Thursday, September 17, 2020

Is Working Hard Good?

You'll often hear people say, "I work hard but I didn't succeed. There's something wrong with the system!"

As a parent and a person, I'm of two minds about the whole idea of hard work as a virtue. 

On one hand, many things that are worth doing are difficult to do. One needs to persevere to learn the skill. Further, it's good to have the disposition to be able to work hard. If bad fortune befalls you, you want to have the ability to roll up your sleeves and do what it takes to overcome the problem, rather than wither away. Further, lazy people are rarely happy people. 

But, on the other hand, as Hayek argued, we don't want to arrange jobs and such such that everyone is working very hard. Work and effort are resources and costs. It's better to have low cost producers than high cost producers. If I can do this job easily and you can do it only with great effort, then ceteris paribus it make sense to have me do it, not you. At a certain point, if things remain hard work for you, this is often a sign that you should do something else. Just as we want to economize on oil or electricity, so we should economize on effort.

Hayek said that on some conceptions of meritocracy (if not every conception), we're supposed to apportion rewards according to hard work. But this, he says, is a recipe for reducing human welfare. On the contrary, if Bob and Sam are equally productive but Bob is a lower cost producer, then it's good that Bob gets a bigger profit than Sam. This encourages Sam and and others to be more efficient. Again, just as we want to economize on oil or electricity, so we should economize on effort.

These are random thoughts and I don't have an overarching thesis. But I suppose the upshot is that it's good to have a society where everyone is disposed to work hard when working hard is worth it, but at the same time, for everyone to be disposed to work smart instead of working hard. If you discover a colleague does as much as you do in half the time, she deserves praise, not scorn.