Last December, with a push from President-elect Donald Trump, Carrier Corporation decided to retain around eight hundred jobs in Indiana that it had slated to shift to Mexico. Commentators from George Will to James Pethokoukis and the Wall Street Journal criticized the episode as a violation of market principles. Larry Summers called it an ominous shift from “rule of law capitalism” to “ad hoc deal capitalism.”
These critics claim that carrot-and-stick interventions of the state into markets have economic costs. Free markets promote efficient use of capital, and when politicians intervene, we get higher consumer prices. Companies see that politics and regulation affect the bottom line, and this motivates them to spend time and money on political activity, creating a vicious circle as companies compete for influence in Washington rather than competing to make better products more efficiently. Worse yet, today’s protectionism may lead to tomorrow’s bankruptcy.
The critics of Trump’s strong-arming of Carrier treat the unfortunate market-distorting results of protectionism as indisputable facts, which they likely are. But they also seem to assume that market efficiency is the final end or purpose of a nation’s economy, which it certainly is not.
There is another way of looking at the issue. What if the primary importance of keeping jobs in the U.S. concerns human flourishing rather than economic efficiency? By forgoing cheaper labor in Mexico, the price of Carrier goods might rise a bit and corporate profits slip slightly. But the payoff is that eight hundred people in Indianapolis will continue to work. And what if it’s the work itself, not effects on capital, consumer prices, or middle-class wages, that matters most, ultimately even for economics?
Most of us adopt the false view that the most important feature of having a job is the income it provides. In a modern economy that runs on the exchange of money rather than clan loyalties, this is of course important. But a job does more than secure income. It provides an opportunity to work, and work more than money fosters human happiness and growth.
Hegel hinted at this when he recognized the slave, not the master, as the instrument of History, because the slave works upon nature and molds it to human consciousness. In his analysis, all the master does is consume the products the slave has tendered, and thus never achieves genuine self-consciousness. The master has an economic rent, as it were, but he does not apply himself to the fundamental human task of shaping the world through his labor.
In contemporary understanding, workers and owners alike drive economic activity. Investors, directors, executives, and managers—people some might identify as masters—assess risk, determine strategy, spur innovation, organize activity, and participate in the complex processes of capital formation and deployment. As we know, these activities shape our world in significant ways, as critics of capitalism often point out. Hegel’s point nevertheless holds. The investment of the person into productive projects is of transcendent, transformative importance, not just for the material progress of society, but most of all for the full realization of human potential.
In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II writes, “The Church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth.” It is how man follows the decree in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it.” At the most fundamental level of our being, we are ordered toward productive activity.
People have jobs that ensure income. We rightly take up the legitimate question of whether our present economic structures provide a living wage for ordinary people. But jobs mean far more than income. We are created to do work, and in the doing, we become, more and more, who we are.
At issue in the Carrier episode and other cases of factory relocation is not just economic efficiency—or inefficiencies that might have been caused by Trump’s intervention. The deeper question is whether or not a town, city, state, or country provides us with adequate opportunities to live full lives. We must have work in order to grow, learn, and mature. As John Paul II puts it, “As a person, man is therefore the subject at work.” The tasks before us count more than the income a job provides. “As a person he works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.”
Work gives us the means to develop more fully. Through work, we become cocreators, sharers in a divine enterprise through our productive activity. We participate in a universal phenomenon of subjective growth as a person, becoming, along the way, professionals, journeymen, craftsmen, and masters. The experience of Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront is not typical. Most people can be somebody. They have something through which to become more fully themselves—work. In a well-ordered society, we have things to do that matter. We’re not condemned to Terry Malloy’s income-generating but dead-end job as a boxer ordered to take a dive, or to his life as a crony provided a sinecure on the docks.
It’s for this reason that ideas such as a guaranteed basic income will not solve the social and cultural problems caused by globalization and technological innovation. Those without work suffer more than a loss of income. Their lives become less meaningful without the opportunity to participate in self-shaping and world-shaping labor. We could use progressive strategies of redistribution to make everyone in America a comfortable consumer and still face widespread personal, working-class dissatisfaction if we don’t address the basic human need for work, a need more fundamental than the desire to possess twenty-first-century consumer goods. Work makes us more fully human, something an income can’t do.
Through work, people acquire virtues, both technical skills, or Aristotelian techne, and moral virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Of course, in the workplace, poor conditions, bad management, and self-defeating habits and vices threaten this virtuous dynamic. But without work, people are deprived of the opportunity to grow and develop as persons involved in projects. Work is social and corresponds to personal needs that can only be met through interaction with others: to belong, contribute, cocreate, and share. Work provides opportunities to learn from, and teach, others. It is the basic human activity that animates society.
Ensuring social and economic conditions that encourage and sustain work is a primary aim for America. Our labor can be unpaid, paid, or highly paid. Remuneration is not the salient issue. Viewed from the perspective of human development—the most important perspective—unpaid work in the home or with children is as important for a flourishing society as investment banking at Goldman Sachs, perhaps more so. Working at McDonald’s has no less dignity than working at a law firm.
Recent data indicate that some 145 million Americans are working for pay, 123 million in the private sector and 22 million in government. Roughly 75 million Americans are under seventeen years of age and presumably at home or in school, which is an important form of work. That leaves 100 million out of 320 million Americans unaccounted for. Where are they working, growing, becoming? Some are working in the home, raising children and sustaining domestic life. Others volunteer and labor without asking for pay. But far too many Americans are either idle or underemployed. They suffer more than economic want; they lack opportunities for self-development and are deprived of the nobility of work.
I hope the Carrier episode heralds new thinking about workers and work. We need to keep in mind the deepest purpose of an economy, which is human fulfillment in work, here and now, not in the future and in the aggregate. By all means, give careful thought to economic principles that encourage economic growth over the long term. But let’s not forget that our fellow citizens need work now. They need opportunities in which to grow and define themselves as productive participants in a social project.
Only the child, the fool, and the holy man live today as if tomorrow will take care of itself. On the other hand, only the skeptic, the miser, and the materialist believe that reality consists only of what we can touch and number. The model we choose to drive economic initiative is crucial. Trump’s detractors may well have the better of that argument as far as economistic thought goes. Given the stunning turn of events last November, however, we need to suspend our economic faiths for a time to reorient our thinking about the economy around deeper truths regarding the human person and the role of work.
Max Torres is Centesimus Annus Della Ratta Family Endowed Professor at Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business and Economics.