Does Hard Work Get You to Heaven?

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recent book review on Salon
, linked to by Lew Rockwell, got
me thinking about laziness and industriousness. With the thought
churning in my head, I went into the office and found some old evaluations
I had written for employees. For the past two years, I have had
an older EMT named Bob working for me as, I believe, a third or
fourth career. He has now gone on to yet another career, and works
for me part-time.

Most of
our workforce is college-aged, with some a bit older. Observing
them at work, it is always clear that Bob is from a different generation
than the typical workforce. In EMS, the nature of the job involves
a lot of downtime while we wait for an emergency to occur. Of course,
there are at times various tasks to be done, such as restocking,
public affairs, cleaning, and so forth. When such tasks are assigned
to younger EMTs, the EMT will generally perform the task and then,
as soon as possible, return to an immobile position. I do not have
a problem with this — again, sitting and waiting is a large part
of the job. In fact, I often wish I had less to do and could sometimes
be immobile. Bob, however, was different. He seemed uncomfortable
with spending any time not working. If there was nothing to do,
he would sweep an already clean floor, or perform various self-defeating
tasks. One of these might be, for instance, cleaning the last bit
of sand off of a concrete path running through the beach.

One thing
that has always fascinated me is to observe the younger EMTs as
Bob works. Although Bob is in excellent physical condition, it does
pang me at times to see an able-bodied 20-year-old male sit and
watch a 60-year-old man work. I often search their faces for a hint
of shame, but don't see it. At times, of course, I have been able
to get a look of shame, but only by design. For instance, if I have
instructed someone several times to do a task, and seeing it not
done, do it myself, I can often get the facial expression I seek.
I don't see it as they calmly watch Bob work, though.

As I read
the evaluations, I see that I highly praised Bob for his hard work,
initiative, and strong work ethic. A manager appreciates such characteristics.
Last season, though, I also noted in his evaluation that his work
ethic was causing some problems. I had promoted him to a supervisory
position, and a strong work ethic was causing him to have difficulty
delegating tasks. My remark that a task needed to be done would
result in his simply carrying it out. In addition to the general
problems this can cause, it creates a hazard in an emergency service
organization — an emergency might occur requiring a supervisor to
respond, and unbeknownst to me, that supervisor is occupied with
a routine task.

This leads
me to contemplate the nature of the work ethic. It is, of course,
frequently credited to Puritans. But didn't the Puritan settlers
have a socialist economic arrangement in many colonies? In a socialist
system, there is always a problem of getting people to work. Furthermore,
a religious socialist system would have at least one unproductive,
consuming class that needs to be fed — the clergy. That's the same
clergy that promotes the work ethic. So it seems to me that this
work ethic is simply a piece of self-interest — rather than whipping
people, you threaten to send them to Hell if they don't provide
what you need without recompense.

This leads
me to an opposite problem I have had with my younger workers. Since
we work in a recreational setting, a young man can easily get confused
and think he is supposed to enjoy work. As a result, I frequently
get complaints such as "I don't want to work at THAT park,
can't you send me instead to the one that all the young women frequent?"
I do have a stock response to all complaints, of course. It is "have
you addressed this situation with your direct supervisor?"
Going beyond that, though, let's set aside the obvious fact that
I cannot assign all my employees, or even all the male ones, to
the park with the nubile beauties every day. Actually, before setting
this aside, I'll remark that it is a peculiar characteristic of
my generation that many seem not to comprehend this fact. The more
fundamental response, finally, is that work is something you have
to be paid to do. That is, you're making a trade — doing something
you'd rather not do in order to receive something you'd rather have
— money. If you enjoyed being here, we wouldn't pay you, and you'd
come anyway. If you think that the facts of the job — occasionally
working at the senior citizen beach — are not worth the pay, then

The point
is, capitalism is irreconcilable with the work ethic. If we begin
by assuming that working is the only way to go to heaven, then you
have strong reasons to wish to work as much as possible. You would,
I think, have no strong preference for unproductive labor over productive
labor. So, you wouldn't be diminished in the least by my directing
your labor to a productive use. So why would I have to pay you a
wage? If you stop working, you go to Hell — surely a better reason
to keep working than $5 an hour. (I can now celebrate that I got
through that entire paragraph without saying "indifference.")

on the other hand, arise because of the commonsense realization
that men prefer to sit on the couch over digging ditches. While
they sit on the couch, of course, they prefer to breathe, which
requires being alive, which requires food. Furthermore, if they
are ambitious, they might want to put a house around the couch,
reupholster the couch, and even watch tv. Thus, they work in order
to have these things. Some might even want to get off the couch
and engage in unproductive activities — like going to Disneyworld.
This requires even more work, and perhaps even postponed consumption,
and investment.

consider the manager who often spends a great deal of time not laboring.
Left to its own devices, it is quite probable (no numbers though)
that a free-market, capitalist system would develop organizations
large enough to require non-laboring managers. A Puritan would consider
a manager to have idle hands with devils playing in them. Thus,
combining the work ethic with capitalism is to believe that the
economy requires people to go to Hell. I don't think most of us
want to embrace this conclusion, but we also don't want to accept
the much-lowered standard of living that would result if we expected
everyone to labor.

2, 2006

Katz [send him mail] is
Chief of EMS at the Town of Hempstead Park and Recreation for the
summer. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology
of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate
student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s
degree in mathematics. He is planning to return to Texas after the
summer, in order to seek work in EMS there. He enjoys a glass of
port, a wedge of Brie, and a chapter of Cicero as a way to start
his day.

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