The Myth of 'Wage Slavery'


Exclusive to STR

February 22, 2007

A recent edit of Strike The Root (archive here) by "Chemical Ali" Massoud contains a link to this column along with the commentary:

"In August, Joe Pellegrini got yet another nagging phone call. It was his health coach, a woman working on behalf of his employer, the $2.7 billion lawn-care company, Scotts Miracle-Gro Inc. The 48-year-old executive knew the spiel by heart. `Have you been to your doctor yet? When are you going?' Then the prescription: `You need to lose weight and you really, really need to lower your cholesterol'." (Businessweek) Starting October 1st smokers will be denied coverage entirely. Wage slavery is real; they really do own you, folks.

I wrote to Mr. Massoud as follows:

I must disagree. To be sure, owning one's own business (as you have made clear you do) is in some way aesthetically preferable to working for wages (as I and many others do). But to classify the arrangement as "slavery" makes no more sense to me than using that classification for any situation in which money changes hands. So tobacco smokers are going to lose insurance coverage? They have the option of finding another job in which smokers are covered, perhaps at a higher price than non-smokers. How does this make them, or anyone else, a "slave?" So a 48-year-old exec is getting prodded to deal with his health problems? Doing so allows the company to pay him, and others, higher salaries than would be possible without such prodding, and, again, he may choose to work some place else, perhaps for less money, if he doesn't like it.

In the course of forty years, I have had employers make many kinds of demands. I have found that pushing back, with the implicit threat of being willing to work elsewhere, has very often resulted in them backing off. I have never felt powerless, and never a "slave." Employment is a mutually beneficial arrangement, like any trade. Either party is free to disengage whenever he pleases.

He replied:

We disagree, plainly. I think you're using the vulgar libertarian style of analysis and argumentation here. (That is, using libertarian memes and rhetoric to defend things that aren't really about liberty at all.)

John, if you're okay with that level of interference in your personal life, and it works out well for you, then by all means, keep it up. Zoo animals and pets have a better quality of life than their wild counterparts too, but this condition is not without a cost to them. You can't legally or morally take a man's liberty from him; but you can buy it from him, for the right pay and benefits, it seems.

To save me some typing here, go rent the DVD Gattaca. Ignore the potboiler story line and note the way the society it portrays is organized. That is the direction that this kind of interference is moving toward, as I see it. And so I call 'em as I see 'em.

So I will conclude by asking you a question; what level of interference in your personal life would be "too much," whatever the pay? I've answered that question by the way I chose to live. And so it seems, have you.

What comes off most strongly in this reply is a "holier than thou" attitude, evident in the sneer of the last paragraph. But let's overlook that and try to tease out any meat in Mr. Massoud's stand. He twice uses the phrase "level of interference in your personal life" and seems to take it as given that all-powerful employers ride roughshod over pitiful and powerless employees. Perhaps he didn't read my second paragraph, where I make it clear that my own experience (and I know I'm not alone) is completely different. Employers are quite simply extremely limited in the extent to which they can dictate absurd or offensive terms of employment to skilled workers. Anyone who does not realize this has perhaps been far more timid than necessary when taking on the role of an employee, or has not bothered to acquire marketable skills.

From another perspective, owning one's own business offers no protection from "interference." Even Bill Gates, for all his wealth and power, is not immune from the judgment of the marketplace. His mighty empire will one day surely fall, as new upstart competitors do end runs around his slow and buggy offerings. Mr. Massoud apparently runs his own business of some sort, which makes him immune from direct personal dictates as to hair length, clothing style, and so forth, but in the end his own customers (or lack thereof) dictate what is permissible to them and what is not. If someone's goal is a life in which he is free to do anything he likes, while still being paid, I have bad news: That option is not available to anyone by any means, outside the kleptocracy of government. However you earn your bread, those who pay you will "interfere" in your life by giving or withholding their money according to their own standards of what is important.

And what are we to make of Mr. Massoud's claim that I am "using the vulgar libertarian style of analysis and argumentation here. (That is, using libertarian memes and rhetoric to defend things that aren't really about liberty at all.)" I can make no sense of this statement whatever. I don't think there is anything "vulgar" about voluntary exchanges of any sort, including employment. Having the right to hire and fire at will, and the right to take and quit a job, are all about liberty. Any claims that these are "vulgar" and "not about liberty" are complete nonsense.

Now let us imagine a perfect world according to Mr. Massoud. He and I would agree that the role of government would be sharply curtailed or eliminated. People would be free to trade as they wished. But apparently in Mr. Massoud's world, each person would own his own business, employed by nobody and employing nobody (after all, if working makes you a "slave," then hiring makes you a "slave-master" and is therefore evil). My response to such a world would be, "Get me outta here!" Large organizations, arising spontaneously and offering increased efficiencies over millions of separate mom and pop operations, are absolutely inevitable in a free society, and are vital to its economic health.

Am I saying that employment is superior to running one's own business? Not at all. I applaud those who take the initiative and the risk to find a need and fill it. On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for employment. As an employee, you have the luxury of leaving your work behind when you clock out. While the business owner frets about his business challenges at all hours of the day and night, you can pursue other passions, and perhaps do something creative that will make a lasting mark on the world. I amuse myself after hours writing programs that adaptively tune music and others that enhance photographs (shameless plug: you can purchase the latter here).

If Mr. Massoud has a visceral aversion to employment, that is fine. If he has his own business and is doing well, I'm happy for him and wish him every success. I don't think it is accurate or helpful, however, to harangue people that they are "slaves" if they are employed. That's just silly.

P.S. I have ordered the movie "Gattaca" and may comment on it in a subsequent column.

Your rating: None
John deLaubenfels's picture
Columns on STR: 17

John deLaubenfels is a 61-year old native born citizen of the United States, a programmer by profession and music lover by avocation, who is passionate about preserving (and restoring) the basic freedoms of this country, and, if possible, the world.