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“Why Don’t You Just Work Harder?” – An Answer to a Common Question

Old cartoon from just after the turn of the century showing two different ship laborers belonging to two different unions.  The AFL member is hauling many heavy boxes and the IWW member is only hauling one.  The AFL member looks exhausted and the IWW advises him to "come out of it".
An old cartoon comparing the answers of two different unions.

If you have ever questioned capitalism, you have most likely at some point been asked, “Well, if you want more money, why don’t you just work harder?” This can make us stop short if we don’t have an answer already prepared. Americans tend to be violently allergic to the slightest indication of laziness, whether that be in a low wage worker sitting down at their cash register during a long shift or a student choosing to take a liberal arts major rather than trying to struggle through mountains of math and science classes. In American culture, laziness is a much worse sin than greed or selfishness, to the point that even the most cruelly exploited workers are treated with contempt by broader society for trying to change their working conditions.

Because of this cultural influence, there is little we fear more than being labeled ‘lazy’. In a capitalist world, being ‘lazy’ makes you unworthy of having even your most basic needs fulfilled, and so you must constantly prove your value to society in order to justify your existence. This is, quite frankly, both morally corrupt and ridiculous in a world where we have more than enough resources to provide for everyone. However, this is not the only reason why this question is not only insulting but very dangerous in its implications.

Imagine that you work at home and you make, say, lots of bricks to build houses with. But each time at the end of the day, when you’ve got all your bricks in boxes ready to be sold, a thief comes by, takes all your bricks, sells them, and gives you a pittance while they keep the rest of the money. That is capitalism, in essence. Working harder doesn’t get you anywhere; the thief isn’t going to give you a bigger share of the profit simply because you made a couple extra bricks that day. Instead, you’re enriching the thief at your own expense. Likewise, the boss isn’t going to suddenly start paying you more money because you’re working harder than you used to. It’s more likely than not that they’ll congratulate you on your hard work and continue to pay dismal wages, chuckling to themselves as they do so. After all, why pay you more to do a better job when you are clearly willing to do a better job without being paid good wages?

Americans also tend to fancy that the individual is all-powerful, that we are the masters of our own individual fates and that our individual choices have no far-reaching effects on society. It also seems to be that the most privileged and well-off parts of American society believe this the most strongly – or at least say it the most loudly. If we return to the example of the thief and the brick maker, it might seem at first that the brick maker’s poor decision to work harder would only affect that particular brick maker. However, the thief does not only steal from that solitary brick maker, but from an entire neighborhood of brick makers. What do you think will happen when one brick maker starts putting out 2,000 bricks a day while the others are only putting out 1,500? The thief will, of course, demand that they speed up production and each make 2,000 bricks or they will be replaced with different brick makers. So in the end, rather than the brick makers making 1,500 bricks for a tiny pittance, we have brick makers making 2,000 bricks for the exact same tiny pittance. Working harder helped absolutely no one and instead only made the thief richer. And no doubt before long another person will ask “Why don’t you just work harder?” to some poor brick maker, and the cycle will start all over again.

Of course, as time goes on and the work keeps speeding up, eventually the brick makers will be unable to keep up with the thief’s demands and people start being removed from their jobs because they physically cannot keep up with the demands of their job. The quest for a better wage has suddenly become survival of the fittest before anyone realized it. And even the most fit and physically perfect members of our society cannot turn out the maximum number of bricks forever. In the meantime, the thief grows richer and richer off of the toil of the brick makers without adding a single cent to their paychecks to get them to work harder. And as you would not expect a thief to give you more money for giving them more things to steal from you, you cannot expect your boss to give you a pay raise because you decided to take on extra work for free. Your labor is an expense, and if your boss can get more of your labor without paying you for it, they will.

So, the next time someone asks you “why don’t you simply work harder?”, turn the question around and ask them “why would the boss suddenly start to pay me for work that they’re getting for free?” Working harder is not the answer if you want better wages. Instead, consider the old Wobbly maxim: good pay or bum work. After all, you wouldn’t expect a cheap piece of machinery to work better than an expensive one. Why should an ill-paid worker do just as much work as a well-paid one? As they say, you get what you pay for.

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