Regular readers will know that I have spent quite a lot of time reading the…
Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 5
This is Part 5 of my on-going examination of the concept of ‘duty to work’ and how it was associated with the related idea of a ‘right to work’. In Part 4, I demonstrated that the dual concepts were long-standing ideas and the emergence of neoliberalism distorted their meaning by, one, abandoning the commitment by governments to facilitating the right to work, and, two, perverting the meaning of duty to work. Neoliberalism thus has broken the nexus between the ‘right to work’ responsibilities that the state assumed in the social democratic period and the ‘duty to work’ responsibilities that are imposed on workers in return for income support. That break abandons the binding reciprocity that enriched our societies. In this part, I examine the way in which full employment and work has been treated within the justice literature to extend the notion of reciprocity that we discussed in Part 4. In Part 5 I will consider how this bears on discussions about basic income and coercion.
Work and Justice
Part of our thinking on this topic is guided either explicitly or implicitly by concepts of justice, which have occupied philosophers since day 1 (see Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics).
The idea that reciprocation requires some action from an individual in return for, say, income support, is dealt with in an extensive literature on political coercion and socioeconomic justice.
The question is should an individual be required to accept obligations driven by some idea of societal norm when they have no choice but to comply and when alternative, non-coercive arrangements can be made available.
This is clearly apposite to the duty to work debate.
In the modern era, John Rawls is a central figure since he published his 1971 book – A Theory of Justice.
Applying his notions of justice to government policy approaches to the labour market in the neoliberal era leads to the conclusion that there is a lack of justice.
His idea of a just society was entertained very early in his 1971 book (p.3):
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.
I won’t go into a detailed outline of his approach to justice although I urge those who are unfamiliar with them to familiarise yourself because they are central to many public policy debates in the current day.
I only want to focus on his views on full employment and work.
For John Rawls, a just society is one that is “not only designed to advance the good of its members” but is “also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice.”
He thus writes (p.4):
… it is a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles.
So, pure self-interest is tempered here by a generalised “desire for justice” which “limits the pursuit of other ends”.
His thought experiment in outlining what he considered to be a just society required us to imagine a society that we would be willing to become part of at random – that is, without any knowledge of our own ascriptive characteristics (gender, race, inherited wealth, abilities, etc) and without any knowledge of where we would fit into this society’s social hierarchy.
So must design a society in which we might end up being at the bottom of the social ordering.
The idea was that to really think about justice and fairness, one had to assume an “original position” (a ‘veil of ignorance’)- which requires us to ignore who we are and assume we could be anybody.
This exercise eliminates selecting just society principles that reinforce our own interests, and, rather, focus on the design features that might be desirable, if, for example, we were among the most disadvantaged citizens.
The ensuing concept of fairness will thus emerge and logic tells us that it would replicate the sort of society that progressive thinkers would aspire to.
He developed his two principles of justice from this thought experiment.
(1) “First principle: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for all”
(2) “Second principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) To the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle) (b) Attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”.
The second principle is about economic institutions and the distribution of income and wealth but not the distributions of goods and services to specific persons.
He thought inequality was inevitable but should be limited to situations where it made the least fortunate better off. After that point, it should be eliminated through distributive policies.
And he considered that inequalities were justifiable as long as there was equality of opportunity.
This becomes important in our consideration of reciprocal responsibilities.
In determining the practicalities of the ‘difference principle’, John Rawls defined the least fortunate as those lacking what he termed “primary goods”, which are what rational people “want” (1971, p.93):
While persons in the original position do not know their conception of the good life, they do know that they prefer more rather than less primary goods
He outlined a list of potential primary goods, among those relating to the ‘difference principle’ were:
1. “powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of responsibility, particularly those in the main political and economic institutions”
2. “income and wealth”
3. “the social basis of self-respect”
Advancing justice was an exercising in improving the primary goods access to the least advantaged in society.
John Rawls didn’t say much about full employment specifically although his ‘second principle of justice’ becomes relevant.
Clearly, operating from the ‘original position’, it is likely that poeple would specify a society that maintained full employment would be essential.
Humans transform nature to survive through work.
Having access to work becomes essential once we transcend hunter and gathering type activities.
The ‘veil of ignorance’ exercise would thus lead to the ‘right to work’ principle being enshrined in law because then even the most disadvantaged person (which might end up being any one of us in the exercise) would be able to survive.
John Rawls had a complex view of work.
On the one hand, he tied it in with the production of ‘primary goods’ – the act of transforming nature in order to survive and achieve higher material standards of living.
But government becomes important in that process because of the distributive justice principle – the ‘difference principle’ – policy settings should be such that they enhance the aims of the second principle
But in his conception of justice, work goes beyond that narrow aspiration, and, includes the advancement of “self-respect”, which necessitates a much broader conception of work.
He wrote (1971, p.386) that “without … self-respect”:
… nothing may seem worth doing, or if some things have value for us, we lack the will to strive for them. All desire and activity becomes empty and vain, and we sink into apathy and cynicism …
A “well-ordered society” places work as a central part of “communities and associations” which provides the path to “self-respect” (1971, p.387):
It normally suffices that for each person there is some association (one or more) to which he belongs and within which the activities that are rational for him are publicly affirmed by others. In this way, we acquire a sense that what we do in everyday life is worthwhile.
Meagre redistribution of income, according to Rawls does not provide for ‘self-respect’ because it does not “put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degree of social and economic equality”.
Those who just take when they can also give are considered operating outside of societal norms.
John Rawls clearly considered the opportunity to work to be a crucial path to achieving self-respect.
He wrote (1971, p. 244) that one of the responsibilities of government is:
… to bring about reasonably full employment in the sense that those who want work can find it and the free choice of occupation and the deployment of finance are supported by strong effective demand.
So it is not just a responsibility to ensure everyone has sufficient income without concern for the way in which that income is gained.
For John Rawls, the attainment of ‘self-respect’, an essential element of a just society, must include the opportunity to work.
First, increasing employment increases the availability of social primary goods which, if accompanied by other redistributive policies, will increase the share of the least advantaged – thereby satisfying the difference principle.
If the educated middle-class, for example, choose not to work, they are reducing the available goods in the society, while still drawing on the efforts of others.
Rawls would consider that violates the difference principle.
However, we can go further than this.
If the policy settings are such that people are denied the opportunity to work, then the opportunity to attain “offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” is also denied, which reduces life-time access to primary goods.
Merely satisfying the needs of survival in this context with a non-work income transfer doesn’t correct the denial of ‘fair equality of opportunity’.
Justice thus requires policy settings that achieve full employment.
In his 1993 book – Political Liberalism – he advocated government should maintain a Job Guarantee (employer of last resort – in his terms) – John Rawls wrote (p.lix) that societal stability required:
… society as an employer of last resort.
This is because the lack of work “is destructive .. of citizen’s self respect”.
So when the ‘market’ doesn’t produce enough jobs, the state must fill the gap.
He was critical of what he termed “welfare state capitalism” (WSC), which had abandoned that state responsibility and thus was incapable of achieving a just society.
He considered one of the hallmarks of WSC to be the state providing the social minimum to all, even if they choose not to work, which he says makes people welfare dependent.
Under a just society (his so-called “property-owning democracy” (POD)), he redefined the concept of a social minimum.
This bears on our discussion beause in his 1993 book – The Law of Peoples – he writes denying an individual the “the opportunity of meaningful work” impedes the capacity of that individual the “sense that they are members of society (p.50)”.
But a close reading of this argument leads to the idea of self-respect, which emphasises the need for mutual interaction and the regard of our fellow citizens.
In other words, self-respect requires a mutuality, which in his 1971 book said depended on us:
finding our person and deeds appreciated and confirmed by others who are likewise esteemed and their association enjoyed.
This can be taken to mean that an emphasis on what each person does for work might obscure the social aspects of work – that is, the contribution of each individual to society, which is how we measure that mutuality.
In Part 5, we will continue this discussion and link the ‘duty to work’ concept with theories of justice and discuss coercion.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.
This Post Has 30 Comments
I’m still convinced using MMT knowledge and how you set up the central bank, commercial banks and pensions are key in deciding how the pension part of the JG would work and at what age you retire. Removes the moral issues imposed on the unemp!oyed by different groups.
The decision needs to be made by the individual. The morality imposed by the different groups who supposedly have the best interests of the individual at heart need to butt out of it. It is impossible to speak for an individual and then group them with a label THE UNEMPLOYABLE and then use that morality as if you are speaking for all of them.
So you need to create choices that every individual can choose from. Then it is up to them to choose that life choice. These choices need to be laid out early on through the education system until upon leaving secondary school the choice the individual chooses is clear.
Exactly in the same way teenagers choose now when they sit exams or weather they choose to go to university. However, there is a new choice in town as that choice is a guaranteed job with benefits and a pension. That wasn’t there before.
Ultimately, if the only choice an individual has boils down to choosing not to work and a JG because other choices are not available to them. That choice must be clear what it means for the individual.
It is there choice. The pension part of the JG and the wage part of the JG has to be used by teachers to show what the difference would be if the individual didn’t choose to work at all. The differences have to be stark.
The education system has to talk about social contracts and what it means for everyone to contribute. Then the individual has to make their choice.
” The morality imposed by the different groups who supposedly have the best interests of the individual at heart need to butt out of it.”
Then those that don’t have the interests of an individual at heart should also butt out of it.
From what I had previously picked-up at second hand concerning John Rawls’s views I’d gathered that they are closely argued and highly regarded. That does not of course mean that he is by any means an undisputed “authority”: they are the views of one, acknowledged to be distinguished, thinker, agreed-with by his admirers and disagreed-with by his opponents. Besides, for every presumptive authority there is at least one who stands opposed – for every Aristotle there is a Plato, and for every John Rawls a Robert Nozik. The choice as to which of the opposed paths to incline towards lies (consciously or intuitively) with each individual person.
Bill has never made any bones about his own standpoint, so it’s no surprise that in making his case he relies heavily on Rawls. But he doesn’t just quote Rawls, he also makes his own commentary upon what he quotes, to do which requires that he put his own construction on Rawls’s text. I’m not implying that there’s anything untoward about that: the only alternative to accepting Bills’s construction would be independently to form one’s own, which would necessitate reading the original (which Bill indeed urges us to do).
All the same, I can’t accept some (of what seem to me to be prima facie questionable) leaps that Bill makes. For example:-
“John Rawls didn’t say much about full employment specifically although his ‘second principle of justice’ becomes relevant. Clearly, operating from the ‘original position’, it is likely that people would specify a society that maintained full employment would be essential”.
That does not seem to me to be at all “clearly” the corollary of Rawls’s text. Some other similar “leaps” which to me seem to be equally typically coloured by Bill’s own doctrinal position, which this whole series of articles is dedicated to advancing:-
“Having access to work becomes essential once we transcend hunter and gathering type activities. The ‘veil of ignorance’ exercise would thus lead to the ‘right to work’ principle being enshrined in law because then even the most disadvantaged person (which might end up being any one of us in the exercise) would be able to survive”.
“If the educated middle-class, for example, choose not to work, they are reducing the available goods in the society, while still drawing on the efforts of others. Rawls would consider that violates the difference principle”. (A “straw man” argument not present in Rawls’s quoted text: who has ever envisaged an “educated middle class” being likely as a body to choose not to work?)
“This can be taken to mean that an emphasis on what each person does for work might obscure the social aspects of work – that is, the contribution of each individual to society, which is how we measure that mutuality”.
I could cite more examples – but let those suffice.
“who has ever envisaged an “educated middle class” being likely as a body to choose not to work?”
The anti-work brigade are precisely that educated middle class. They expect servants to do their bidding as and when, but don’t expect to have to keep them. The ‘gig’ economy and hiring on “contract for services” suits them just fine since it transfers the risk to the poor – despite them being the least able to withstand it.
The quote from Beveridge is pertinent here I think
(§8, p 20, “Full Employment in a Free Society”, “The Purpose of Employment”)
Really enjoying this series, especially this one. Where the term “self-respect” is concerned, can I take this to imply also “dignity” and “belonging?” I ask because these seem to me important social goods associated with meaningful work.
So where does all this discussion lead us in dealing with the current problem of high Covid-induced unemployment but farmers unable to find people to pick crops now that all the back-packers and seasonal foreigners are unavailable?
Today I have been told a story of a blueberry farmer who tried to employ local people rather than rely on foreign workers. he offered a minimum wage of $25AUD/hour plus piece rates for picking over a specified quantity of fruit (some people apparently made up to $40/hour) and even laid on a bus from the local town (I shan’t name it). On day one the bus was full, on day two half empty and by the end of the week only two people turned up. Some preferred to cope on the lower unemployment benefit than work in the sun all day and some took the $25/hour for picking next to nothing and were not taken back on later days. How are the right to work, the duty to work and the implied duty to work hard enough to be worth the trouble of employing at all represented here?
The Ken Burns collection on PBS America are fantastic.
The documentaries he makes are always very good. If you have not watched the dust bowl I suggest you give it a watch. All the usual prejudices are there to see about the state providing jobs for those that needed them.
However, even towards the end the most ardent right wingers admitted that the jobs provided by the state at that time saved the communities that were decimated. The work carried out also stopped it from being so bad in the future. Of course most if not all transitioned into private sector jobs or set up their own businesses afterwards.
Lesson plans were even out together from it that could be taught in schools
Without the virus…….
A blueberry farmer or any farmer for that matter can just expect workers to turn up to pick fruit or cheap labour from abroad to turn up and pick fruit.
In the same way you wouldn’t expect those on a JG to turn up to fill shelves for Walmart.
Once a JG has been put in place it should focus the farmers mind that they will only have X amount of human beings to choose from or none at all. So then the farmer has some choices to make to boost productivity. As productivity lifts all boats.
a) Invent a machine that will pick Blueberries instead of expecting someone to turn up to do it. Cheap labour has normally stopped them from investing to build such a machine.
b) Stop growing blueberries and grow something that can be picked by machine.
c) Governments import blueberries instead and allow other countries to use their skills and real resources picking the crop. Whilst we use our skills and real resources on something more important. Give them blips at our central bank in exchange for the blueberries that ultimately they will spend on our goods and services Or just hoard at our central bank.
It is like when you walk into a coffee shop to buy a coffee. Do you want to pay £10 for a latte just so people can wait on you hand and foot on minimum wage and call you sir and offer you a cake. Or would you rather pay £3 for a latte hit a button and be served by a machine. So that the people who have waited on you hand a foot can move on a Do something more productive with their lives.
As for the blueberry farmer wonder how he is going to innovate or if he decides to grow something else next year ? You just never know all the blueberry farmers might get together and invest for a change instead of relying on cheap labour all these years. Before you know it you’ll see a brand spanking new blueberry fruit picking machine coming out of the show room. A win, win for everyone.
Whatever he decides to do will be an individual choice. A private sector business decision which shouldn’t be bailed out by the state in normal times. Poor business decisions should be what they are poor businesses decisions and the dead wood should be allowed to go bust. Until another farmer who knows how to farm and make good business decisions comes along to take their place.
The blueberry sector or crop picking sectors are now paying the price for decades of under investment and relying on cheap foreign workers . Looks like the virus has amplified that poor business decision. Question is does that decade old poor business decision deserve to be rewarded ?
Probably because predatory capitalism gets a AAA rating from the rating agencies.
I should point out that my above example is not first-hand from the farmer but from a friend who is from the relevant town, which has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Australia.
I’m following the philosophical arguments in this series with interest and I generally support the JG, but it would only serve to exacerbate this farmer’s dilema where people were willing to accept the lower unemployment rate rather than do this kind of work unless the jobs on offer under the JG included many similarly arduous tasks paid at piece rates rather than an hourly rate regardless of effort made. To be socially acceptable a JG must not be, or seen to be, anything like a free ride. Nor should it be too much like a civilian version of compulsory military service . How do we achieve the right balance in practice?
I made my last post before seeing your reply.
In the non-virus world you are quite right. I was too focused on a short-term problem which for this thread on Bill’s blog isn’t really relevant. If local people don’t want to work in hot fields all day then the economic choice for farmers is to import cheap overseas labour, invest in machinery or grow something else. The free market will have it’s way within the constraints set by government, which includes the visa rules which currently permit the import of workers.
But in the short term – how does the choice of able-bodied people not to pick blueberries, or do other ‘hard’ work, for above unemployment benefit rates of pay sit with the duty to work principle?
It’s the old carrot and stick the private sector has used to bash the heads of governments for years.
Increase taxes we will give you job losses.
We will keep wages low to keep people in jobs
We will stop investing in machines as it creates job losses. We prefer cheap labour instead.
The list is endless.
They always threatened job losses if governments wanted to try a progressive outcome. Now we can say fine do what you like it is your decision you no longer have a carrot or a stick. That will create winners and losers and create true competition. Provided the monopolies and competition authorities have some teeth and are willing to use their carrots and sticks.
I would advise the blueberry farmer to employ more pickers and reduce hours. Is it not also possible to provide better working conditions as well: more breaks, free refreshments? Farmers here (UK) expect workers to live on the premises in dreadful conditions. There’s more to work than wages.
“how does the choice of able-bodied people not to pick blueberries”
The choice not to pick blueberries *at the wage offered*. Try $AU 1,000,000 per day and see how many turn up. Then price drop from there until you find the level.
Ultimately if nobody turned up then the offer wasn’t good enough. The duty to work isn’t the duty to work in a crap job, poor conditions and terrible pay at all hours.
The Job Guarantee ensures that everybody has access to a 9-5 job somewhere near where they live, pretty light on duties for the *lowest liveable wage in the economy*. All other wages in the economy then price from that by market competition, which means if you’re not getting the labour then your job is either too unpleasant for humans to undertake, or you’re not paying enough. And nothing else.
So you either change your offer, or go out of business. Either is fine.
Remember that the Job Guarantee turns competition up to 11. And that will kill businesses that cannot compete.
“And he considered that inequalities were justifiable as long as there was equality of opportunity.” Yet it’s obvious that nature provides no such “equality of opportunity,” so neither can even the best efforts of society to level the playing field. The undeniable fact is that some are born healthier or stronger or smarter than others and thus are better able to seize whatever opportunities may be provided, even essentially equal ones. Accordingly, the only equality that may exist in this world can never come via opportunity but only via a philosophical principle/presumption that all human beings, despite their innate differences, are to be CONSIDERED equal–of the same value and dignity–either in the eyes of God or in those of their fellow men and women. This is clearly spelled out in the Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence, in which equality is asserted as a moral or religious concept, being “self-evident” only on this metaphysical level. We either choose to recognize and strive to treat our fellow human beings equally, in the same manner that we ourselves would desire to be treated, or we do not. All productive thinking about social justice must begin right here.
I doesn’t look like there is much to debate here.
What may seem just or fair, appears only on the surface, to be a highly subjective matter, it really isn’t. There are fundamentals or natural laws, that all rational beings will agree on, once we grasp the grim realities of the alternative simple ” natural law of the jungle”.
The right to anything necessary to secure ones own safety and survival, is one of those things none would disagree with; especially easy to relate to, if one has ever experienced a personal existential crisis.
Being a hunter-gatherer is still the reality for many people on this planet. Even quite developed nations still have provisions in law that permit hunting for sustenance for example; however, most would agree that that lifestyle would ensure a global environmental catastrophe if several billion people suddenly began to operate on that level, so the survival of every individual has been inextricably linked to participation in some form of work activity within cooperative arrangements since the dawn of agriculture at least.
Even the hunter gatherer’s cooperate to better individual chances of survival.
Arguments against an individual having an equal right and responsibility to contribute to that activity to the best of ability would seem destined to fall apart on this basis alone, and yet we see the results of not observing this on city streets every day.
@ Neil Wilson
“‘who has ever envisaged an “educated middle class” being likely as a body to choose not to work?’
“The anti-work brigade are precisely that educated middle class. They expect servants to do their bidding as and when, but don’t expect to have to keep them.”
That comment is tangential so far as addressing the rhetorical cited goes (it was apropos “the educated middle class” (Bill’s description not mine) “*as a body*”).
It may, or may not, be a valid observation on its own terms nevertheless.
Since you propound it ex cathedra you must obviously believe it to be. I really wouldn’t know.
“…the rhetorical cited” omitted the word “question”.
“This is because the lack of work “is destructive .. of citizen’s self respect”.”
What if society itself is destructive of an individual’s self respect?
Its true. Self-respect is very important.
Not a day I spend at work brings about self-respect for myself, which is why I look to socialism nowadays. Its also why I started reading MMT in the first place.
I think we can also explain why people are so apathetic about things using what Mr Rawls laid out.
I guess it would be possible that Rawls’s group of ‘people to be’, not knowing what they will be born into, have taken into account the possibility that they might end up as one of the ‘voluntary leeches’ upon those who work, and fearing that possibility, decided it would be better that the leech receive something from those who produced anyway. In which case, I assume Rawls would have no problem calling that ‘justice’.
The very few people I have interacted with who actively argue that they are owed society’s support, while refusing to ever work, do not seem to suffer a lack of self-respect. I would think they have the opposite problem- an over-inflated sense of self worth and value.
Wednesday, September 9, 2020 at 8:48
“Not a day I spend at work brings about self-respect for myself…”
Sadly this is true for many of us. How many people look forward to a satisfying career stacking supermarket shelves, even though this is essential, socially important work? No economic system I’ve yet come across has an answer to the fact that many jobs are dull and repetitive.
Wednesday, September 9, 2020 at 8:48
“Not a day I spend at work brings about self-respect for myself…”
Come now, we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.
When I can stop being a wage slave and spend my days in my shed working out how to make a copy of this ‘Sysiphus’ I will be happy…
Not sure Bill like us putting links here so search YouTube for ‘Sisyphus – The Kinetic Art Table’.
“When I can stop being a wage slave and spend my days in my shed working out how to make a copy of this ‘Sysiphus’ I will be happy”
You can do that when you retire. That’s the deal – assuming you want to have access to a pension when you are older.
We all take the capital legacy of our forefathers and use it through our working lives while training the next generation and then passing it onto them – intact and improved. Only then do you have a moral claim on the time of others – as those that have gone before us have a moral claim on our time because they have given us equipment that mean we don’t have to work 16 hours a day in a field to grow cabbages.
Kitwn @ 10:48
“When I can stop being a wage slave and spend my days in my shed working out how to make a copy of this ‘Sysiphus’ I will be happy…”
Or you can spend your lunch break reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Accept that life is ultimately absurd and be happy about it.
“That’s the deal – assuming you want to have access to a pension when you are older.” What’s the deal? Are we talking about a contributory pension scheme, like now?
“What’s the deal? ”
Once a generation has taken the capital inheritance of our society, maintained it, trained the next generation to use it and passed it to them on intact and improved then the younger generation has a moral duty to work longer hours than they strictly need to to maintain the older generation in their dotage – in return for the capital inheritance which means they don’t all have to spend 16 hours a day in a field growing cabbages.
That’s why the “distributive justice” arguments around UBI fall flat. It’s already used up to provide the retirement pension – in a manner that is unarguably just, and self sustaining.
Very deep, Neil. You’re right, of course.