Contradictions of Labor

A foolish consistency, said Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds, but how are we to decide which consistency is foolish and which is wise? If in argument we cannot use inconsistency as a means of refutation, what can we use? And yet one knows what Emerson meant. Someone who sticks to principle come what may—for example, to speak the truth and never in any circumstances to varnish it—is not only foolish, but is also likely to be deeply unpleasant.

Nevertheless, inconsistency in political matters often reveals bad faith or special pleading, and in Britain recently there has been a revealing inconsistency of attitude towards immigrant workers in the healthcare and agricultural sectors.

When he left the hospital in which he had been treated for Covid-19, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, praised the National Health Service and in particular the foreign staff who worked in it. This accorded with popular sentiment, even among intellectuals who generally despise Mr. Johnson. Soon afterwards, however, the decision to import Eastern European workers, particularly from Romania, to work on farms and pick fruit was greeted with outrage. This use of foreign labour despite the epidemic was something else entirely from its use in the NHS, being akin to naked exploitation.

It is certainly true that the fruit-pickers would not be well-paid. Moreover, their accommodation during their stay would almost certainly be uncomfortable and overcrowded. The work they would do would be hard and possibly back breaking. It is certainly not the kind of work I should want to do myself, though I might have thought of it as a bit of an adventure for a couple of weeks to earn some pocket money when I was nineteen. But the Romanian workers are not coming for a bit of youthful adventure: they are coming because they are poor and need the money to live.

The fruit season is short. If the fruit is not picked, it will rot where it grows. Prices are such that farmers cannot offer high wages, and it is surely a good thing that fruit is available at a price that everyone can afford. There have been appeals to the British unemployed (in whose numbers there has been a sudden and great increase) to do the work, but they have not responded. The wages are not such as to attract them, and their economic situation would probably have to be considerably worse before the wages did attract them—and if their situation were to worsen to such an extent, they might choose crime, riot, disorder and looting rather than fruit-picking as a means of getting by economically. As for coercing the unemployed to take the work that is theoretically available to them, for example by withdrawing their social security unless they agreed to do it, the political repercussions would be too terrible to contemplate. It is easy to see in the abstract how our system of social security distorts the labour market, such that we have to import labour to perform such unskilled tasks as fruit-picking, but now is not a propitious moment at which to try radical reform. In politics as in life, you are always starting out from where you are, not from where you should have been had your past conduct been wiser or more prudent.

It seems to me, then, that the importation of East European temporary labour is justified and even beneficial, assuming that it is voluntary and not coerced at its source in a way that makes it a form of slavery. Insofar as the labourers recruited may be assumed to be low-skilled persons in whose education and training little has been invested, their work in a foreign country is a large net benefit to their own country.

By contrast, a great deal of the foreign labour recruited to work in the National Health Service (much, but not all) is highly trained at great cost to the countries, often poor, from which it is recruited. Of course, they transfer money back to those countries, which is a benefit to them, but they also deprive those countries of their much-needed, highly skilled and expensively trained services. Where the countries themselves are not the poorest, there is a chain reaction: those countries start importing expensively trained people from yet poorer countries. In the end, it is the poorest who are deprived, though they may also benefit from financial remittances.

Naturally, we do not want a world in which individuals are forbidden from seeking a better life for themselves, one in which they are trapped in the country in which they have been educated or trained. And perhaps we may congratulate ourselves that we have a country in which highly trained people want to work. But our self-congratulation should be tempered by reflection on why our country is unable to supply the need for skilled labour from its own population. We need to import doctors, scientists, and nurses, but not hairdressers and tattooists. Nor do we need to import the economically inactive: we have plenty of those recruited from our own population.

That we “celebrate” (to employ the current cant expression) foreign workers in the National Health Service but lament or reprehend the importation of fruit-pickers from Eastern Europe is surely indicative of willful avoidance of difficult and disturbing questions. We think in connotations rather than in denotations. We see what is on one side of the curtain but choose not to look behind it.

The foreign labour in the health service is praised because it performs work that is “noble,” as caring for the sick is indeed noble. Moreover, in the British system it is not performed for what many of the intellectual class would consider “filthy lucre”—though British doctors have not hesitated to negotiate lucrative contracts for themselves. Picking fruit, however, is not noble, rather the reverse. It is unskilled, poorly paid, unprestigious, and is performed “only” so that someone (the farmers) may make a profit. And the farmers can do so only by exploitation, or taking advantage, of the poverty of others.

Inconsistency of attitude to imported labour is not in itself wrong. Indeed, to have a completely consistent attitude without nuance—all imported labour is good, or all imported labour is bad—would be absurd, a foolish simplification of the complexities and ironies of human existence. It is perfectly possible that there is no single “correct” attitude to it, since advantages and disadvantages may be incommensurable. But examination of inconsistency can reveal a hinterland of attitudes, so to speak, that need to be brought into the open.

Reader Discussion

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on May 01, 2020 at 10:24:26 am

Dalrymple quotes Emerson on "foolish consistency/hobgoblin/small minds" as the segue of his essay questioning inconsistent attitudes toward immigrant labor. The quotation comes from Emerson's essay "Self Reliance" which condemns imitation, advises non-conformity and elevates trust in ones own capacity.

This must be seen as great irony because in America Emerson's "foolish consistency" quotation is cocktail party wisdom spouted most by the most consistently- conformist, the most consistently- imitative, herd-like and dependent and the most consistently-small-minded among us, the Democrats. And the Left deploys the hobgoblin quotation as a moral defense. They use it to rationalize and to justify their persistent, foolish, immoral inconsistencies on politically-important matters, such as, for example: chanting the mantra of "reproductive rights" while murdering prenatal infants, or (to employ Dalrymple's immigrant labor discussion,) on the one hand, lamenting poverty, poor medical care and impoverished education, low wages and high unemployment among the proletariat of color and deploring as intrinsically evil the gross income and opportunity disparity between the ''underprivileged" proletariat of color and "the rich" bourgeoisie and one-percenters of "white privilege", while, on the other hand, inciting illegal immigration, sheltering and providing social, educational and medical services to illegal immigrants and abetting criminal activities by illegal immigrants, while lauding illegal immigrants for contributing to our society, all of which comes at the cost of aggravating the unemployment, low wages, deprivation and impoverishment of the proletariat of color while greatly expanding the size and misery of its population and expanding the wealth disparity between the proletariat of color and the bastions of white privilege.

I just don't get it. How can Democrats be so morally inconsistent?

In his Self Reliance essay Emerson provides the answer:
"Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Ah, don't you see? To be Democrat is to be both greatly inconsistent and to be misunderstood for one's greatness. Inconstancy is magnificence of soul.

By way of contrast (and also to quote Emerson while having cocktails in Georgetown,) those who would seek moral consistency in politics are deplorably hobgoblined by their little minds.

It is interesting to note that a hobgoblin in English lore was a knavish, fairy-like spirit who would do chores in return for favors. Shakespeare made him a ''Puck:" "Those that Hob-goblin call you, and sweet Puck, / You do their work, and they shall have good luck."

We Hob-goblined fools for moral consistency will have our reckoning with the great-souled hypocrites:
"We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call..."

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on May 01, 2020 at 11:52:18 am

And then there is this:


wherein we observe that not only are foreign NHS workers "noble" (as Dalrymple records) but they are to be provided special protections during their noble apprenticeships and will be removed from the more "dangerous" tasks combating ChiComm flu and will be replaced by those "privileged" whites.
Well, here is consistency for you: whites are always privileged and BAME's (blacks and middle eastern types) are, and must, always be protected from those insipid, vile whites who would readily consign them to the ravages of disease, sickness and death.
I suppose this abhorrent behavior of whites is nothing more than a vestigial artifact of white colonialism - "Let the Wogs be damned, Sir."

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on May 01, 2020 at 15:53:21 pm

In just the same way that the welfare system has undermined the willingness of the British unemployed to get on with low-wage work or self-respecting criminal activity in the manner of their forefathers, the determination of the cost-focused NHS to lure ready-trained medics from poorer overseas countries implies relatively fewer Brits are trained in medicine and surgery, and medical pay is lower. Some Brits may therefore take up less educationally demanding occupations and pursue less-rigorous college courses. Combined with modern improvements to the educational system, such as grade thinning and permitting studious souls in high school the privilege of taking classes alongside those self-confident enough to ignore education altogether, the effect may be to distort considerably the general competency of the native-born population over time. Who decided that was a good thing?

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Antony Dnes
on May 02, 2020 at 18:01:51 pm

Try and get your facts right before mouthing off about the supposed laziness of unemployed British people. Please find below an exclusive interview with the 'agricultural manager' (he can hardly be called a farmer!) who charted the flight for the 150 Romanian fruit pickers: He also received job application from 4,000 British people and he recruited 500 extra British fruit pickers. This is the first time that the majority of seasonal fruit pickers have been British citizens since the later 1980s. Still, he insists that he needs a core of more experienced workers to train up the newcomers:
Farm boss spent £40k flying 150 Romanian fruit pickers to UK to teach Brit land army how it's done
Also, most of the outrage about flying in the Romanians was due to the fact that they were obviously newly arriving in the country and therefore possibly helping to spread the coronavirus around, while British residents were being told to avoid all unnecessary travel and all the airlines were grounded. These concerns hardly apply to foreign NHS workers, who've already been living and working in the UK for several years.

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Daniel Bamford
on May 19, 2020 at 03:21:02 am

Don't worry about it. The job will be automated soon.

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Image of xkz
on June 05, 2020 at 22:41:53 pm

You seem to be neglecting the failure of the natives to rise to the occasion over criminality. Be that as it may, my earlier comment concerns implications (I wrote 'in just the same way') for high-end training and is not about fruit picking or laziness (the term used is 'willingness'). 'Mouthing'? 'Facts'? 'Daily Mail'! Your comment inadvertently reinforces some of the points I made.

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Antony Dnes

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