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Protecting Work

In yesterday’s New York Times, the economist Gregory Mankiw trots out [1] the standard case against protectionism–i.e., policies that are designed to protect domestic jobs, not promote their flight overseas–one that is made as if it were so dispositive that nothing further can or should be said. Against arguments that job loss is undesirable, he writes, “There is, however, another side to the story. The loss to American producers comes with a gain to the many millions of American consumers who prefer to pay less for the goods they buy.”

An implicit cost-benefit analysis underlies this argument: the loss of some number of decent paying manufacturing jobs can’t measure up to the benefits of cheaper products for millions of Americans. Proof is in the Wal-Mart pudding: fact is, lots of people shop there, proving that they like cheaper prices. The loss of our manufacturing base is a small price to pay for inexpensive salad-shooters and tube socks.

Why is this argument so patently true for economists that it is proffered as if it didn’t merit further thought? Because, of course, it’s better when lots of people can purchase cheap goods that are manufactured in the lowest labor-cost areas of the world. Comparative advantage insists that everyone wins in this scenario. This may be true–as far as the economic theory is concerned,  a theory that is populated not so much by humans as “econs.” [2]

Yet, what if we were to widen our aperture a bit and consider whether a nation of self-defined consumers is a good thing? What if the very self-definition of ourselves as “consumers”–now used unselfconsciously as the one universally valid term to describe Americans (not “workers” and certainly not “citizens”)–is deeply damaging to the civic and moral culture of a nation? What if economic and political policies that promote consumption over good, hard work induce very bad habits that in turn lead to very bad economic outcomes? Would we praise that as good economics, much less good politics or even–dare I say–good for the soul?


The economics of consumption is, in the first instance, a recipe for short-term thinking.  It encourages the consumption of products intended very soon for the trash heap, thus promoting a culture of immediacy and waste. It is an ethic that encourages instant gratification, rather than encouraging virtues of thrift and deferred gratification. It encourages a false sense of needing to “keep up” with the neighbors, such that everyone must live as if they have a country estate in Connecticut (and why eventually Martha Stewart began peddling her wares in K-Mart). It encourages us to ignore the hidden costs of our consumption, particularly the high energy usage of this form of consumerism and the high quantities of resulting entropy–in the form of waste, blighted landscape, decimated downtowns and declining pride of work. It destroys community, increases our anomie and isolation and makes us ripe pickings for government programs when there is an economic downturn.

A culture of work–good, honest, hard work–on the other hand, promotes virtues of care and thrift. Where we have a sense that people near and around us will use our products, we work with pride and responsibility. Where we will have to live with the costs of our production, we work in ways that minimally damage our living places. Where we earn an honest wage for work well done, we spend responsibly, knowing that we in turn can rely on the good craftsmanship of the products that we buy. We value quality over quantity. Where we learn to delay gratification, we learn to distrust easy credit as something too good to be true, as a game for grifters and cheats. A culture that values work over consumption is one that is likely to view manias with a jaundiced eye, aware that the cycle of nature is not one that offers quick rich rewards, but slow and steady earnings that are come by honestly and with patience and hard work.

Am I suggesting that we should engage in protectionist policies? I don’t know what the economic effects of that would be, though I’m told they would be dire. Still, I look around me and see what the our policies of open trade and globalization have gotten us and ask, how much more dire would they be? Would we be poorer than we are now? Perhaps, but it would not be a poverty recklessly and dishonestly achieved. Would we have less things filling smaller houses? Let us hope so. Would we be bemoaning the things we did not have as a result of not having let all our good jobs go overseas? Maybe. I wonder. But I do know for certain that anyone suggesting that a culture of consumption is so plainly superior to the alternative had better take a step outside the ivy gates for a reality check.

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#1 Comment By Fran On February 9, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

I just posted your awesome article to my FB page! Thank you! I’ve been clamoring about this for quite some time. We throw away so much crap every few months or so, and buy so much. The factories have all been replaced by outlet malls. I would gladly pay a little more for a little less and maybe instill a little pride of ownership into my 3 young daughters.

#2 Comment By Greg Panfile On February 9, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

This article clearly identifies what has happened as a result of a conspiracy of corruption among the people, the government, and the corporations. It has to be broken if we are ever again to have a republic. It is possible although far from certain that the government side is improving and can improve more under the new administration. It is clear that the people have begun to realize what they have done and allowed to be done… participated in their own oppression for a small percentage of the net. If those two sides of the triangle begin a cycle of reform, it is possible that business could be brought into line. This will take serious work on the part of everyone, and certainly has to involve cooperation across previously drawn ideological lines.

#3 Comment By charlie On February 9, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

I would like to see an on-line debate between protectionists and free traders similar to the religious back and forth between Heather Macdonald and Michael Novak. Perhaps Mr Deneen or Pat Buchanen vs Andrew Sullivan ( or any capable advocates). If something along these lines has been done, please point me to it.

#4 Comment By Patrick J. Deneen On February 10, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

I’d be happy to host it at Georgetown. Can anyone see if Pat Buchanan would consider coming back to campus for such an event?

#5 Comment By Rob Sherwood On February 10, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

Please, *please* announce it here if such an event will take place. I would love to attend!

#6 Comment By tz On February 10, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

We should outsource such prattle to bangalore – aren’t Indian economists as competent and can produce such arguments at a far smaller cost? Or perhaps he (and the rest of the CEOs who lost billions) can be replaced by someone here on an H1B at a far lower cost.

Disclaimer: I’m a contractor – a cowboy programmer if you will, competing with Indians on the great plains of the US of A. But the plutocracy has reservations ready for them.

#7 Comment By eep On February 11, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

This post reminds me about a book written by John Gatto about “The Underground History of American Education.” He has a theory that the socialist created the educational system for the purpose of preventing people from finding contentment in labor so instead they must find comfort for their misery through consumption.

Here is the chapter on it

#8 Comment By Reinhold On August 30, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

TAC really reminds of the “free labor” Republicans from the 1860s: they argued that labor dependent on capital is just as oppressive as labor dependent on government (let alone a master-slave relation). But I have to say, it wasn’t then and isn’t now a realistic outcome of market society; that seems to be the major shortcoming of this kind of prairie economic thinking. Hard work and local production and distribution sounds fine, but markets do not work that way: they expand, they increase productivity, they pay less, etc. The “free labor” ideology just gave way right to rapid industrialization.

#9 Comment By petebrown On August 30, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

This is a dynamite piece. I agree 1000% with the sentiment expressed and the long overdue skepticism about consumer capitalism.

But there is a major flaw here that has to be pointed out. Namely that there is a symmetry between work and consumption. If someone wants to work more the only way that can happen is if someone else is willing to spend more. My consumption is your income and vice versa.

It would be great in other words to find useful remunerative work for the millions of unemployed. But there will remain less work to do unless consumption also rises. Maybe the US could be more like China which works alot and consumes little. But this would only work if the US finds another nation that is willing to consume more.

Perhaps without realizing it you’ve hit on the very dilemma of capitalism and why socio-moral takes like this really don’t get you far. You can praise work and denigrate consumption all you want or posit a moral asymmetry between them. But in reality they are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have more of one without an equal and opposite increase in the other.

#10 Comment By Reinhold On August 31, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

“He has a theory that the socialist created the educational system for the purpose of preventing people from finding contentment in labor so instead they must find comfort for their misery through consumption.”
I read through your link and you seem to have not done so; he explicitly blames businessmen and capitalism for turning education into a secular institution devoted to consumerism and consumption and business, i.e. “materiality.”

#11 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On September 5, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

This piece is deeply conservative, and yet now these types of sentiments are mainly associated with old hippies and leftists. What odd times we live in.