti-capitalist ideologues, such as Marxists, socialists, and communists. At the 2012 May Day Occupy Wall Street rally in Chicago, a colorful sign bore the message: “If you have to work to live, is it a choice? If you have no choice, are you free?”

Let’s parse this ignorance.

The protesters asserted that they weren’t free if they needed to work for a living and that this was a horrible miscarriage of justice. They could have celebrated that in the United States they have the blessed freedom to choose what skills to develop and what type of work to do—a freedom often absent in non-capitalist societies. They could have celebrated being free to become as rich as their skills and efforts make possible. Instead, they complained. The true absence of freedom has been in feudal societies, where peasants were bound to the land and doomed to lifelong poverty, and in communist societies, where the government frequently dictates what type of labor individuals must do.

More appalling—sinister, actually—than their infantile whining was the Occupy Wall Street mob’s supposed, but fundamentally fraudulent, concern for freedom. Those protesters were claiming that they shouldn’t have to work. But if they’re to be freed of the burden of working, then how will they obtain the food and other necessities they need? With astounding shamelessness, like spoiled children they believe that others should be made to produce and provide them with what they need—in other words, freedom for themselves and bondage for others. Some “freedom”!

The work that we have to do to sustain ourselves and our dependents is honorable. In our market economy based on private property and voluntary exchange, we have to do something of value to others in order for them to give money to us. For most of us, this means labor income, although for a growing minority, earning a livelihood comes from entrepreneurial endeavors, such as starting a business that, whether small or large, like labor income is worth enough to someone else that they’ll voluntarily pay us in exchange for what we do for them. This dynamic is the closest thing on Earth to the Golden Rule applied in the economic realm.

The other-oriented focus of exchange in a market economy is crucially important to understand. A favorite Marxist slogan is “production for people, not profit.” That slogan pops up periodically in leftist diatribes today. In fact, there’s a whole line of T-shirts one can buy online that have that Marxist slogan printed in large letters for all to read. Well, I suppose we should be grateful that we live in a country where people are free to openly advertise their ignorance.

Those T-shirts remind me of the popularity of Che Guevara T-shirts since my generation was leading protests. Amazingly, Americans have long been delighted to wear the image of that racist, homophobic, murderous psychopath, who was so degenerate that even some of his fellow communists were relieved when he was killed.

The glaring flaw in the “production for people, not profit” fallacy is that, in a market economy, businesses can only profit to the extent that they fulfill the needs and wants of the people. Successful entrepreneurs raise standards of living for their fellow man. Larger profit margins are more beneficial to society than smaller profit margins, because big profits signify greater value added to existing wealth than what smaller profits add. And the billionaire entrepreneurs so despised by the left are actually society’s greatest economic benefactors and deserve our gratitude, not our revulsion and hatred.

This is where even some conservatives get fooled. They worry that some of those entrepreneurs are acting out of greed. But as any good economist knows, market exchanges are positive-sum—that is, both sides profit. There’s reciprocity. A key concept about wealth is to understand means and end.

Rather than wasting time debating whether entrepreneurs are selfish (Ayn Rand) or altruistic (George Gilder), just see that it doesn’t matter if the inner motive is greed or altruism; what matters is that the only way to earn profits (modest or massive) is to serve and meet the demands of others. If a greedy person wants to amass an immense fortune, then his means for accomplishing that goal is to excel in the competition at creating value for his fellow beings. And if an altruistic person’s life goal is to make life better for others, he had better do so at a profit, because if he operates at a perennial loss, he won’t be able to stay in business.

It’s a shame that leftist ideologues demean work and profits. They do so because they live in a utopian fantasy world—a world with no lack and where individuals supposedly can do whatever they want. Regrettably, a number of government policies feed this delusion and actively prevent or discourage people from working. Anti-work policies include minimum wage laws of dubious constitutionality, the economically obtuse corporate profits tax, and unemployment benefits that exceed market wages. Having the political goal of turning productive, independent workers into unproductive government dependents, progressives and socialists wage war against work and the prosperity, success, and satisfying feeling of achievement that hard work produces.

Work—whether primarily physical or mental, whether performed as an employee or as a self-employed entrepreneur—blesses society as a whole, as well as the workers themselves. Society benefits because work produces what we need and want, and it does so via peaceful, voluntary cooperation based on service to others. Individuals who earn a living in service to others experience personal growth from overcoming the challenges (and those challenges are myriad) that inevitably arise in the workplace and the marketplace. They also experience self-satisfaction—a fulfilling sense of accomplishment from having given work their best and receiving their just rewards for jobs well done.

To any young person reading this, let me say: Take heart. Relish the challenges of work. Do your best and see how far up the ladder of opportunity you can climb. Your self-esteem will flourish, and you’ll enjoy the view from the peak of your success.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson is an economist, who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.