On this Labor Day weekend, 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 was savvy enough to raise his workers' pay to unheard-of levels so they could buy the Model Ts they were cranking out on the assembly line, another American innovation.
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.")
Much like economics itself, 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, general hurly-burly, and great adventure -- has labored so hard to make labor obsolete.