The 40 hour work week

One problem with this sort of tweet is that it’s difficult to tell what the poster means by the word “capitalism”. Does he mean the current system of political economy? The current system is a mix of free markets and statism. So to understand the issue properly you would need an explanation of what specific features of the current system lead to a 40 hour work week. Perhaps the poster means that any system of political economy with free markets would require a 40 hour work week. We don’t know cuz he doesn’t explain or link to an explanation. This tweet is an example of overreaching – the author can’t explain what he’s talking about but he posts it anyway.

I’m going to take capitalism to mean free markets, including markets in capital goods, i.e. – goods used to make other goods. Under capitalism, goods are only exchanged as a result of agreements that people enter into without being threatened with force or having force used against them. This definition of capitalism stands for a specific set of principles so it can be discussed. This definition of capitalism is also opposed to policies that people often identify as tempering alleged problems with capitalism, such as Obamacare and the NHS.

Why do many people work 40 hours per week?

Some people might like their work a lot and want to work 40 hours per week or more. That is not a problem, so let’s just concentrate on people who don’t like working 40 hours per week or more.

A person may be paid a low hourly rate so that he has to work 40 hours or more to get enough to support his chosen lifestyle. If he wanted to work less then he would have to either negotiate a higher rate or live a more frugal lifestyle. Negotiating a higher rate may require learning more skills so that his work is worth the higher rate. He may prefer to work 40 hours per week to negotiating, gaining more skills or cutting back.

Some people might blame low pay on capitalism, but employers pay more or less what they think employees are worth. Blaming capitalism for low pay is like blaming your thermometer for the temperature. Under socialism, government control of the means of production, two things would change. First, it would be more difficult to tell what value you’re contributing to production since prices would be heavily distorted or absent. Second, you’d be getting a lot less for your work because without markets capital goods can’t be valued and so can’t be assigned to their highest value uses. This means lots of potential output is wasted or destroyed and makes everybody a lot poorer.

Working full time in the US gives people access to government programs that they wouldn’t have otherwise. An employer may offer 40 hours per week of work because people want those benefits. This is a distortion introduced by a government program, so it’s not a free market problem.

People are also kinda used to something resembling the 40 hour week as a result of compulsory schooling. They have to be at school for something like 6-8 hours each day on pain of punishment. People may get used to that and feel uncomfortable about having more free time. Compulsory schooling involves using force and threats to make a child go to school, which involves initiating the use of force, so it is an anti-capitalist institution.

Some people say things like work gives people purpose. I think this is true for many people. Many people have no interests and couldn’t fill their time with interesting activities without the 40 hour work week. They don’t like work but they’d be lost without it. This is partly due to compulsory schooling and coercive parenting. Schools require that you should change what you think about at the ring of a bell, which makes deep interests difficult. Also, both parents and schools use activities children like as means of punishment. If the child doesn’t obey then he will be denied the activity he likes. So showing interest in anything leads to pain. Schools and parents are skilled at destroying people. Again, these punishments involve initiating the use of force so they are not a result of the free market. This also helps explain why so many people lack skills and hate learning so they have difficulty gaining more skills.

So capitalism is not responsible for people working longer than they want to work.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

2 Responses to The 40 hour work week

  1. > I’m going to take capitalism to mean free markets, including markets in capital goods, i.e. – goods used to make other goods.

    That’s not how “i.e.” and dashes work. Think about how it’d read if you wrote out the words “that is” instead of the abbreviation “i.e.”.

    > with capitalism, e.g. – Obamacare and the NHS.

    > to school, i.e. – initiating the

    same issue

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