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  • Writer's pictureOren Levin-Waldman

What does it Mean to talk about Workers’ Freedom in Today’s Global Economy?

As the globalization of the economy continues to push down wages, we are confronted with a question: what does it mean to talk about workers who are truly free? In times of aristocracies, individuals who did not have to work for a living were considered to be free. At the time of the nation’s founding, early republican thought maintained that there was honor in working and those who worked and were able to be independent, were the ones who were free.

For Thomas Jefferson, only a society comprised of independent yeomen farmers could be free. The ideal, then, was to have an agrarian society where individuals owned and worked their own land. They would be free because they would not be dependent on others. To work for somebody else was to be unfree. As the nation industrialized and workers were forced into factories and were forced to work, the question became could these workers ever be considered free?

It was during the industrial revolution that unions sought to give workers dignity in their work by pushing for liveable wages. As the nation developed a welfare state in which a distinction was made between workers and those dependent on government largess in the form of public assistance, we began to define workers, even those poorly paid, as the ones who were free.

At the same time, with workers' wages stagnating and increasingly more workers, especially low-skilled workers, being forced to take government support because their wages are insufficient to support themselves and their families, can we really call these workers free? They are literally dependent on both their poor paying employers and government for subsistence. This is clearly contrary to both the Jeffersonian and republican ideals of what it means to be free.

In his recent book, The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization are Destroying the Idea of America, Victor Davis Hanson argues that the working class has essentially been redefined as the new peasantry. These peasants, as they are often viewed by the elites, are workers whose wages are so low that they can no longer afford to purchase homes and build savings. With the erosion of the middle class, we now have a more indebted middle class and a less independent underclass.

More than two decades ago when the nation passed welfare reform in what was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), one of the arguments might have been made that welfare recipients were being transitioned to work so that they could be self-sufficient. In fact, through a policy of tough love, i.e, forcing recipients to work even for temporary assistance, they would be forced to be self-sufficient.

This reflected in part the old Protestant Work ethic, which has underpinned centuries of welfare policy in the U.S. and around the world, that true independence was possible through self-sufficiency, and one could only be self-sufficient if one worked. Work was such an important value that policy traditionally distinguished the worthy poor from the unworthy poor. The worthy poor were poor through no fault of their own — widows, the elderly, the disabled, and dependent children — and were to be given charity.

The unworthy poor — able bodied individuals — were to be treated harshly. Under the old English Poor Laws during Elizabethan times, beggars were to be subject to harsh punishment such as public floggings, and even death for multiple offenses. Later came the poor houses where the destitute could go to work in exchange for sustenance. The idea of a public dole before the 1930s was simply unheard of. Poverty was considered to be a moral defect, and the unworthy poor were also not considered to be worthy of independence.

Still, the question remains: if individuals need to work for their sustenance, and their earnings are insufficient to put them into the middle class, then how can we call them free? It is even questionable whether those workers who are part of the middle class but are living paycheck to paycheck are free themselves. The fact remains that they are still dependent on others.

Workers, after all, are needs traders in that they need to work in order to eat. Employers, especially those with huge reserves, are wants traders in that they can afford to wait things out, including strikes, until they get the prices they want. This, of course, includes workers working for the wages, and oftentimes low wages, that the wants trading employers are willing to pay.

In a post-industrial economy whereby employment is the pathway to independence of any type, then freedom requires that individuals will be paid wages that enable them to realize that independence. For too long the United States has pursued a low-road strategy based on low labor costs and minimal benefits. This has also entailed not making any significant investments into human capital.

Labor, after all, has been viewed as nothing more than a commodity, a commodity which could be interchanged with others. When labor is considered a commodity, workers are no longer human beings with needs and wants. Rather they are inanimate objects that can be easily discarded. If workers aren’t people, then it is foolhardy to talk about their being free, let alone any aspirations they may have to living free and meaningful lives.

Workers are simply interchangeable parts. They can easily be discarded which is made all that much easier in a low-road economy. Were serious investment made into their human capital, then it would be much more costly, perhaps prohibitively so, to discard them. The reality that we are confronted with is that workers cannot be truly free if there is no dignity in their labor, and there can be no dignity in their labor if their wages are so low that they have to make up the difference through government support.

What, then, would a dignified wage look like? Perhaps enough that they can develop some savings and not have to live paycheck to paycheck. Or at least not be only one paycheck away from poverty. Perhaps real freedom would exist for workers if through work they earned enough that they did not feel compelled to accept the first lousy offer made just so they could eat. That is, if workers too could to some degree be wants traders, they would then be considered truly free.

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