This Labor Day, Let’s Rejoice that We Still Own our Own Labor.
One of my earliest paying jobs was chopping and hauling firewood. It was not easy work for a 12-year-old, and I still have a scar on my leg from a careless mistake. But I was paid three dollars and hour, which was pretty good in 1980’s, especially given my skill level at the time. I saved most of my wages in a jar on my dresser, but I remember taking particular pleasure in buying snacks from 7-11 with the portion that I chose to spend.
Most of us behave differently with money that we earn than we do with money that is given to us. It’s not just because we feel more acutely the time and effort that the money represents, although I’m sure that’s a big part of it. Money earned for a job well done conferred on me a sense of accomplishment and confidence that I never felt when I got money for my birthday. It showed me I could do something of value to others.
Decades later, I read Frederick Douglass’s description of what it was like to be able to earn money for himself for the first time:
“The thoughts—‘I can work! I can work for a living; I am not afraid of work; I have no Master Hugh to rob me of my earnings’—placed me in a state of independence, beyond seeking friendship or support of any man.” (My Bondage and My Freedom, p. 260)
Before escaping to the north, Douglass spent time working for wages as a ship caulker in Baltimore, wages which he would then have to turn over to his “owner,” Master Hugh. Unlike the agricultural work he had done for most of his life—where no money presumably changed hands—Douglass saw with his own eyes what the market value of his labor was, which must have made the injustice of being robbed of his earnings seem all the more outrageous.
To Douglass, freedom wasn’t a life of idleness. It was the right to enjoy the fruits of his own labor. And this freedom was not the norm for most of human history. For millennia, much of humanity lived by hunting and gathering, subsistence farming, or in some form of slavery or indentured servanthood. Yet I was born in a time and in a country wealthy enough that I could take courses and develop skills in areas that interested me, and in turn, market those skills to make a living.
The free exchange of goods, capital and labor inevitably leads to unequal outcomes. I chose a profession (ministry) that—as my wife periodically reminds me—did not optimize my earning potential, especially in the early years. The fact that my wages were unequal to those of my cousin who graduated from the same college I did but chose to become an accountant was not evidence, by itself, of societal unjustness. That inequality reflected our individual choices.
Unfortunately, today there are many powerful leaders who believe that the unavoidable reality that different choices (and to be fair, different starting circumstances in life) contribute to different outcomes means that people should have less freedom to bring their own labor to market. Policies like AB5 in California make it exceedingly difficult for companies to hire independent contractors, threatening organizations like Uber and Lyft. While no one is retiring in luxury by just driving for Uber, such companies provide flexible ways to earn supplemental part time income for millions of people.
Douglass began his career as a free man as a manual laborer for pennies a day, but he did not stay a manual laborer for his entire career. I was also able to branch out beyond hauling firewood, just as most Uber and Lyft drivers will not end their careers with those companies. Difficult, unglamorous jobs still teach us incredibly valuable lessons about work ethic, responsibility, and job-appropriate behavior. Furthermore, while the gig economy has its drawbacks, many people actually prefer more flexibility and variety over fifty years of working nine-to-five with the same company.
I am not saying that there are no meaningful ways to improve the labor market in this country. I think we should work toward constructive policies that have a positive effect on those earning lower incomes, and I am very open to the idea that decoupling health insurance from employment, wage subsidies, and other policy tweaks could accomplish this. But the answer is never to take away a job that we don’t think is good enough, or take away freedom from people to sell their labor within the bounds of basic ethics.