Monday, 10 February 2014

on work, incentives, morality & capitalism

One prominent principle that seems to guide modern business today is the fundamental acceptance of greed. There's barely an argument that consumables (to a certain extent) enhance our utility, especially the food we like, a comfortable bed, books, clothing, music etc. And if we can get that stuff for cheaper, then that is surely a good thing. As this self-regarding materialism is a huge motivating force for humans, greed is also good for the businesses, who will compete against each other to provide better products and better services in order to extract money from consumers. Therefore state interference in the functioning of free markets is almost never justified. Or is it?

In a world of efficiency and increased automation, the number of jobs is decreasing rapidly. With a huge pool of surplus labour, tighter competition for lower skilled jobs means zero hour contracts, depressed wages and/or poorer working conditions. If you don't like it then there is someone to replace you; and you are not allowed to consider this morally wrong because after all - "that's just business" - a Machiavellian world where the owners of capital are allowed to divorce their actions from reality as if they were playing a game of monopoly. Although perhaps I don't blame them, they are just acting in their self-interest, just like when I stock up on junk food from Poundland despite their use of workfare instead of using a more expensive local shop which actually pays its employees.

One funny thing to observe is that this free "get out of morality" card is not always extended to the individual, although I always advise my friends to "look out for number one" when it comes to making career decisions. I am not allowed to go to a job interview and say, "meh, I just want the money", I am supposed to want to work as a shelf stacker or a waitress or whatever because it is "virtuous". People are expected to work in mind-numbing jobs that add little value to society as a whole because it is "the right thing to do" rather than act in their self-interest and live on benefits whilst gaining more skills/volunteering/looking for something they actually want to do. This is particularly fallacious as, (and I won't waste my time trying to say something Bertrand Russell said a lot better, that is that) work is not inherently virtuous.

So what are the answers? As a left libertarian I am sceptical of policy that can upset market mechanisms such as a minimum wage hike which may only reduce the number of jobs or cause rent-seeking behaviour (but it might not, I'm speculating). It seems to me that the main reason why companies such as Tesco, Poundland, Wetherspoons or whatever can treat their staff so atrociously is because of a shortage of jobs, they stick two fingers up at you and say "if you don't like it, fuck off and we'll pick one of the 2.23 million other jobseekers". I would therefore argue the simplest option is to introduce a basic income and make it a genuine choice whether you want to take a shitty job or not. Obviously with far less takers, it will be in their self interest for these companies to start offering more attractive wages. This would also ensure a steady supply of consumers to actually buy the products these companies are making, perhaps ensuring their survival in the long term.