The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Pure Utilitarianism and Capitalism

Hilary Clinton recently tweeted the following.

On the face this is unexceptional. A business exists to do certain things, and employees are hired to contribute towards those actions. We hire an employee because we think they will do a good job.

Except that in our current system, we distribute goods through money, and most of how we distribute money is through corporations. You have a good life if you have a good job, pretty much. There are exceptions and they are exceptions.

Hilary has also said that she doesn’t favor a $15/hour minimum wage.

This is what happens when you think of people as assets. Some people don’t deserve $15/hour because they don’t “add enough value.”

But they are still people, and they still need to eat, sleep in a warm place, and have the occasional bit of entertainment.

They have value that cannot be reduced to their economic utility.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing, and want more of it, please consider donating.)

If we had a society where everyone lived well whether they had a job or not, then we could make pure utilitarian arguments about employment. But when employment is required for people to be able to live decently, or even live at all, such arguments lead to treating huge masses of people as disposable, and consigning them to awful lives.

Again, this might be ok if we lived in a scarcity society, but we don’t. We produce enough food to feed everyone, we have the ability to house everyone, and so on. This would be especially true if we would dump the doctrine of planned obsolescence and produce goods meant to last pretty close to forever.

There are other arguments, of course, like “What is utility?”, bolstered by findings that blacks, say, get half the interviews as whites with identical resumes. Those are important arguments, but they pale next to, “Everyone should have a decent life, and that shouldn’t be contingent on whether they can make money for a billionaire.”

The economy and corporations exist to serve people, not the other way around. When they do not do so, the problem lies with them. This is not a subsistence farming community, it is not, “You work, you eat.” We’d be better off, in fact, if a lot of the work we are doing wasn’t done, because so much of it does more damage than good, even if it does generate a “profit.”

The core of any decent system of ethics, and thus of any political and economic order, is Kant’s maxim that people are ends, not means. When you forget that, you inevitably descend into monstrosity.


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  1. Sometimes the best and most creative work is not the “paycheck” and “wage” type but the passionate hobby, done at the time and expense of the hobbyist themselves.

    Because their focus is on the substance and quality of the product they’re producing since profit is not the concern of their efforts.

  2. Onihikage

    There are those who propose the minimum wage be abolished, and to them I always argue that it could be only if the basic costs of living were completely fulfilled by government. Healthcare, education, transportation, food, water, and shelter all qualify, and that would be an expansion of government the likes of which the US has never seen. In other words, to a modern society, the minimum wage is the best small-government solution, even as we wind up still needing the government to pay for several of those items.

    I wish more people could see that capitalism simply no longer has a place in many areas of society. We decided a long time ago that basic education was necessary for a full life and therefore incompatible with motivations of profit, so what stops people from applying that same logic to higher education and medical treatment? Where capitalism still works, it’s perfectly acceptable, but where it produces realistic harm and significant inefficiency, moving on to something better should be a no-brainer.

  3. Hugh

    I agree. The problem is in seeing workers as a commodity, instead of as people. This comes from the idea at the heart of modern economics that society serves the economy and not the other way around.

    Clinton is just mouthing some economic jargon to fit in with her meme that she is the experienced candidate. Given her support of free trade which has shipped millions of American jobs overseas and Wall Street which is behind so much of the disinvestment in American industry, her statements in support of American workers should be taken as just so much blather for the rubes. Even when she is trying not to sound like the neoliberal she is she can’t escape casting her statements in neoliberal terms.

    To be fair, she is not alone in this. One of the reasons that I became disenchanted with Modern Monetary Theory (the economic theory popular among many progressives) is that it viewed even its supposedly forward-looking Jobs Guarantee as a buffer stock, a place to park workers until the private sector needed them. Although MMT popularizers tried to sugarcoat it, what the MMT theorists were talking about were jobs which did not pay that much and which were not that meaningful. They did not want jobs good enough that workers would choose them over what the private sector was offering. This is, in fact, not progressive at all. It is classic Wilsonian liberal paternalism.

  4. Oaktown Girl

    Yes! Thank you, Ian.

    This may be a small thing (or maybe it’s not?), but I’ve always hated that in the U.S. the term “Human Resources” has supplanted the term “Personnel” in work places, both large and small. It’s always felt a little dehumanizing to me., and here you’ve spelled out exactly why.

  5. sglover

    I caught the beginning of a Clinton gasfest on C-SPAN, via the car radio. Normally I switch Clinton off, but this event was in my home city, Detroit, so I thought I might catch something of local interest.

    By the time I arrived at my destination and stopped the car, I heard HRC namedrop just about every current and former Michigan Dem I know of. (Which, by the way, is a very geriatric crew. John Conyers might represent the median age for that crowd.) I heard her talk about the glories of the auto industry. I heard a quick Michigan geography lesson, as she ran down a list of mid-size towns and their industries — all doing great, naturally, all building new technologies. I heard about hard-working normal folk, and corporations not doing their share, shifting their jobs to Mexico.

    All that, and I didn’t hear a **single** specific proposal to do anything about anything. Not one. Because evidently everything’s just fine and getting better every day in Michigan, AKA “Alabama North”.

    Trump can beat this nonentity. These are scary days.

  6. anonymous coward

    “People are our greatest resource.”
    — the SoylentG Corp. of N.America

    (And why wouldn’t they? With roboticization about to destroy the remaining jobs during the same time that global population explodes towards 10 billions, it’s clear that we are going to have to gnash and gnaw our way out of this trap, one way or another.)

  7. Some Guy

    Thanks for calling this one out Ian – they could put that one in the history books as a marker for all the ways we’ve gone wrong.

    Treat people as nothing more than an economic unit? Check
    Meaningless sound good babble in place of an actual clear action or statement? Check
    People still voting for this nonsense? Check

  8. Tom

    Hmm, Iraq is now saying the Mosul Dam is about to collapse as no maintenance work has been done on it since August 12th, 2014 when US Airstrikes hit it…

    Um, IS is well outside artillery range of the Dam and has been for a year so well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions here.

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