On Labor Day, I celebrate work. I know I am a little off the original purpose of this holiday, as it was initiated at the end of the 19th century by labor unions to celebrate workers and the union movement. However, there isn’t anything to praise, much less to celebrate, about today’s collectivist labor unions that are blindly trying to cling to their ‘entitlements’, ignoring the reality of global division of labor and trade. Work, on the other hand, is a crucially important value. When productive, work gives us not only the material means of survival and enjoyment of life, but it is also the main source of self-esteem and provides a central purpose that makes the rest of our values achievable by helping prioritize them.
As Ayn Rand observed, purpose is one of the three cardinal human values (the others are reason and self-esteem):
The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics—the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life—are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.
Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work—pride is the result.
Purpose allows us to decide how much time, effort and resources to allocate to the pursuit of any of our other values. Without purpose, we cannot know how valuable anything is to us. How much time and resources should we spend on a pleasant hobby, say, or on learning new knowledge or a skill, or visiting with family and friends? Only by having a central purpose we can set the rest of our values in a hierarchy and allocate the time, effort and resources to achieve them.
In Rand’s argument, elaborated by Tara Smith in The Virtuous Egoist, only productive work, and not hobbies or social relationships, qualifies as the central purpose that helps prioritize the rest of our values. Productive work must be the central purpose, because our survival and flourishing requires material values continually, and acquiring them requires a major effort, even if our needs are modest. Working productively also requires that we cultivate qualities such as initiative, responsibility, perseverance, and ability to solve problems, that are helpful in achieving values in other areas of life. Hobbies and social relationships are important values and part of enjoying life, but they cannot substitute for productive work as providers of material values, self-esteem, and purpose.
One can be productive in any line of work, whether as the CEO of a company, a factory worker, or a mailroom clerk, provided that one does the job to the best one’s ability and tries to find ever better ways of doing it, to keep earning self-esteem. And once one outgrows a job, it is time to find something more challenging (thus vacating the job for someone who can learn in it).
But productive work can be hard to find. High unemployment in Canada and elsewhere today, particularly among young people, is a sad reality, thanks to government policies, regulations, and taxes. Despite Hillary Clinton’s claim, governments don’t create jobs.
Canadian federal and provincial governments’ costly (and ineffectual) carbon taxes and climate change action plans are chasing away private sector investment—and jobs—to other jurisdictions where property rights are better protected. The consequence: tens of thousands unemployed, highly trained oil and gas professionals and others in related industries are leaving and taking their talent elsewhere. See Claudia Cattaneo’s informative Financial post article, where she observes that while initially the job losses particularly in my home province Alberta were triggered by the drastic decline in the oil price, they are now caused by governments.
Justin Trudeau’s government’s infrastructure spending has failed to create jobs and merely ballooned the deficit; ditto in Alberta, where the new $15 an hour minimum wage is also contributing job losses. Again, particularly the young are the victims, as service industries are cutting back in anticipation of escalating costs.
Governments’ perennial favorite solution to unemployment is to tell everyone to start their own business—while at the same time making it extremely difficult through increased taxes, minimum wage laws, and suffocating regulations (which includes banning job-creating businesses, such as Uber, in many cities in Canada). Again, such a context is particularly overwhelming for the young and inexperienced. (Research shows that entrepreneurs most likely to succeed are in their early 40s, with an average of about 15 years of experience for working for someone else first).
Let’s celebrate the important value of work on Labor Day—and demand that our governments stop killing jobs through their taxes, climate action plans and regulations and let people invest, trade, and work freely.