Saturday, September 5, 2015

This Labor Day, Celebrate Intellectual Labor

The United States Department of Labor, speaking on The History of Labor Day, had this to say on its website:

Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

Really? There is no doubt about what is meant here. McGuire was referring to people who “work with their hands”. Is that what built America? Physical labor has existed since time immemorial. What changed in the last two hundred + years that suddenly endowed the American worker with the means to produce “all the grandeur we behold” out of raw, “rude” nature? (Note the word “all”).

The American worker has, indeed, contributed significantly to the American Economic juggernaut. But, it was not because of his labor, as such. It was because of his intellectual mastery of the theoretical and material tools of production provided to him, that vastly increased the value of his labor.

Physical labor, as such, has very little value. Slaves can perform it. So can mules pulling hand plows.

Consider my trade, plumbing. If my job is fundamentally physical labor, then any able-bodied person off of the street can wander onto any construction job site and robotically perform the task of installing plumbing systems. He can simply be told: “Run this pipe from here to there”, and it will get done. He has the same muscles and bones, nerves and guts that I have, after all.

That, of course, could never be the case. Performing my task (or any construction trade) requires reliance on previously acquired theoretical knowledge, on-the-job apprenticeship training, the mastery of the tools of the trade, and years of learning experience. This is to say nothing of the continuing education that new materials and technologies require of me.

My job is knowledge-based. All modern jobs are, to varying extent. How did that knowledge become imbued in my brain? - by my choice to expend the intellectual effort to acquire it. Even the muscular physical motions my job requires had to be learned by a conscious mental effort that led to the appropriate neurological connections.

Do you still think mere labor built this country?

The idea that a laborer “works with his hands” is only superficially true. What directs the motions of his hands? It is his focussed, reasoning mind – if he is a motivated worker who strives to be the best that he can be at his chosen occupation. If not, then that worker is an occupational drone, or an incompetent, or worse.

And that gets directly to the point. The celebration of “labor” as a holiday implies that mindless worker. Labor Day ignores the intellectual root of modern, productive labor. It ignores the intellectual labor that created the worker’s job to begin with, and the intellectual labor that the competent worker must expend to learn to perform his job.

Human knowledge is fleeting, but for the grace of those who came before us and chose to acquire it and pass it on. Knowledge can not be passed on from person to person or generation to generation innately. No one is born with previously discovered knowledge, but rather with a mind that is tabula rasa – a blank slate. To celebrate “all the grandeur we behold”, it is to the discoverer and the acquirers of knowledge that we must pay initial gratitude to. The worker, by learning the skills he needs to perform his job, plays his role in keeping that knowledge train going.

This does not, however, mean that labor is inconsequential. Theoretical knowledge in and of itself has little value, unless and until it is placed into the service of man’s living requirements. The process of turning knowledge into the material values humans need to live and to flourish is dependent upon the contributions of many economic players. The value of each player’s contribution to this productive process varies and is dependent upon many factors. But all through that process – from the discoverer of new knowledge to the final material product put together by the worker – the value added represents, at root, the application of the mind.

“[W]hen you live in a rational society, where men are free to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you.

“When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think…” (Page 1064)

Labor Day, according to the DOL, was created in 1882. That was the heyday of Karl Marx’s rise to prominence among the American intellectual elite. Marx was the theoretician of “Dialectical Materialism”, the idea that man’s consciousness – his spirit, his intellect, ability, and logic – plays at best a minimal role in the production process. Human beings, according to Marx, are conditioned by the physical world around them, including the means of production like tools and factories, which just happened into existence. Our modern, complex, and advanced industrial society is the product of mindless, conditioned muscular movements, according to Marx (and others). It is owing to the Marxist theory of the mind – i.e., spiritual values - as of little consequence that gave rise to the myth that labor and those that perform it are the primary engines of economic progress.

Labor Day, whether one knows or wants to admit it or not, is an outgrowth of Marxism and the “labor theory of economic value” that so enamored late 19th century American intellectuals.

The DOL concludes its Labor Day salute as follows:

"It is appropriate … that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker."

Not quite. Instead, we should pay tribute to the creator of the American worker.

This Labor Day, we should celebrate not workers, but those who made our jobs and prosperity possible. This country was not built by physical labor. It was built by intellectual labor applied to physical labor under a system of individual rights that allowed everyone the freedom to think and, above all, to act on his thinking. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for our labor, we “workers” should reflect on the mental efforts that we had to expend in order to acquire the previously discovered knowledge that makes it possible to perform our jobs. We should stop selling ourselves short. Labor Day is an insult to the American Worker.

More importantly, we should give silent thanks to all of those intellectual “laborers” who came before us – the discoverers, the inventors, the investors, the businessmen - who made our well-paying jobs possible.

Instead of Labor Day, we should celebrate Intellectual Labor Day.

Or, better yet, we should celebrate Capitalism – the social system of the United States of America. Capitalism unleashed the individual human mind. It is Capitalism that made it possible for the American worker to have acquired the means to rise to middle class status and prosper. It is Capitalism’s liberated human mind that from rude nature has delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.

Capitalism is what I will be quietly rejoicing as I enjoy my long weekend.

Happy Labor Day!!

Related Reading:

Atlas Shrugged—Ayn Rand

Did Unions Create the Middle Class?

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