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The Myth That People Work Harder Under Capitalism

The Myth That People Work Harder Under Capitalism thumbnail

In the not so distant past, people didn’t work hard, but not for the reasons the ahistorical or socialists think. There were no happy peasants laboring a few hours in the fields and spending the rest of the day in leisure. They were starving and had no energy to work hard. Far from an idyllic life, watching one’s children suffer from malnutrition and being too weak to help must have been a hellish experience.

In his book The Great Escape, Nobel laureate in economics Angus Deaton explains the “nutritional trap” Britain’s population once experienced:

The population of Britain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries consumed fewer calories than they needed for children to grow to their full potential, and for adults to maintain healthy bodily functioning and to do productive and remunerative manual labor. People were very skinny and very short, perhaps as short as at any previous (or subsequent) time.

Deaton explains how the lack of nutrition affected the body. Workers centuries ago were not strapping; a stunted body offered the best hope for survival:

Throughout history, people adapted to a lack of calories by not growing too big or too tall. Not only is stunting a consequence of not having enough to eat, especially in childhood, but smaller bodies require fewer calories for basic maintenance, and they make it possible to work with less food than would be needed by a bigger person. A six-foot-tall worker weighing 200 pounds would have survived about as well in the eighteenth century as a man on the moon without a spacesuit; on average there simply was not enough food to support a population of people of today’s physical dimensions.

The average 18th-century Englishman got fewer calories than the average individual living today in sub-Saharan Africa. Because they couldn’t eat, these poor Englishmen worked little. Deaton writes:

The small workers of the eighteenth century were effectively locked into a nutritional trap; they could not earn much because they were so physically weak, and they could not eat because, without work, they did not have the money to buy food.

Johan Norberg in his book Progress reports the research findings of economic historian and Nobel laureate Robert Fogel:

Two-hundred years ago some twenty percent of the inhabitants of England and France could not work at all. At most they had enough energy for a few hours of slow walking per day, which condemned most of them to a life of begging.

And then, everything began to change. Deaton explains:

With the beginnings of the agricultural revolution, the trap began to fall apart. Per capita incomes began to grow and, perhaps for the first time in history, there was the possibility of steadily improving nutrition. Better nutrition enabled people to grow bigger and stronger, which further enabled productivity to increase, setting up a positive synergy between improvements in incomes and improvements in health, each feeding off the other.

By the end of my teaching career, ahistorical undergraduate students were becoming disturbingly common. They did not know the hellish poverty the vast majority of humanity had endured for millennia. They didn’t believe the past could have been as brutal as writers such as Matt Ridley described in his book The Rational Optimist. Even worse, exposed to hard evidence, some students refuse to question their positions.

Individuals, ignorant of economics and history, believe today’s cornucopia always has been.

Camille Paglia explains that because “Everything is so easy now, [undergrads] have a sense that this is the way life has always been.” Paglia continues, “Because they’ve never been exposed to history, they have no idea that these are recent attainments that come from a very specific economic system.”

Capitalism, she continues, has “produced this cornucopia around us. But the young seem to believe in having the government run everything.”

Individuals, ignorant of economics and history, believe today’s cornucopia always has been. It is understandable why they might be enamored with their favorite democratic socialist. Believing they will get to keep their cornucopia, they dream of obtaining even more as a socialist government passes seized wealth on to them. Perhaps also they dream of the world, promised by socialists, where they work less.

The democratic socialist Jacobin magazine argues we work too many hours and blames capitalism for this “problem.” They wonder, “how would we organize time differently if we were free from the demands of capitalism?” Writing in the Jacobin, Matt Bruening calls for forced reductions in the hours Americans work:

There is a good case for redistributing the work in the US a bit more broadly. The best way to do that would be to decrease the amount of hours people currently employed have to work by providing more holidays, vacation, paid leave, and sick leave, and then increasing the ability of others to work by providing social care for children, the elderly, and the disabled and by implementing active labor market policies.

Ann Jones, writing in Salon, claims “American capitalism has failed us,” in part because we are “overworked.” Jones was a correspondent in Afghanistan. Returning to America, she imagined she saw similarities between Afghanistan and America: “It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome.”

Jones longs for what she sees as a Scandinavian utopia, where they work “at producing things for the use of everyone—not the profit of a few.” What Jones refuses to understand is that Scandinavians say theirs is a capitalist economy.

Contrary to mythology, 19th-century factory jobs were great jobs; today’s jobs are even better. Writing in Reason, Arthur M. Diamond Jr. shares the testimony of an eight-year-old English girl who worked 14 hours a day on a farm: “It was like heaven to me when I was taken to the town of Leeds and put to work in a cotton factory.”

The move from the farm to a better life in the factory was true in America, too. In my FEE essay “Stephen Hawking’s Final Warning: Why His Worries Were Unwarranted,” I tell the story of Lucy Larcom, a 19th-century American poet who, at age 11, out of economic necessity, worked in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts:

In Lucy’s book, A New England Girlhood, she writes of her experience at the mill. In the mill, she encountered other poets, singers, and writers who, like her, were hungry for education and eagerly attended the Lyceum lectures of the day.

She couldn’t have imagined today’s America—a much higher standard of living with fewer mill workers and more people pursuing their dreams. Yet, she was keenly aware that her world was already changing. “Things that looked miraculous” to her parents were commonplace to her.

“Our attitude—the attitude of the time,” wrote Larcom, “was that of children climbing their dooryard fence, to watch an approaching show, and to conjecture what more remarkable spectacle could be following behind.”

“All was expectancy.” Larcom added, “Changes were coming. Things were going to happen, nobody could guess what.”

If you believe such testimony is merely anecdotal, Diamond relates that

Charles Dickens, famous for defending the poor in his bestselling novels of the mid-1800s, praised the clean, comfortable working conditions of former farm girls in a Boston textile factory.

Farm work was more exhausting and more dangerous. Those, like Lucy Larcom, seized the opportunity of a better life.

Diamond observes that entrepreneurial capitalism “has a long history of creating new, better jobs and also of nudging old jobs toward the challenging, meaningful peak of [Maslow’s] hierarchy of needs.” Diamond gives an excellent 19th-century example:

An early specific example of innovative dynamism improving jobs happened when kerosene replaced whale sperm oil for high-quality lighting. Collection of sperm oil required the collectors to spend days scraping spermaceti from the brain cavity of the decomposing carcass of a huge whale. Work in oil fields was far from perfect, but it was better than work in decomposing brain cavities.

Similarly, building and repairing refrigerators is better and higher-paying work than was the dangerous work of harvesting ice in brutal temperatures.

If progress continues, those living in the future, using the yardstick of their own time, might write of today’s “deplorable” working conditions and working hours. Such is progress. Capitalism has been the great engine of unimagined prosperity and unimagined improvements in worker conditions.


72 Comments on "The Myth That People Work Harder Under Capitalism"

  1. More Hypocrite Davy Childish ID Theft on Tue, 22nd Oct 2019 10:55 pm 

    JuanP on Tue, 22nd Oct 2019 6:48 pm

    Richard Guenette on Tue, 22nd Oct 2019 6:53 pm

    Richard Guenette on Tue, 22nd Oct 2019 7:10 pm

  2. Antius on Tue, 22nd Oct 2019 10:57 pm 

    Having been largely absent from this board for months until last week, I see that the Davy freak show continues to account for most of the comments. The moron talks a lot but says virtually nothing.

  3. Davy on Tue, 22nd Oct 2019 11:00 pm 

    Fuck you antius. I have offered the freak JuanP a deal. Ignore me I will ignore him. You in fact support him by attacking me. I am the one being trolled daily with ID theft and hostile socks. If the day starts out and I am not attacked then I am here less and do not attack. So fuck you and your whining and support of this nasty activity. You are behaving just how JuanP wants people to. He wants you to attack me and give him cover. Go whine about white death on an extremist right wing site where you belong. Take Cloggo with you. The both of you are the embodiment of disgustingness of white decline. I am here to stay and will not be censored by a lunatic.

    Can’t you dumbasses see that I am the victim. Why do so many posters hate my guts when in fact I am a charming, polite, civil, moderate, gentleman-victim?

  4. Davy on Tue, 22nd Oct 2019 11:04 pm 

    I am Davy.

    I am a Turd.

    Therefore, I am DavyTurd Blossom.

  5. Davy on Tue, 22nd Oct 2019 11:48 pm 

    It makes me feel real upset knowing how much control juanpee has over everybody and everything. Specially when I have no control at all.

    I think I’m gonna have to cry my widdle self to sleep again tonight.


  6. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 23rd Oct 2019 12:23 am 

    Davy is a liberal. and Trump is Der Fuhrer.
    Soon will come all the trains, taking away
    all the liberals in box cars, to Auschwitz for
    the final solution.
    And that serves him fair and square, after
    he has made such a phucking mess of this
    once proud char board.

    Where is the likes of Rockman?
    Gone for years, tired of Davy,
    just like all of us.

    Praise Lord Jesus for Almighty Donald
    Trump for it is He who has The Final
    Solution for all the liberals like Davy.

  7. joe on Wed, 23rd Oct 2019 12:49 am 

    progress is a dual wielded blade. it works best when it is wisely used on both sides. if you use one side too much, you will blunt its edge and you will be forced to rely on the other.
    sadly its too late for crapitalism because the neoliberals have put us through several small recessions and a major collapse, all since they took over both sides of politics in the 1990s post soviet ‘new world order’

  8. Cloggie on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 3:00 am 

    GDP ranking (IMF, PPP)

    1. China – 27T
    2. EU – 23T
    3. USA – 21T

    7. Russia – 4T

    GDP ranking (CIA, PPP)

    1. China – 23T
    2. EU – 21T
    3. USA – 19T

    7. Russia – 4T

    Swapping Britain for Russia would create two huge Eurasian economic entities that keep each other in the balance and are tied together via the New Silk Road.

    The UK moving over to the US would create yet another behemoth of equal size to PBM and China.

    It should be noted that ca. 35% of US GDP consists of freeloading dollar reserve currency. If PBM and China would cooperate and eliminate the dollar from Eurasia, the US-led Anglo block would fall back considerably.

  9. Cloggie on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 3:21 am 

    US deficit highest in 7 years: 984 billion $ (5%).

    Deficit at ca. 105% GDP.
    One important reason: tax-reductions for the rich.

    Europe in contrast has declining deficits:

    “In the EU-28, the government debt-to-GDP ratio declined from 82.1 % at the end of 2017 to 80.4 % at the end of 2018.”

    -1.7% in one year.

    How about the US slashing “defense” budgets to normal levels, like with 50%. The empire is over anyway. For instance sell 5 carriers as scrap metal to Europe so we can make wind turbines out of it at low energy cost. Good for our common environment.

  10. Davy on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 4:35 am 

    cloggo always pulls out the ppt which is fine for countries other than the US. When you include the US nominal GDP in dollars is needed since the world runs on dollars.

    GDP Ranked by Country 2019 – World Population Review

    United States (GDP: 21.41 trillion)
    China (GDP: 15.54 trillion)
    Japan (GDP: 5.36 trillion)
    Germany (GDP: 4.42 trillion)
    India (GDP: 3.16 trillion)
    France (GDP: 3.06 trillion)
    United Kingdom (GDP: 3.02 trillion)
    Italy (GDP: 2.26 trillion)

  11. Davy on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 4:43 am 

    “Primed to detonate” surplus energy economics graph

    “THE “WHAT?” AND “WHERE?” OF GLOBAL RISK After more than a decade of worsening economic and financial folly, it can come as no surprise that we’re living with extraordinarily elevated levels of risk. But what form does that risk take, and where is it most acute? According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – the riskiest countries on the planet are Ireland, France, the Netherlands, China, Canada and the United Kingdom. The risks vary between economies. Some simply have debts which are excessive. Some have become dangerously addicted to continuing infusions of cheap credit. Some have financial systems vastly out of proportion to the host economy. Some have infuriated the general public to the point where a repetition of the 2008 “rescue” would inflame huge anger. Many have combinations of all four sorts of risk. Here’s the “top six” from the SEEDS Risk Matrix. Of course, the global risk represented by each country depends on proportionate size, so China (ranked #4 in the Matrix) is far more of a threat to the world economy and financial system than Ireland, the riskiest individual economy. It’s noteworthy, though, that the three highest-risk countries are all members of the Euro Area. It’s also noteworthy that, amongst the emerging market (EM) economies, only China and South Korea (ranked #9) make the top ten.”

  12. Cloggie on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 6:30 am 

    “nominal GDP in dollars is needed since the world runs on dollars.”

    Wrong. The world doesn’t run on dollars. International trade runs on dollars, and ever less so.

    Take the UK. They sell roughly 0.6 trillion and buy likewise abroad. Their GDP is 2.6 trillion. In other words, 2.0 trillion is national, more than three times international trade. And Britain is a VERY open, international economy.

    So international trade is only a fraction of national trade. Apart from an occasional iPhone or 2nd hand car, most of may payments are Dutch/EU. And then PPP is what really counts, not nominal.

  13. Cloggie on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 6:41 am 

    “Primed to detonate”

    Yet another amateur who doesn’t understand the difference between debt and mortgage.

  14. Davy on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 7:06 am 

    “Wrong. The world doesn’t run on dollars. International trade runs on dollars, and ever less so.”

    Until you accept reality with balance and objectivity you will cherry pick any numbers or ideas that support your narrow minded cheerleading sports fan agenda. You are a fraud because of this. I did not dismiss PPT what I said is nominal GDP has its place in the mix too. This is an objective and balanced approach as opposed to extremist.

  15. Davy on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 7:09 am 

    “Yet another amateur who doesn’t understand the difference between debt and mortgage.”

    You are the one that sounds amateur with your failure to dig deeper into the reality of debt and financial overshoot. You didn’t like that unfaltering look at little Holland. LOL. cloggo you are a fraud and your 20/7 cherry picking facts in a cheerleading exercise exposes your fraudulence.

  16. Cloggie on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 7:30 am 

    “This is an objective and balanced approach as opposed to extremist.”

    Like every ideologue you hate facts.

    “You didn’t like that unfaltering look at little Holland. LOL.”

    Give me a professional source that says that Holland is “faltering”, not this Tim Morgan nobody.

    As per usual you ignore my arguments as you prepare to launch your favorite smear-word “fraud”.

    These “debt” numbers this Tim Morgan bloke operates with include mortgage. The average mortgage in the Netherlands is indeed high in international comparison. But if you look at Dutch mortgage/house value, you arrive at a very acceptable and conservative 41%.

    As I have explained many times before, the Dutch mortgage system is truly “exceptional” in international context, because you can deduct from taxes all interest payments made on the mortgage, which greatly increases the acceptable height of the mortgage that can be responsibly carried.

    But empire dave is so keen to keep his flawed collapsenik world view alive, he is eagerly looking for signs he was right all along.

    Empire dave is googling “collapse” around the clock.

  17. Davy on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 7:38 am 

    “Financial Fragmentation Of The Eurozone In Pictures” money mavin

    “Eurozone fragmentation is massive. Target2 imbalances are just part of the picture…Diverging Patterns of the Flows of Funds Between the Center and the Periphery of the Euro Area. Since the start of the financial crisis, funds have had a tendency to migrate from peripheral countries to center countries. These financial flows have been caused by various factors, including a general distrust of the banking systems of peripheral countries or the famous redenomination risk. In creditor countries, there is also a fear that, in the case of a euro breakup, the central banks of the leaving countries would default on the Target 2 liabilities that are denominated in euros. As a consequence the ECB would incur huge losses that would be imputed to the remaining national central banks. The president of the ECB has indeed officially stated that “If a country were to leave the Eurosystem, its national central bank’s claims on or liabilities to the ECB would need to be settled in full”. But the national central banks of leaving countries would surely lack the necessary reserves in euros to settle their liabilities to the ECB. There is a debate about the impact of the resulting losses on the functioning of the NCBs of the Eurosystem.”

  18. Davy on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 7:41 am 

    “Can Europe Be Saved From Demographic Doom?” american conservative

    “Europe’s birthrate is among the lowest in the world. At 1.59 per year, the European Union’s current births are too low to sustain its survival. And while native birthrates have declined, Europe’s overall population continues to grow due to mass immigration. For the younger generation in Europe, employment is either non-existent or so poorly paid that it doesn’t allow them the means to support themselves, let alone a prospective family. But Europe’s declining birthrate is by no means just a result of work precariousness—there’s a much deeper cause. A 27-year-old conservative thought-leader in Italy and Europe, Francesco Giubilei, publisher of Future Nation magazine, says this crisis stems mainly from cultural and social factors. Today’s youth is taught by its parents, of the anti-traditionalist ’68er generation, that there is little intrinsic value in building a family. The consequence has been a generation that’s planning its lives without any aspirations to have children. Additionally, European youth are moving from rural areas to large cities in search of study and job opportunities. This has contributed to them leading atomized lives detached from community. Today’s youth feels that it doesn’t belong anywhere, and so why should they leave anything behind for a future generation? “There is a total lack of perspective in my generation’s way of approaching life. They don’t see a future for themselves beyond the present moment,” Giubilei said. “Furthermore, there’s the added factor of our provincial, rural areas disappearing into our cities. Our youth moves to study or to build work opportunities in a city, but the family isn’t factored into this equation. Many of them end up living individualistic lives with no proper direction beyond their careers.”

  19. Cloggie on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 8:26 am 

    US white reproduction rate is hardly better: 1.66

    Our overall demographics are not nearly as bad as in the US. In fact Europe (PBM) is still whiter than America ever has been.

    But yes, white birth rates need to get up. Salvini (2 kids) has begun his campaign:

    “In Italy’s city of love, global far-right groups join forces under a ‘pro-family’ umbrella”

    Of course mocked at by Cosher New Network, the only serious enemy Europeans world-wide have. But we almost got rid of them.

  20. Davy on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 8:44 am 

    cloggo, Europe should be proud of its low birth rate and expanding on the impacts in a proactive positive way. It is all too apparent that the scaling of the modern human is our biggest challenge. I also agree a solid wall against uncontrolled migrations of peoples who cannot be integrated must be seen to. This is both for the respect of the local and the migrant.

  21. JuanP ID theft on Sat, 26th Oct 2019 12:24 pm 

    Oops, sorry cloggo. Wrong ID again. I am JuanP not Davy.

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