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Ask Boxer

Eric Scheie asks Boxer the horse, “What’s the glue that holds society together?“:

Is work personal and individualistic, or is it social and based on what’s good for the community as a whole?

And most important, what is work? […]

After all, we don’t want to end up being like Boxer the horse. Say what you will about him, but Boxer (the hard-working horse in Animal Farm) certainly was imbued with the work ethic. And after he had spent his life toiling and sweating to build the great workers paradise out of the sheer goodness and altruism in his strong heart, he inevitably found himself getting older as we all must, his physical health declined, and he suffered a workplace injury. Naturally, he had expected to get decent health care and then have a happy retirement at pasture, but the porcine ruling class death panels had something else in mind.

I would argue that you’re doing work when you’re producing value greater than what you’re consuming; otherwise, you’re doing leisure.

It’s almost but not quite a tautological definition, but it can lead to useful insights.

Writing articles and posting them online for others to read => work, to the extent that it’s valuable to your readers; but uncompensated.

Sitting in your armchair reading => leisure, probably, since it’s valuable only to you.

Sitting in your armchair reading and thinking about your next article/blog post => close to the line between work and leisure

In Eric’s example, rewiring houses => valuable work, even if you’re not paid for it.

The hard part, of course, is to figure out what the value is, price it, and monetize it.  As Arnold Kling points out, most employees these days are engaged in building organizational capital, not in direct production.  The marginal product of a fruit picker can be measured in fruit per hour; but What is the marginal product of a marketing executive who is developing a strategy for the firm to use social media?

One of the things I really like about being self-employed is that my marginal productivity is “closer to market” than it would be if I were on a salary. On the flip side, one of the things I give up is the possibility of more income if I had a job where my work aims and pay rate were vaguer.