There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.
The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the work load” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labour” and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.
The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.
From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave.
E.F. Schumacher, from the essay “Buddhist Economics,” also found within his book Small is Beautiful (1973)
I’ve just finished reading Small is Beautiful. It is prophetic and full of wisdom, speaking directly (I think) to the most urgent issues of our time, over 50 years later. I highly recommend the book, and especially the 1966 essay “Buddhist Economics” linked above. I can see clearly that Schumacher was a great influence on Wendell Berry.
I’ve blogged often about the value of work and the challenge of automation. I won’t go into that again this morning. On that subject Mr. Schumacher’s quote provides plenty of food for thought for one day I think.
But, as it’s a dreary rainy morning and I have a little time to spare, I’ll open a different can of worms instead.
I thus come to the cheerful conclusion that life, including economic life, is still worth living because it is sufficiently unpredictable to be interesting. Within the limits of the physical laws of nature, we are still masters of our individual and collective destiny, for good or ill.
E.F. Schumacher, from Small is Beautiful
Schumacher says that life is worth living because it is unpredictable. The implication of this sentence is that life would not be worth living if all actions and events were causally determined and predictable. His claim that we control our destinies is, however, a statement of faith, not an empirically provable fact (well, not yet at least).
The free will vs. determinism debate has been raging since the dawn of civilization. Is the world unpredictable? Do humans have free will, or does it just seem that way to us? If every effect has a physical cause, then with enough information and a sufficiently powerful computer, couldn’t we accurately predict every event? But if every event, including every human action, is the result of some preceding physical cause–predictable if we have enough data, then how can we claim to have free will? So can free will only existence if the world is in some sense arbitrary and unpredictable? Einstein went to his grave refusing to believe that there was an inherent uncertainty and randomness in nature. “God does not play dice,” he famously said.
I’m not going to try to unravel the free-will vs. determinism arguments this morning. There are enough philosophical and scientific ingredients in that stew to feed our minds for the rest of our days. But for those of us who prefer to believe that we humans have free will, it is a little disquieting to see scientific discoveries painting us into a ever shrinking corner of the room.
I’m sure that most of us will insist on the existence of free will, notwithstanding the counter-arguments of many scientists and religious traditions that it is only an illusion. I consider myself fairly open-minded, but I don’t think any amount of evidence could ever convince me to give up my belief in free will, and my guess is that most people would agree with me.
For an empirical claim to be valid, though, it must be falsifiable. That is, if a claim is based on facts, then we must admit that contrary facts would refute it. That’s a fundamental basis of what makes science, science. If we make a supposedly empirical claim, but deny it is falsifiable by contrary facts, then in reality the claim we are making is religious, or quasi-religious, whether we realize it or not.
So when we say something like “I don’t care what the scientists say. I have free will,” we’re making a religious claim, even if we are atheists.
I’m fine with that. There are certain things we have collectively chosen to believe that, at least for now, we’ve set up on a shelf marked “not falsifiable.” Some examples are human equality, the superiority of democratic government, and free will. Those are foundational beliefs for most of us. Whether we consciously admit it or not, we wouldn’t abandon those beliefs even if scientific data seemed to refute them. The social and psychological consequences would be too great. And we don’t just do this with the big “ultimate” questions. I can think of a couple of current public policy positions, one on the right and one on the left, where empirical counter-arguments are simply off the table. We’ve chosen to hold those positions no matter what the evidence, even though we likely wouldn’t admit it. It seems to me most of us are more “religious” than we realize.
OK, that’s enough for this morning. Time to put on my rain jacket and go open the coops, put wood in the stove, and feed the goats. By the way, doggone it, I’m going to do those things because I’ve freely chosen to do them, not because they were predestined or inevitably determined by prior physical events.
And for any who made it this far–Happy New Year!