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Honor Employers on Labor Day

On Labor Day, we should praise employers as well as workers. In our economy employers make much of our labor possible by paying us wages. They make it more productive by arranging its structure most efficiently. They make it more forward looking by coming up with ideas for the next new product and service and by supplying the capital to get these ideas off the ground.

Yet many fail to acknowledge what a deeply moral act employing someone else in productive, legal work can be. By giving someone a job, an employer is not only providing a wage, but a framework of discipline and often a satisfying life that not everyone can provide for themselves. And large employers, like Walmart, do most of all by employing millions and creating paths for career advancement that would not otherwise exist.

In contrast, most of the shrill critics of companies like Walmart are academics and others who have never employed anyone except perhaps a nanny. They have done little to put bread on the table of their fellow man or set the less well off on a trajectory to a more ample livelihood. But they feel it incumbent upon themselves to tell employers what wages they should pay.

One response to the claim that employers deserve moral credit is that they are fully rewarded for employing others by profit. And it is of course true that they often earn profits. But when employers agree to pay employees a salary their profit is frequently not secure. They are taking a risk and often living a life of disquiet as result, “their minds tossing” with the fortunes of their ventures. Indeed, they reduce the risk that employee would have in self-employment and transfer it to themselves.  Employers may prosper but they do well by others in doing so.

Praising employers is not meant to denigrate laborers.  Whether the labor is highly skilled and versatile, or modest and limited, like that which that Samuel Johnson described as “a single talent well employed,” it is justly a source of honor and pride as well as means of earning a living. But employers deserve honor as well. If it is too much to ask for an Employers’ Day holiday, the least we can do is also celebrate their contributions on Labor Day.

Reader Discussion

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on September 06, 2015 at 22:18:48 pm

There was a time, when Americans celebrated the work ethic. Labor day, historically, stems from the labor movement. But it had the traction that it did, in its origins, because Americans, traditionally, have celebrated the virtues that accompany work.

There are also undeniable virtues that come from being an entrepreneur. Those deserve celebration too.

I am less persuaded that large corporate enterprise, or large bureaucracies more generally, deserve celebration to the same degree as either hard, consistent work or entrepreneurship. There are certainly virtues that derive from capitalism--anyone who doubts this should read the superb and detailed case for these presented by Deirdre McCloskey in her excellent books on the Bourgeois Virtues (2007) and Bourgeois Dignity (2011). I am, however, unaware that anyone has made the case for ethical virtue deriving from bureacracy. I am open to reading the argument, and look forward to reading Professor McGinnis' account of these. But having worked in bureacracies, public and private, count me as dubious.

I think the case for labor day remains considerably stronger than the case for emoloyment per se.

The republican party originated in a celebration of work. The original motto, let us recall, was "free soil, free labor, free men." Slavery is bad, in this account, because it steals from men the fruits of honest labor. Work is absolutely central to what the Republican Party stood for, well into the 20th century. I am loath to surrender this ethos, even as we live in times that seem to undermine it.

Bound up in this idea is a celebration of the autonomous owner-proprietor. Owning one's own business is a good thing, because it fosters in individuals the character necessary to sustain a republican society. Read Abraham Lincoln's remarks to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, in which Lincoln responds to James Henry Hammond's "mudsill speech," and in which Lincoln eloquently describes the kind of society towards which he believed America should aspire. Owning and building ones own business, sufficient to support an individual and his family in decent comfort, is the ideal here.

Work is good because it creates desirable kinds of character. That is what we are celebrating tomorrow.

Walmart is, perhaps, good because it allows American consumers access to cheaper products. But it does so by driving out of business precisely the kinds of enterprise that Lincoln celebrated. Walmart is the kind of employer that we should celebrate if we believe that we should be a nation of self-indulgent consumers, focused on elevating and satisfying our wants and desires. If consumption nurtures character, then perhaps we should celebrate Walmart, as Professor McGinnis does above.

Count me skeptical about this too, however. An ethic of work is about domesticating desire, disciplining it. Again, it may be possible to argue that consumption creates character, and I am open to reading the case for it. Here too I look forward to reading the arguments I am sure Professor McGinnis can adduce.

How about it?

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 07, 2015 at 20:31:35 pm

Kevin:

Am in general agreement with the sentiments expressed in your posting. (one day, perhaps, we can discuss at greater length).

For now, I would only suggest that you consider a comment made on occasion by our blogging partner, R. Richard:

recall that he argues (quite rightly, BTW) that large scale enterprises have been taken over by a managerial class (caste, perhaps?). Richard is, as usual, spot-on; however, I would add that it is not just *managers* but rather a certain type of manager - and, to my mind, this makes all the difference. The contemporary manager is far less likely to be an innovator (S. Jobs, notwithstanding, as he was a marketer par excellence) than past industrial titans / leaders who were, generally, innovators / creators. In my own experience, I have seen very viable concerns change from dominance (and the concomitant infusion of technical genius) by engineering, designers, etc to one controlled by and motivated by financial / management types. There is a distinct difference in focus, process, and creativity once this change occurs. Indeed, in the new world of this managerial class, lawyers play an ever increasing (and restraining) role upon the combined corporate efforts. Needless to say, innovation dies as well as the motivation of many of the early corporate leaders / creators to create something that will actually benefit society - and no, I don't mean *social justice" silliness but rather products, processes, etc that will have a materially beneficial effect upon the populace.
Consider that oft applauded CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. During his tenure, GE lost its technological and competitive advantage and posted *wonderful* numbers for Wall Street based upon the earnings of GE Capital. Gone were the appliance divisions, medical divisions were also overtaken (by my firm, BTW) and even aircraft engine divisions saw erosion of market share.
A realignment of corporate focus from creativity to "pleasing" Wall Street was not salutary - wither for the company or the consumer. As part of this focus, he and others felt no compunction against laying off massive numbers of people.

Yet, in the past (and in some small measure even today) there was a more "compassionate" (yikes!, G.H.W. Bush ?) sense to many corporate leaders / practices.

Something to consider - it does not need to be like this.

seeya
gabe

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gabe
on September 07, 2015 at 21:27:32 pm

Professor Hardwick- Walmart is indeed very good for consumers, particularly those of modest means, but it is good for employees as well. I have nothing against small business employers. But Walmart actually offers more comprehensive career paths for advancement. Many store managers and even company executives have come up through the ranks. Moreover, Walmart is a less risky proposition for most employees than smaller businesses. It is more likely to survive into the next decades, giving some measure of stability to people who value stability. We should celebrate today that employees have Walmart and similar establishments among the places they can choose to work. --John O. McGinnis

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John O. McGinnis
on September 07, 2015 at 21:42:43 pm

John:

Good points! I would add that (surprise, surprise) McDonalds is also quite good as a career builder for many of its employees. And, perhaps, one of the better ones is the US Army which is run by Non-Commissioned Officers ("Sarng't" to you weenies!) - and they come from the lower ranks EXCLUSIVELY! ( I know, I was one).

You are also correct in the value that Walmart adds - consider a poor grade school student who may otherwise be reduced to wearing hand-me-downs (I was also one of those); with low prices of Walmart, one may wear new clothes, certainly not the best quality, mind you, but still new. How does this affect a young child - considerably, I can tell you having used Walmart for the local "back-to-school" giving for disadvantaged folks in our community.

Yet, let us not give undue praise to ALL corporate operations. One could rightly argue that in many instances the consequent benefit of employment for many is nothing more than the inevitable result of corporate operations. after, someone MUST build (or service) something.

as I indicated in my earlier response to Prof. Hardwick, there would appear to be a distinct change in both focus and intent of the modern corporation from its' antecedent managerial forms. (For this insight / reminder, we at LLB should all acknowledge an indebtedness to R. Richard and his typically insightful commentary). Much of what you assert in your essay is true AND correct; however, to my mind, it needs to be tempered with a recognition of contemporary practice / policy where all too often employees (and products/ services) are secondary to "managerial" class ambition.

Anyway, hope you and a good Labor Day and that Employers are also satisfied on this day; unfortunately, a third party has, thanks to the Wagner Act and FDR, entered the stage. The results have not been salutary for any involved.

take care
gabe

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gabe
on September 07, 2015 at 21:47:42 pm

Dang it!, this Walla Walla Valley Cabernet is so good that it affects my typing:

shoudl read: "..hope you HAD a good Labor Day and that Employers also FIND some satisfaction on this day..."

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gabe
on September 08, 2015 at 00:04:17 am

Progessor McGinnis--

All of this is true. I do not disagree with you a bit about the value of employment. And there is no question that Walmart offers reasonably stable employment.

Where we part ways is, I suspect anyway, in two places. First, I believe that civic character matters. I think the first generations of Americans--roughly from the Founding through the 1920s, were correct to argue that the health of republican government depends on a citizenry who collectively possess the right kind of public dispositions. Modern libertarians, especially those who stop their analysis with the free market, tend to neglect this point.

Second, I think Republicans of Lincoln's generation were correct to argue first that a strong work ethic disciplines character, and second that it does so in ways that enhance republican citizenship. So the value of small business is not, as you quite correctly note, to be found in its economic efficiency (Walmart is unquestionably better for poor people than the corner general store, and more stable too) but rather in the civic goods that it produces.

I am open to being persuaded that working for Walmart, or some similar large corporation or large bureacracy, fosters the same degree of civic character as does ownership of a small, family-scale business. But you have not tried to make that argument. You have not even acknowledged it.

There is nothing about large scale corporate capitalism that is incompatible with political regimes that are something other than democratic. So it is possible that one can have capitalism but not possess political liberty. For this reason, I think it is prudent to attend to the kinds of character that employment produces. Not every job is equal, in the kinds of civic virtue that it nourishes.

I think that many kinds of work foster self-government, but I am not persuaded that all do. Nor am persuaded that consumption produces civic good to the same degree as does work. So I do not think you have made your case that all forms of employment are equallydesirable.

I want to live in a capitalist society AND a republican society. I would hope that is true for everyone who reads these words. But things the two are not the same thing, and they exist to some degree in tension with each other. Sothe trick, to my eye anyway, is to find the optimal balance, so asto maximize both.

All best wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 08, 2015 at 07:33:30 am

If anyone is curious, here is one useful essay that has in recent years influenced my thinking on this issue. I like is because Fiss is especially clear in the organization of his exposition--it teaches well, in other words.

Fiss, Owen M., "Capitalism and Democracy" (1992). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 1335.
http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1335

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Kevin R. Hardwick

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