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More on Work and Production as Means Rather than as Ends

Here’s another letter to Mr. Tony Dye:

Mr. Dye:

Calling “hogwash” Adam Smith’s claim that “consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production,” you point out that “it is work which gives dignity to us.”

You misunderstand Smith (and me).

No one denies that work is a source of dignity. Far from it. But from where does this dignity come? Smith would say, correctly, that this dignity comes from producing something of value – something valued directly either by you the worker, or by those to whom you sell or give the results of your work.

Exerting effort for the sake of exerting effort, with no regard to the results of that effort, is and ought to be a source, not of dignity, but at best of embarrassment. The reason is that effort exerted for its own sake is far too likely to waste the worker’s time and other resources. And in our world in which time and other resources are scarce, there’s nothing dignified in wasting these. Quite the opposite.

We find dignity in work because work is a means of supplying us, our families, and those with whom we engage commercially and philanthropically with the goods and services we humans need in order to enjoy another source of dignity, namely, the dignity of escaping and remaining free of material impoverishment.

In a world in which people work for the sake of working – in a world in which people are as likely to bake maggot-and-sawdust pies as they are to bake apple pies – in a world in which the effort expended to destroy functional homes and factories is rewarded no less than is the effort expended to construct functional homes and factories – the residents of that world might well go to sleep each night exhausted from their daily labors, but their stomachs would be empty, their clothing would be rags, and their dwellings would be hovels. The indignity of their lives would be rivaled only by their misery.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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