Philosophy Weekend: Which Way Is The Road To Serfdom?

American Economics Existential History Technology

When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a crane driver. My parents thought this was pretty funny, since I was apparently a rather brainy and un-physical kid. Nobody else ever saw a hard hat and a metal lunchbox in my future, yet I was always obsessed with buildings and urban architecture, I always wanted to stop and look when we passed a construction site, and I still wonder today if I would have found greater overall satisfaction if I'd stuck to my earliest career plan. My crane-driver dreams were probably also inspired by The Flintstones.

I recently took a walk during a lunch break from my current day job, which is in the high-tech corridor of Herndon/Reston in Northern Virginia, and spotted a bustling building site where hundreds of construction professionals were hard at work. It occurred to me that I was looking at a real-life version of the positive vision presented by countless Republican or Democratic party political ads, because these TV commercials love to show the stern, trusting faces of stolid middle-aged guys wearing hard hats at construction sites. The construction job is the idealized American job: decent pay and benefits, solid and dependable hours, the satisfaction of watching a building emerge under your feet. Here's a wider vista of the project I watched for a few minutes before heading back to my own less exciting (but also, in its own way, rewarding and satisfying) job developing Drupal-based web applications for government-sponsored sites.

Jobs! It's the word spoken constantly by both sides in the current USA presidential election. There is a 7.8% unemployment rate in the USA, and both the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns are pushing the promise to help more Americans find work. But, as I've mentioned here before, the happy vision of a sturdy, serious American with a hard hat (the classic blue collar full-time job), or of me and a table full of hipster professionals sketching website designs on a whiteboard in a fluorescent-lit conference room (the classic white collar full-time job) is a simplistic and idealized one. If the political dream our candidates are selling is that every healthy and capable American citizen should be able to have a 40-hour-a-week job, then we are probably all chasing a dubious and fatally misguided vision of the future.

The dream depends on an equation that must have been very plausible before our high-tech age, and seems increasingly less so as our societal rate of change increases. Workers survive by creating products (goods, services) that consumers want to buy, and then receive payment which allows them to be consumers of products created by others. That's the cycle of work and reward, but how do we know that there will always be a healthy balance between worker supply and product demand? What if our growing technological sophistication makes it so easy to create all the products consumers want that it no longer becomes necessary to employ nearly 100% of the population to create these things?

If this is the case, then the employment-obsessed platforms of both the Republicans and Democrats are stuck in the past, because neither platform fully recognizes the central importance of the halfway job, the part-time job, the work-from-home job, the do-it-yourself and earn-just-enough job. Mitt Romney has promised to create 12 million jobs, though his numbers here don't add up any better than his numbers on countless other topics. How would Romney create 12 million jobs, and what kind of jobs would they be?

It's nice to think that he'd create construction projects like the one pictured above -- meat-and-potatoes jobs for eager Americans. But Romney has also pledged to cut federal spending, so there would be no way for President Romney to create these jobs directly. Since Romney's entire private sector experience is in high-risk banking and investment, we have to look to his Wall Street (by way of Boston) background for an indication of the methods he would use to create jobs.

These methods include many unsavory elements: funny-money accounting tricks that makes profits magically appear on paper, arbitrage deals that allow investors to get wealthy as they shuffle businesses around from the comfort of their offices. Mitt Romney and most of his pre-2008-crash banking associates became ridiculously wealthy by creating artificial growth, and it seems likely that many of the 12 million jobs he is promising to create would have a similarly artificial character. Romney probably could create a temporary employment surge, but it would be brittle and undependable growth.

Barack Obama's economic program is more moderate and earthbound, and is also better for one gigantic reason: Obamacare. Health insurance reform is essential for transient, semi-employed citizens who lack a company benefits package to join. Mitt Romney's threat to repeal the health insurance reform features of the Affordable Care Act is terrifying to anybody who doesn't have an employment-based group insurance plan, because it sharpens the contrast between the jobbed and the jobless. Obamacare seems to present the most consequential difference between what Obama and Romney are offering, and the Democrats would do well to campaign extensively on this point from now until election day.

The Romney vision of a hyperactive job-obsessed economy without Obamacare is a vision of a world where your job -- not your country, but your job -- takes care of you. What is gained by trading in a nanny state economy for a nanny job economy? One could argue that private sector companies are better able to handle issues like health care than the federal government. But in fact there's little evidence for this, especially since we watched the private sector manage itself into financial disaster only four years ago. Most importantly, a nanny job economy where employment-based health insurance is the only affordable insurance available would be horrific for the tens of millions of Americans who cannot find access to employment-based health insurance.

Where the Romney vision -- job! job! job! -- falls flat is in the lack of liquidity within the job market it might create. Unless our economy can naturally support perpetual 40-hour-a-week full-time employment for all Americans, every job would become a treasured refuge of financial security within an insecure outer world shorn of financial safety nets. This would make Americans even more vitally dependent upon their jobs than they are today, and would offer little flexibility for mobility, alternative employment situations or workplace lifestyle differences. Employers would be empowered to treat their workers badly, and workers would have no choice but to cower in fear, because Americans would learn to dread unemployment above all else.

Whenever I try to imagine what a Romney-created job market would look like, I keep coming back to one word: serfdom. This seems strange at first, because Mitt Romney is allegedly a free-market conservative, and the word "serfdom" is currently used most often by free-market conservatives influenced by Friedrich von Hayek's classic text The Road to Serfdom (one of several books also discussed here). Von Hayek's book, originally written as a bulwark against the Communist philosophy that threatened human freedom in the past century, warned against governments that turn citizens into serfs.

But it's not only governments that can turn citizens into serfs. The private sector can do this as well, which is why is not a good idea to elect political leaders who base their economic ideas on inflexible and backwards-looking notions of full employment. In fact, serfdom itself (as exemplified in 19th century Russia) has always been based in free market economy (not free for the serfs, of course, but free for their owners). Von Hayek was using a clever and ironic metaphor when he described 20th century Russians as serfs.

The actual Russian serfs of the 19th century did not struggle under Communist rule; they struggled under the thumb of the Tsar, and more directly under the thumbs of their employers. The government of 19th century Russia did not steal the freedom of its peasantry; rather, it was the dreary, depressing and inhumane common terms of employment -- let's not forget, serfs were employed, employed full-time in the harshest sense of all -- that sapped the souls of the Russian peasantry.

As a refreshing alternative to the Romney vision of every American chained forever to a 40-hour-a-week job, here's a quote from the imaginative economist David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and one of the key intellectual voices behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, This is from an article in The Nation:

Occupy was right to resist the temptation to issue concrete demands. But if I were to frame a demand today, it would be for as broad a cancellation of debt as possible, followed by a mass reduction of working hours—say to a five-hour workday or a guaranteed five-month vacation. If such a suggestion seems outrageous, even inconceivable, it’s just a measure of the degree to which our horizons have shrunk.

Indeed, in our job-obsessed political environment today, it does seem outrageous to suggest that the best thing the US government can do to improve the economy is promote the idea of shorter workdays and longer vacations. But it's the best idea I've heard anybody come up with. Everybody knows that technological improvements currently allow us all to produce greater amounts of things with less effort than ever before in history. We need to unchain ourselves from the rigid notion of the 40-hour-a-week job, and introduce a much wider variety of gradations between the two stark options of "employed" and "unemployed". This seems to be the path to financial sanity for our future.

Von Hayek's book title aside, there seem to actually be several different roads to serfdom. I'd like to find the road that leads away from serfdom, and I think it's David Graeber, not Friedrich von Hayek, who might be pointing the path.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Will Americans Vote Against Trains?. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Who Can Be a Philosopher?.
11 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Which Way Is The Road To Serfdom?"

by WIREMAN on

The pic is what I've been doing (rebar) for 40 years Levi......my how everything has changed, I worked on the 1st project in that landscape back in the mid 80's, Reston Town Center, right? Nowadays all the workers in that pic except for the high ups are from El Salvador. Good hard working people making it in America.

I saw Ralph Nader at union station D.C. yesterday evening and had my second talk with him in the past 2 years about the state of the construction industry here in the nation's capital. He was amazed that there were so many cranes in the air, I told him things were much better since our last talk 2 years ago when most of us were in the unemployment line. When I asked about the conditions in other parts of the country he said they were not good, and this is the same refrain I keep hearing from others who come here. I feel we are on a fast track to serfdom and the train is unstoppable. Levi by the way the correct designation is crane operator, not driver, big difference amigo.

by Levi Asher on

That's great, Wireman, yes, it is Reston Town Center! Never knew this is what you did for a living. Thanks for these thoughts. I only disagree that the bad future is "unstoppable" -- I'll always believe in the brighter future.

by josh moore on

I only agree with Marx's end conclusion. There isn't enough jobs to go around...T

by catalyst on

I dig this discussion, Levi. But I have a problem with this:

"This would make Americans even more vitally dependent upon their jobs than they are today, and would offer little flexibility for mobility, alternative employment situations or workplace lifestyle differences. Employers would be empowered to treat their workers badly, and workers would have no choice but to cower in fear, because Americans would learn to dread unemployment above all else."

How would creating more jobs empower employers to treat their workers badly? Why would Americans not decide to love their job, rather than dread unemployment? How would creating more jobs offer less flexibility and mobility? What if people could find work in the field of their passions? What if people could keep their houses and flourish economically, because of the jobs that would be available? If you do indeed have a job, doesn't that essentially make you dependant upon that job anyway? What is wrong with being dependant on your job? There's bills to pay, mouths to feed and rent to make. After being unemployed for months, when I finally found a job, I appreciate that I do depend on that job--its inherent.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for giving me a chance to clarify this point, Catalyst.

I'm saying that government policies should reflect changing times by acknowledging that there are valid gradations of employment. Instead, federal policies in areas like taxation, labor and healthcare often reflect rigid categories of employment, and thus encourage the increasingly stale institution of the 40-hour-a-week two-weeks-vacation-a-year full-time job. I'm speaking specifically here of health insurance, of course, since health insurance has always been associated with full-time employment, leaving people who are part-time employed or self-employed in very bad straits. Obamacare will help a lot in this area by 2014 ... if Romney and a Republican congress doesn't get elected to repeal it.

Instead of federal labor policies standing behind the times in terms of flexible employment scenarios, I want the government to get ahead of the times, and to encourage wider varieties of employment.

So, to answer your specific question, I am not saying that creating more jobs would be bad for America. I'm saying that Americans not only want more jobs, but also want more flexible jobs. And we have a right to want this, and to expect to be able to buy affordable health insurance too. Does that help explain what I'm saying? I know it is a thorny point, and I am concerned that I'm not making myself clear.

by Catalyst on

Thanks for clearing that up sir. I can dig you now. Also, unless more people gripe about this point, don't worry about making yourself clear. For now, it's just me. I have a thick head.

by Levi Asher on

Not at all, Catalyst -- the fault was all mine. I knew even before I published this blog post that it was too woolly, that I'm trying to grapple with too many things at once. I am going to try to edit and improve the paragraph you pointed out a bit more now, because I really am trying to make a single important point here, and I want to make sure the point doesn't get lost.

by ZV on

RE: "What if our growing technological sophistication makes it so easy to create all the products consumers want that it no longer becomes necessary to employ nearly 100% of the population to create these things?"

You need to account for services here.

IF we can succeed in taking our education system back from consumerist-focused corporations (and changing the "STEM" campaign to "STEAM," with an A for arts, or my personal campaign - "STEEAHM," with the extra E for exercise as in physical education, athletics and recess, and the H for humanities).....

THEN we will have workers "producing," and buyers "consuming" symphonies, athletic enterprises, works of art, enhanced and improved health care services, and who knows, maybe even Philosophy Shoppes in Times Square where one can stop in and have a philosophical problem analyzed for a reasonable fee.

by Levi Asher on

That STEAM (science/technology/engineering/arts/mathematics) thing sounds great to me, ZV. I'm all for it.

I agree in theory that we should throw humanities in there too. But let's stick with STEAM, not STEAHM. Because no matter how you look at it, STEAHM is just not a word.

by Kevin on

I'm leaning towards SHTEAM. Kinda fun to say.

by Michael.Norris on

The old dependable saftey net that we had in the 1960s was the vast amount of manufacturing jobs. It you ran into hard times, you could always get a job working in a factory until you got back on your feet, put some money away, and then found a better job. Unfortunately, the manufacturing jobs went offshore.

Then office jobs - particularly IT jobs - were plentiful. But these two fell to offshoring.

The old Industrial Revolution style economy is gone, We have to adapt. Be self-employed.Have more than one skill, and don't bet on one company. Be an IT consultant who does web development but also database development. Be a tax preparer during the tax season but then an ESL teacher during the summer. Buy less stuff, be content with less money, and have more fun and free time. Do stuff that you like to do. Don't become a serf for a corporation. I see these people at rush hour, and they always look grim and depressed. If you are self employed you are more likely to get short term employment, because they can cut you loose with no regrets and no downside. Live project to project and build enough money into your hourly rate to cover downturns. Wherever you can, pay for everything in cash. Avoid debt unless it is necessary to buy an apartment, and then pay it off as soon as possible. You will never be free as long as you have debt.

Think of it this way - is the purpose of my life to live as a drone in a corporation and make the boss rich? Or is the purpose of my life to achieve all I can for myself and my family, and provide my own security.

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