≡ Menu

On Hardworking Burglars and Bricklayers

Here’s another letter to a frequent correspondent.

Mr. Dye:

You write that “market fundamentalists” (as you call me and other supporters of a policy of unilateral free trade) “ignore work’s intrinsic value by holding consumption up as the only value in life.”

You’re mistaken. Neither I nor any of the many scholars whose work (!) inspires me has ever said that consumption is life’s “only value,” or even that it’s the highest value. Indeed, consumption isn’t a value at all. Instead, consumption is the ultimate goal of economic activity. Period. Values, in contrast, exist on a higher plane. And for me they include liberty – liberty not only for myself but for every one of my peaceful fellow human beings.

If it were – thankfully, contrary to fact – a choice between more liberty and more consumption, I’d choose more liberty.

You err also in supposing that work has intrinsic value. Karl Marx (among others) rather thought that it did. He believed that workers’ toil is what imparts value to the resulting goods and services. But Marx got matters backwards. In reality it’s the value of what is produced that imparts value to workers’ toil. Workers who toil to produce unwanted outputs are workers who not only, in effect, produce nothing, but who are parasitical because they live off of what others produce while themselves returning to others nothing of value.

Because without production there is no consumption, no one of any sense denies the importance of production in general and of work specifically. But this importance is found not in the toil itself – for if it were, the hardworking burglar would be just as productive as is the hardworking bricklayer – but in the value of what the toil produces.

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