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The disutility of labor; a category of action

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Lawrence posted on Fri, Jul 22 2011 8:27 AM

 

Mises in Human Action: “The disutility of labor is not of a categorial and aprioristic character. We can without contradiction think of a world in which labor does not cause uneasiness, and we can depict the state of affairs prevailing in such a world. But the real world is conditioned by the disutility of labor. Only theorems based on the assumption that labor is a source of uneasiness are applicable for the comprehension of what is going on in this world. Experience teaches that there is disutility of labor. But it does not teach it directly. There is no phenomenon that introduces itself as disutility of labor. There are only data of experience which are interpreted, on the ground of aprioristic knowledge, to mean that men consider leisure—i.e., the absence of labor—other things being equal, as a more desirable condition than the expenditure of labor. We see that men renounce advantages which they could get by working more—that is, that they are ready to make sacrifices for the attainment of leisure. We infer from this fact that leisure is valued as a good and that labor is regarded as a burden. But for previous praxeological insight, we would never be in a position to reach this conclusion.”(p.65)

Rothbard in Man, Economy and State: “It is a subsidiary assumption, based on empirical observation of actual human behavior. It is not deducible from human action because its contrary is conceivable, although not generally existing.”(p.43)

Both Mises and Rothbard are clearly mistaken in this case. The disutility of labour can be proven aprioristically and can be deduced from praxeology. It is not a “subsidiary assumption” because of some physiological aversion towards labour.

Traditionally, leisure is considered a good while labour is considered a burden. This statement is misleading. Correctly defined, leisure is your body. You own your own body. It is your private property. You will use your private property, your body, in any such way that maximizes utility. Leisure is constantly consumed, often in different ways. Labour, on the other hand, is just the giving away of leisure. Labour is when your privately owned body is temporarily exchanged, commonly, for a salary.

Basically, it can be deduced through praxeology that humans never want to give up private property (unless they have so much that marginal utility has gone negative). Humans act to remove uneasiness and the more property you own, presumably, the less constraints on physical reality there will be which better allows you to maximize utility. Put simply, most people want as much private property as possible. Giving up private property brings disutility just like receiving private property brings utility.

When humans engage in labour they are making an exchange. The individual is giving up his privately owned body(leisure) for a salary. The leisure brings utility but it is valued less than the salary so the exchange takes place. By engaging in labour you must do what your employer wants you to do instead of what you want to do. Considering that your action will maximize utility doing anything else will lower utility, hence disutility.

In a normal transaction where someone purchases a good with money it always(except when marginal utility has gone negative because too much money is owned) brings disutility to give up the money. The transaction only occurs because something of higher value is exchanged in return.

Only in the case where you have too much of a certain unit of private property will you choose to give it up without anything in return. For example, if you eat too many hamburgers you eventually get sick and choose to throw the rest out or if you have too much clothing in your dresser it could be an inconvenience so you throw out clothing.

This can also occur with labour. A popular expression goes “I’m bored, I have too much time on my hands”. Although, time is constant, it is impossible to have “too much time”. The clock does not tick any slower just because you’re bored. The problem is not too much time, rather, it is too much leisure. Boredom comes from having so much excess leisure that marginal utility reaches negative territory. It is perfectly feasible that someone who is stuck at home with nothing to do would accept a job even if there was no compensation. However, this is rare and it would likely take a while before this was the case because leisure can be consumed in many different ways.

A good such as wood can be burned to make a fire or used to build a house. The same good can be used as a means to attain different ends. Similarly, leisure can be consumed through many different activities which is why it is rare to have too much of this good.

An easy way to illustrate the main concept of this article is through the example of apple-picking. Apple-picking is sometimes associated with leisure. People pick apples as an activity because it brings utility. However, apple-picking from a different perspective can be taken as employment and therefore brings disutility. How can the same activity be considered leisure and labour? The answer is clear. It is considered leisure when the individual owns their own body and is choosing to maximize utility through such means. It is considered labour when the individual has exchanged his body for a salary. The individual’s employer can now tell the individual what he must do. Human action is the link between the mind and reality(private property). If you have temporarily exchanged your body for a salary then you do not own it. Your mind cannot link with your body(private property) and so human action does not occur, which means you cannot act to maximize utility.

My explanation of how labour is giving up your body may sound like slavery. However, it is not. It is merely a voluntary exchange. What differentiates it from slavery is that there is no coercion involved. The loss of one’s body(leisure) is contingent on the salary received.

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I think you might be a little off track here, at least in my understanding of the topic.  "Labor" is not just working for a wage.  It's "working" period, it's exerting effort on something that is not immediately gratifying.  For example:

  • The answer is clear. It is considered leisure when the individual owns their own body and is choosing to maximize utility through such means. It is considered labour when the individual has exchanged his body for a salary. The individual’s employer can now tell the individual what he must do.

When the person "maximized thier utility", it matters not whether they're working for a wage or picking an apple from a tree.  They're expending "labor" in both situations.  You might hate picking apples, but love eating them.  You may choose to expend labor to pick an apple.  That is, you suspend immediate consumption of lower-quality leisure, and expend effort and experience discomfort (labor), in order to get better quality leisure in the future, e.g. having an apple while you sit on your couch, instead of just sitting on your couch sans apple.

 

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I didn't imply that “labor” is working for a wage. I said that “labor” is the giving away of leisure. You are selling off the use of your body(leisure).

If labor, as defined by you as exerting effort, always bring disutility then how do you explain people enjoying to pick apples not for the apples, which they can buy, but just for the fun of doing it.

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Lawrence:
Basically, it can be deduced through praxeology that humans never want to give up private property (unless they have so much that marginal utility has gone negative). Humans act to remove uneasiness and the more property you own, presumably, the less constraints on physical reality there will be which better allows you to maximize utility. Put simply, most people want as much private property as possible. Giving up private property brings disutility just like receiving private property brings utility.

"What people want" can never be expressed as an exact law, which is exactly what Mises and Rothbard are saying.  It may be true that labor is always conjoined with disutility, but it still wouldn't be categorical because we must introduce specific knowledge about individual valuations--even if those values are true for all people.  The law of diminishing marginal utility, on the other hand, is not dependent on specific knowledge about the psychology of humans: additional units of a good must be used to satisfy less important ends because they can no longer be used to satisfy those ends which are already met.

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Lawrence replied on Fri, Jul 22 2011 10:43 AM

No, I don't think Mises and Rothbard considered my argument. Mises says "leisure is valued as a good and that labor is regarded as a burden" which illustrates his lack of understanding. Mises and Rothbard should have elaborated far more if they really believed that. If you have too much money then money will bring disutility and so why didn't they mention the subsidiary assumption of the utility of money, in contrast to the disutility of labour?

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  • You are selling off the use of your body(leisure).

The point is that the leisure/labor distinction has nothing to do with "selling".  A (very lucky) man might be paid a salary for doing something he loves and experiences no discomfort in, something that is 100% leisure.  A man may also labor for himself for some perceived later goal, yet experience discomfort from the labor itself.

  • If labor, as defined by you as exerting effort, always bring disutility then how do you explain people enjoying to pick apples not for the apples, which they can buy, but just for the fun of doing it.

I guess I was a bit unclear, sorry. Please notice that it wasn't JUST effort, but rather effort and discomfort (or in more Misesian terms, uneasiness).  Labor is effort not expended for immediate consumption to relieve some uneasiness.  Picking appels "for fun" is a consumption activity.  You're burning calories and spending time to make yourself feel better right now.  This is pure leisure.  Picking apples "for work" is a productive activity.  You're burning calories and spending time for future consumption.  This is labor.  This may or may not bring discomfort, which is the point I believe Mises was making about the disutility of labor.  We don't know that labor HAS to cause disutility.  It could be net neutral, but in general, empirically it does seem to cause disutility, which explains why people demand payment for thier labor.

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Lawrence:
I didn't imply that “labor” is working for a wage. I said that “labor” is the giving away of leisure. You are selling off the use of your body(leisure).

If labor, as defined by you as exerting effort, always bring disutility then how do you explain people enjoying to pick apples not for the apples, which they can buy, but just for the fun of doing it.

I'd say that, if a person picks apples just for the fun of doing it, that said apple-picking by that person is a form of leisure, not labor.

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Lawrence replied on Fri, Jul 22 2011 11:08 AM

Autolykos, that is exactly my point.

 

 

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Lawrence replied on Fri, Jul 22 2011 11:08 AM

"A (very lucky) man might be paid a salary for doing something he loves and experiences no discomfort in, something that is 100% leisure." That statement is misleading. In a job your boss will tell you exactly what you have to do. Since humans act to remove felt uneasiness they will engage in whatever action makes them happiest but when your boss orders you to do something it is highly likely that it is not on the top of your value scales and therefore brings less utility then otherwise possible, hence disutility.

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Lawrence replied on Fri, Jul 22 2011 11:17 AM

"This may or may not bring discomfort, which is the point I believe Mises was making about the disutility of labor." The main crux of my argument though is that since labor is the sale of your body, you can no longer use it to maximize your happiness because your boss temporarily owns it. Therefore, you are incapable of using your body to remove felt uneasiness and so, unless your boss chooses to have you do the action that you value most highly, you are likely going to be engaging in an action that is not the most highly valued.

Rothbard and Mises should have pointed this out instead of merely tossing it aside as a subsidiary assumption.

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If you have too much money then money will bring disutility and so why didn't they mention the subsidiary assumption of the utility of money, in contrast to the disutility of labour?

Having too much money doesn't bring you disutility by any praxeological rule.  Some people might hate falling into money, but it is completely reasonable to imagine someone who gets more pleasure by having an ever increasing supply of cash.  Likewise, it is conceivable that someone gets pleasure from expending labor.  However, knowing what we know about people we recognize that people don't expend labor without expecting to receive something they value (either physically or psychically) in return--but this knowledge is not praxeological.  It cannot be deduced without the specific knowledge of human nature.

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Lawrence replied on Fri, Jul 22 2011 11:37 AM

I was just using an example to show that Mises and Rothbard did not consider my initial argument. Diminishing marginal utility states that having too much, let's say, hamburgers will bring disutility. Just like having too much leisure can bring disutility and therefore makes labour(the giving away of leisure) bring utility. However, Rothbard and Mises never mention the utility of hamburgers. They only mention the disutility of labour as if it is somehow leisure is different from any other good. This clearly shows that they did not clearly understand the concepts of leisure and labour.

"Likewise, it is conceivable that someone gets pleasure from expending labor." No, because labor is the sale of your body, and so once you no longer own your own body you cannot act to remove felt uneasiness, you are forced to do an action that is not most highly valued.

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To respond to the OP directly, I think it depends on the definitions used for "labor" and "leisure". My own definitions for them are as follows. "Labor" is effort (implying time) that is used for production. "Leisure" is effort (implying time) that is used for consumption. So if you're picking apples in order to eat the apples later, you're laboring. But if you're picking apples simply because you enjoy it, you're "leisuring".

In this context, "production" can be defined as exchanging something of lower (present) utility for something of higher (future) utility. As you point out, losing something of utility necessarily conveys disutility. Now given my definition of "labor" above, this means that labor is inherently disutilitarian. It then follows that people only labor if they (expect to) receive something in return that they think has greater utility.

Finally, one can point out that the difference in the utility lost vs. the utility gained is the marginal utility of the exchange.

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"Diminishing marginal utility states that having too much, let's say, hamburgers will bring disutility."

Is that really what the concept of diminishing marginal utility states? One experiences diminishing marginal utility not because of any satiation of wants, or of some psychological state of being fed up with having too much of it. Rather, diminishing marginal utility refers to the fact that each additional unit of supply will go to an end that is less valued than the previously-utilized-unit went to satisfy. I think the concept of a "good" eliminates the possibility of an additional unit's bringing disutility. Having a large stock of, say, water, does not eventually cause me disutility, but it does make me willing to sell/trade units of it for other goods.

Labor, then, is sold, not because one has too much leisure, which is causing him disutility. Labor is sold (its disutility notwithstanding) for the purpose of enjoying the higher marginal utility that its fruits will bear as compared to that of the leisure foregone.

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Lawrence replied on Fri, Jul 22 2011 12:14 PM

Well said. You view things from a slightly different perspective but we both came to the same conclusion that "labor is inherently disutilitarian".

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