On this Labor Day, like most Americans, I come to praise labor, not indulge in it. Has there ever been a people that speechified more about the joys and satisfactions of work and the work ethic, yet was so enamored of labor-saving devices?
American efficiency, American organization, and therefore American prosperity has been something of an example around the world -- at least since Henry Ford, that half-genius, half-crank and all-American revolutionary, put the world on wheels. And sagely raised his workers' pay to unheard-of levels ($5 a day!) so they could buy the Model Ts they were making.
A few kinks have developed in the American image since -- like the Great Depression and occasional lapses in that once vaunted made-in-USA craftsmanship. Still, no other system seems to have responded so flexibly to the challenge, mystery and psychological thriller known as the "science" of economics. (To quote Hayek, "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.")
The American attitude toward labor can be a curious paradox: simultaneous admiration and distaste for work. Surely no other civilization -- if that's the right word for this American experiment, hurly-burly and adventure -- has labored so hard to make labor obsolete, or at least optional.
Americans long have sought to avoid the kind of labor that demeans: dull, rote, repetitive, unthinking and literal as the workings of a computer, the kind of brutish labor that will follow binary orders right out the window. But we never seem to tire of the kind of labor that elevates and expands the human consciousness, that approaches a craft or even art.
Whether it was the Shakers in their neat little colonies full of music and workmanship ('Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free....) or Jefferson at Monticello, Americans long have been fascinated with laborsaving devices. Inventing and perfecting them remains our favorite form of labor.
To equate labor with inevitable drudgery is a European confusion, and a positively un-American habit of thought. The labor that is celebrated this holiday is the opposite of drudgery; it is intended to set us free, to earn our self-respect, and free us from mere work.
Naturally a day of rest has been set aside to honor labor. If we really loved work, we'd be working -- not picnicking and taking that last dip in the pool. "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do," Mark Twain explained in Tom Sawyer. "Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." Whitewashing a fence can be either, depending on the psychology involved, as Tom well knew. He and the Finn boy were American to Mark Twain's core.