The last few months, especially the last weeks, have been greatly enriched, in a manner of speaking, by a discussion of the work ethic. The American economy is to be reinvigorated; this requires that Americans everywhere recover their lost appetite for work. That loss, more than anything else, was back of the malaise that Jimmy Carter identified and Ronald Reagan and his cohorts are here to correct. Some of the new burst of energy that we are to witness in the months ahead will come from a relaxation of rules on the environment, job safety and by the Federal Trade Commission. But more is to come from people working harder, relaxing less at the public expense, getting paid in accordance with effort and retaining more of what they get. Altogether we are to see a revival of the great American work ethic.
This is not a subject on which I am at all disposed to be cynical or even skeptical. I am thought to be a very hard worker -- by some, excessively productive. Nothing is more pleasant than a penetrating examination of one's own viture. But it is no doubt fair to warn those who are now talking about a revival of the work ethic that they are involved with, perhaps, the trickiest concept in all social theory. I've given the matters much thought over the years; I still involve myself in it with a sense of courage and peril.
There is, first of all, the terrible class aspect of the work ethic. As an ethic, it is especially ethical for the poor and much less ethical for the rich. The very affluent in the United States were for long called the leisure class; this phrase give title to Thorstein Veblen's classic on the conspicious enjoyments of the gilded age. A thoughtful, diverse or aggresively bizarre use of leisure by those who can afford it is still a major mark of distinction and by far the most certain route into the columns of People magazine. The big beer companies possibly apart, no one similarly celebrates the leisure time tendencies of the working man. If, choosing relaxation however intelligent or constructive or therapy however needful, he does not show up of a Monday for work, he is ethically insupportable.
For some 25 years I have been coming to Gstaad, a small village in Switzerland, to write and otherwise occupy myself. Gstaad is, very possibly, the geographical nadir of the work ethic; the opulent and idle come here from all over the world to commune on how best to enjoy doing nothing. One day this winter a friend of many years told me that he thought the buggering off (his phrase) by the working classes was the greatest problem of our time. When I reminded him that he had done no work himself, at least since the early Truman administration, he responded with indignation. "My father worked hard for every cent I've got."
There are more problems. The average man is required to commit himself to the work ethic, regardless of his pay. Chrysler workers are not expected to work less hard because a ceiling of sorts has been set on their pay. No one supposes that a favorable wage settlement in a firm or industry will bring a big burst of energy and output. The work ethic requires these chaps to do their reasonable best regardless.
At the upper-income levels, in contrast, an increase in after-tax income is presumed to have an enormously favorable effect on effort. That is the expected result of the income tax cuts now being discussed; it is one of the pillars of supply-side economics as it is now called. The corollary is worth pondering. It is, inescapably, that there is now mass-mallingering in the higher executive brackets where the major benefits of Kemp-Roth will accrue. Were it otherwise, were something not withheld, personal income tax-reduction could not bring a major increase in effort.
For what it may be worth, I think this view of the exectuive work ehtic is an insult. American executives work about as hard as they can regardless of their after-tax pay. To suppose that they are holding back in the office, having long liquid lunches all the while awaiting tax reduction, should be a cause for real indignation. That they want the tax reduction is not in doubt; that is not because they need stimulation to greater effort but because, in an honest way, they would like the money.
Any serious reaffirmation of the work ethic also requires that those so motivated have a chance to work. The most damaging present manifestation of idleness is among the young, mostly black, in the central cities. But lectures to these on the merits of work must contend with the terrible fact that for most of them there are no jobs. And there is a more general problem. tIn recent years we have been relying on unemployment to act as the brake on inflation. This is how monetary policy works against rising incomes and prices. Accordingly, to combine lectures on the worth of work with a policy that makes working more difficult is an egragious exercise in inconsistency. It will be greater if, as is widely assumed, the new administration increases reliance on monetary policy and the attendent unemployment.
Finally, affecting any discussion of the work ethic is the terrible ambiguity of the word "work" itself. No other word in the language covers such diverse and irreconcilable circumstances. Work is the tedious routine of the man on the assembly line and the far from enchanting toil of the one who collects the trash and garbage. It is also the wonderfully self-rewarding occupation of the musician, painter, surgeon, lawyer, engineer, scientist or business executive. Work is what members of Congress and the president of the United States spend millions of dollars to be allowed to do. It is ridiculous that one work should be used to cover such diverse condition. I early mentioned my own instinct to efforet. Nothing could be more ambiguous. I first learned about work in Ontario while following a team across the fields, removing the winter accumulation of animal nutrients from the barnyard and helping restore the tile drains in the fields below the house. This was work -- and I deeply detested it. In contrast, teaching at Harvard, writing books or serving as an ambassador are enertainments for which one might reasonably be required to pay and some would. And here is another problem. Broadly speaking, those who do what is least properly called work get the most for doing it. And those who do what should really be called work get the least. (This was a thought that impressed itself upon Alfred Marshall, the great neoclassical, i.e. in modern terms, economist, going on a century ago.) In this springtime of the great conservative revolt, no one would wish to suggest that there are contradictions in the free enterprise system. But there are. There are.
But a partial resolution is at hand. That is for all who do not themselves work with their hands or with expenditure of physical effort to stop talking about the work ethic for those who do. The resulting silence would sidestep the fact that leisure is good for the affluent while work is good for the poor; that it is now policy to deny work to some millions of people; and that the word "work" has an egregiously different meaning as regards different types of effort. And the ending of such hortatory comment on the work ethic would also marvelously improve both our written and spoken literature.