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Column: Work and dignity are intertwined

Noah Smith

Economists like to tell a possibly apocryphal story about Milton Friedman. The prophet of free markets, visiting an Asian country in the 1960s, witnessed a public-works project that had people making a road with picks and shovels. When he asked why they didn’t use earth-moving machines instead, a local official responded that the goal was to provide people with jobs. In that case, the economist asked, why didn’t the government just have the workers use spoons instead?

This parable elicits a chuckle from many economists, who use it to contrast the hard-nosed, efficiency-minded thinking of their discipline with the ineffectual mandates of bumbling bureaucrats. But to many outside the profession, the story demonstrates a willful ignorance about the importance of work and human dignity. I recently wrote that the government should focus on getting people jobs instead of just mailing them money. Ideas for doing that range from government employment guarantees to public-works programs to tax incentives for corporations that hire more employees.

Inevitably, the people who chuckle at the “spoons” story are going to label these programs as make-work. If the market isn’t willing to pay people to do a job, they’ll say, it isn’t worth doing. Already I’ve received a few responses along these lines. People who take these jobs might do it for the money, they say, but they’ll know the work wasn’t really needed, and they won’t derive dignity or self-respect from doing it. Better to just mail them a check.

I think this kind of thinking is very wrong. Yes, if you gave people spoons to build a road, they would realize it was silly. But it’s absurd to jump from that to the conclusion that any worker who gets paid more than what the market will bear is just a welfare recipient with a made-up job.

People realize that the free market rewards people differently based on things beyond their control. A janitor in the Philippines does the same work as a janitor in Texas, but the latter gets paid a lot more. Recessions, local economic conditions, development policy, the winds of global trade and a million other factors all play a part. That’s one big reason why free-market outcomes aren’t always seen as fair. Most of us want to be valued not just for how much money we can manage to wring out of the system, but how much effort we put in. As economist Brad DeLong aptly puts it:

We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We want to be neither cheaters nor saps.

If we work hard and produce something of tangible value, we tend to feel a sense of self-worth when society rewards us for it with a decent, middle-class life. This was the essence of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal — if you work, you eat.

The continuing power of this idea is visible everywhere. Witness Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the city gave homeless people jobs and it made them feel “human again.” Or look at the Job Corps program, where giving poor people jobs made them more likely to get married. If you give people work with tangible, visible value, you give them dignity. This, of course, is a reason the U.S.’s falling labor participation rate is such a concern.

The free-market age has made the economy more efficient, but it has come at a dramatic price — lost dignity for so many.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist.