Thursday night on Fox News, Laura Ingraham straightforwardly expressed the key challenge for capitalism: How can bosses get people to do awful, degrading jobs for little pay in order to make other people rich?
“The government is literally putting anvils, in many ways, on people’s shoulders, either through the mandates, regulations, and now through free money,” Ingraham said to her guest, reality TV host Jon Taffer. “If we are not causing people to be hungry to work, then we’re providing them with all the meals they need sitting at home,” Taffer agreed. “These benefits make absolutely no sense to us.”
Capitalism has been grappling with this problem for hundreds of years, but as history and Ingraham show, the answer now is the same as it’s always been: The laboring classes must be forced into circumstances in which they must work or starve.
Laura Ingraham: "What if we just cut off the unemployment? Hunger is a pretty powerful thing."
Bar Rescue guy: "They only feed a military dog at night, because a hungry dog is an obedient dog. Well, if we are not causing people to be hungry to work…" pic.twitter.com/Pw5C6n6l02
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) August 13, 2021
Ingraham’s cri de cœur has been sounded innumerable times over the past few centuries. After the passage of the U.K.’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, British officials openly debated what they were going to do once the people they’d enslaved were free to just leave the plantations. One key issue, particularly in the West Indies, was that there was a great deal of public land that could be claimed and farmed by anyone.
“Where there is land enough to yield an abundant subsistence to the whole population in return for slight labour,” wrote Lord Glenelg, the U.K. secretary of state for war and the colonies, “they will probably have no sufficient inducement to prefer the more toilsome existence of a regular labourer.”
The solution was obvious: Put a high price on the public land so the laboring population didn’t have the option to support themselves on it. This worked, and the British were largely able to convert their former slaves into their new employees.
While Ingraham is wrong that enhanced unemployment benefits are preventing Americans from returning to work, she and her British antecedents are right about the general dynamic. Anyone who’s ever had a bad job — not just, say, cutting sugar cane, but also working the cash register at Burger King or selling shoes at JCPenney — knows that human beings will generally avoid this kind of work if they can get away with it.
It is also true that for an economy to function, there is a ton of work that has to be done. But what’s needed to make this happen depends on what you believe about human nature. Conservatives think people are fundamentally greedy and lazy, and so they must be forced to work by the lash of hunger. Ingraham once dated Larry Summers, treasury secretary during the Clinton administration and a director of the National Economic Council for President Barack Obama, who recently explained that it would be bad to allow people to work less because they’ll just use it to drink beer and watch TV. They clearly see humans the same way.
By contrast, progressives believe that people, under the right circumstances, are fundamentally creative and reasonable and will do the work with the correct incentives.
Crucially, these incentives aren’t just about money and the length of the work week. It’s true that capitalism’s bad jobs tend to require long hours and are underpaid. But what makes bad jobs bad is as much or more the lack of control that employees have over working conditions and hence their lives in general.
“Maverick!: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace,” a book by Brazilian businessperson Ricardo Semler, describes how Semler transformed an industrial corporation he inherited from his father that was conventionally hierarchal into one that is largely democratically run. One key change is that employees choose their own salaries, and everyone’s salary is public. This would seem outlandish to American businesses — obviously, given the opportunity, workers will go nuts and bankrupt the company! — but the management of Semler’s corporation found that employees, with real control over their working lives and a genuine desire for the whole enterprise to succeed, tended to underpay themselves. Often the company had to encourage employees to pay themselves more.
Whether companies structured like Semler’s could work everywhere is unknown, since capitalism and capitalists generally hate the prospect of surrendering control. But there’s no reason for everyone else to think that work must be about a small number of people giving orders and the rest of us obeying them. For that reason, we should all be grateful to Laura Ingraham for making so clear the perspective of the employing class. Anything that gives us the ability to subsist without jobs, as they’re currently constituted, gives us leverage against our bosses. We should use it to think creatively about how work could be transformed.