Doug French

Everybody does "shadow work." No matter how a person makes a living — trading time, talent, and productivity for a more marketable commodity, money, so as to trade that indirect good for necessities and beyond. Virtually everyone in the modern economy pumps their own gas, drives themselves to work, or scans their own groceries.

In his New York Times piece "Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work" Craig Lambert says the term "shadow work" was coined 30 years ago by Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, in his 1981 book of that title. Illich believed any work we do that we aren't directly compensated for is shadow work.

Mr. Lambert points out that in order to work for a living we all take on various unpaid tasks. Driving to a job means we have to not only operate the car but fuel it, obtain insurance, have it maintained periodically, and so on. Even if we don't change the oil, we accept the management role to see that it's done.

The digital world has generated hours of shadow work. Travel agents are going the way of the Dodo bird while we log in and book our own plane flights, rental cars, and hotel reservations.  Once we get to the airport, we deal with self-serve kiosks until it's time to cross the TSA border where a human hand is provided but unwanted.

Few executives dictate letters anymore; it's much more efficient for them to type their own letters, and cost of staff is high.

"The conventional wisdom is that America has become a 'service economy,'" writes Lambert, "but actually, in many sectors, 'service' is disappearing." The deputy editor of Harvard Magazine lays the blame for passing on these chores to corporations. "Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay."

He goes on to contend that Wal-Mart and Target don't fully staff their stores so that customers will wander around the store more and buy things they hadn't intended to.

But what Lambert misses is that this shadow work is one of the effects of inflation, along with the government's ongoing effort to prop up the cost of labor with regulations and the minimum wage.

Plenty of teenage boys cut their employment teeth filling people's tanks, checking their oil, and airing up their tires. When not pumping gas, these kids poked their heads in the attached garage and learned from the mechanics.

Doug French

Doug French is is president of the Mises Institute and author of Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply and Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Ownership Myth

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