Effort and reward

Mike Rowe, who is probably getting a bit weary of being identified as the former host of “Dirty Jobs,” is a tireless campaigner for the value of blue-collar employment and hard work.  He had an interesting conversation with Glenn Beck about effort and reward, which ties into our current debate about employment and the minimum wage:


The expectation of reward for effort is one of the most elementary and powerful forces in human behavior.  If you work hard, if you do everything right, you should get what you wanted.  This is one reason President Obama protects policies that manifestly screw people – treating them unfairly on purpose, penalizing people who have committed no offense – by loudly proclaiming his desire to help “those who work hard and play by the rules.”  For many of us, this is the distilled essence of justice, its very definition.  All injustice is a violation of the principle that people who work hard and play by the rules should get ahead in life.  A thief, for example, is breaking the rules to steal what someone else earned by working hard.

But this expectation is also the genesis of entitlement, which easily sours into a destructive force that brings us all manner of officially-sanctioned injustice.  The belief that people should get what they “deserve” becomes infantile when held in contradiction to reality.  If you have no appreciable musical talent, all the effort in the world is unlikely to make you into a highly sought-after concert pianist.  The solution to this “problem” is not a law that forces people to attend your mediocre piano performances.

Expectations of automatic reward for effort can be easily reverse-engineered into envy: the belief that others are obtaining reward without commensurate effort.  If you devoutly believe that everyone who works hard must get ahead, what do you think about people who get far, far ahead without any “hard work” that you can see?  Can you accept talent and risk as alternative methods of achieving fabulous reward?  If not, you’ll have trouble believing anyone could possibly work hard enough to “deserve” a hundred million dollars a year… or ten million… or one million… or, come to think of it, $200,000, which makes the recipient a “millionaire” under officially stated liberal dogma.

How about superior morality?  Do people who want to “make the world a better place” deserve lives of luxury?  Politicians very much hope you’ll accept that premise.  Virtually every modern liberal does – that’s why they have absolutely no problem with left-wing politicians and ideologues living high on the hog.  Politicians excel at convincing others of their wonderful good intentions, often in defiance of what actually happens when their policies are implemented.  However, they will afford no such moral standing to, say, the executives of Wal-Mart, even though their business objectively does much to improve millions of lives, both by employing people and selling them inexpensive products which enhance their quality of life.

What about situations where people who believe they’re ready to work hard for reward are unable to find opportunities to do so?  We are inclined to believe this is a result of vicious “unfairness,” an injustice that can be corrected through the exercise of righteous government power, but that’s not always the case.  You might fail to find the job you want, even though everyone around you is working hard and playing by the rules.  Hopefully your situation improves; it may be incumbent upon you to show some flexibility or make even greater effort.  But it’s not necessarily the case that everyone else has done something wrong, inviting punishment or government control.

There is a tendency to confuse effort with intent.  That’s one of the big problems with the “get a trophy just for showing up” mindset.  Showing up is a demonstration of intent, while effort and achievement are what happens next.  How many people have you worked with in your life who seemed convinced they were entitled to rewards, such as a higher salary, merely because they showed up at the office, even though their work performance was uninspiring?  You’ll be hard-pressed to find a slacker anywhere who does not sincerely believe he or she “deserves” greater rewards, simply by virtue of having occupied their position for a while.  Some of them show up on Day One of a job already convinced they deserve better, which is often confused with the decidedly different, and much healthier, ambition to earn better.

These are ancient philosophical arguments, but the way we pursue them has a profound impact on our expectations from one another… which in turn influences our politics.  Politics are defined by our expectations of fellow citizens.   Activist government is a way of forcing others to live up to our expectations, in the name of “social justice.”  You’ll notice social justice crusades appropriate the language of law and criminality, but follow none of the forms we expect from law enforcement.  No one is accused of a specific crime, granted the presumption of innocence, and afforded the due process of a courtroom.  Instead, groups of people are held collectively “guilty” without ever being given a chance to defend themselves, and punished without hope of parole.  The application of compulsive force by government is punishment.  Pretenses to the contrary are efforts to make activist, centralized government look benevolent, removing all stigma from the exercise of powers that nevertheless feel quite punishing to those on the wrong end of them.

Power also erases our freedom to judge the value of our fellow citizens’ efforts.  Rowe covers this when he talks about enforcing the same salary for both fast-food employees and the gourmet chefs who make high-end hamburgers at tony restaurants.  Aren’t the customers at those five-star bistros allowed to decide that the burgers are worth $100 each, creating an economic system that rewards the skilled makers of artisan hamburgers accordingly?

You might respond by saying that spending a hundred bucks on a hamburger is silly, but that’s why this analogy is so useful.  Our conversation is more illuminating if we’re talking about desires we don’t personally sympathize with, because we are discussing the dangers of making sympathy the yardstick for liberty.  Nothing delights power-hungry politicians more than a large, somewhat embittered electorate that only defends choices they would personally make, and freedoms they would exercise.  When we cease to respect the choices and dignity of those who are not like us, we open the door to limitless power.  The Ruling Class will never have trouble finding Others to abuse for political gain.

Which is preferable: the freedom to keep what you earn, or promises that you’ll get what you deserve?  What is more valuable to society, ambition or entitlement?  Neither force can ever be completely excluded from consideration, but much depends on which we value more.  Much depends on whether the value of effort is determined by the free choices of many, or the commands of a powerful few.