Saturday, September 16, 2006

Demeaning Work?

by Tibor R. Machan

So my CBS TV morning news program reports that whereas on average
Americans take 10 days vacation per year, the Germans, French,
Italians and other Europeans are up there with 25 days or near it.
OK, so what? The report suggests one interpretation of these data:
Americans cannot relax, while Europeans can. Americans are
workaholics, while Europeans have a more sensible approach to work.

As usual with stories like this, CBS TV latched on to one guy in
Boston, I think it was, who works very close to home and spends
nearly all his time at is work station, although he seems to involve his small child in what he does (the kid was in nearly every clip shown of him by his computer, for example). This resonated with me because, I too, happen to be fond of my work, to the point that if I go on some kind of holiday or vacation, very quickly I get bored with sunbathing or sauntering about some old European city and its museums and want to get back to writing and teaching. And maybe, just maybe, the average American, whoever that might be, is more like that -- he or she actually likes doing work and doesn't crave idleness too much. Does this have to do with some malady like workaholism? I seriously doubt it.

From when a child is born in America, most parents try to learn what it is the child likes to do, what talents the child has, so the child's education falls in line with these and he or she will find the kind of work that is fulfilling, satisfying. Let's assume there is a substantial culture following this pattern of child-raising. If so, then would it be reasonable to expect grown ups to crave going on vacation all the time? Why? If they did indeed manage to find a line or work or career that is self-satisfying, that fulfills their hopes for matching their preferences and talents, why would they be looking for work that gives them so much time off?

Some would say, well the only reason American workers do not, on
average, have a good deal of vacation time is that labor unions in
America are relatively weak and aren't able to bargain forcefully
enough to give their members the benefits they would really like. But this begs the question -- why are labor unions so weak? Maybe it is because they cannot come to American workers with a good deal, a better one than they receive from their employers. Perhaps most American workers do not see the employer-employee relationship along adversarial dimensions but see it as more of a win-win situation instead of a zero-sum game. It may even be that those being hired by others regard themselves as joining a company instead of being conscripted by some alien force.

There is in the wild a relationship between animals that's called
commensalism -- benefits are reaped all around with no harm coming to either side, no one is ripping anyone else off, there is, in short, no parasitism. It might be best to start understanding the relationship between various parties in the business world along such lines, not the contorted idea propagated by Marxists who see employers as exploiters and employees as victims. That world view emerged when some business worked along those lines, yes, but even then it was exaggerated. The normal circumstances of business, meaning those not contaminated by a bunch of Marxian ideology, may well be cooperation and friendly competition, not acrimony and
hostility. Just consider that in athletics there is a good deal of
competition that's vigorous as well as civilized, friendly even.

Indeed, if the socialist notion that people who hire us must want to exploit us, take unfair advantage of us, hadn't gained prominence over the last two hundred years, it might well have turned out that employees would have formed companies, kind of like partnerships in the professional world (law, engineering, medicine), and instead of being employed by firms they would be hired as a team to perform services the way a construction company is today. The whole model of employer versus employee would then have been bypassed and the idea of work being a chore from which one needs extended relief might have been avoided. After all, many who work, say, in the sciences, the arts, entertainment, even farming see themselves as doing what they
want to do and while taking a break now and then could be beneficial, the notion that they must get away from it all for as long as possible would seem odd. It is difficult to think of Chopin or Rembrandt or Einstein and their less famous colleagues looking at their work that way.

As with all generalizations about human affairs, there are many
exceptions here but, all in all, it seems more reasonable to see the working habits of most Americans as characterized by a kind of love of their work, thus their vacation habits shaped by this rather than some kind of conspiracy theory.

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