I first met Isaac at the Philadelphia Students for Liberty conference last year. He gave a great presentation on why electoral politics were a waste of time. I remember it being well argued and made up of both philosophical and economic arguments that seemed pretty solid to me. It was decidingly more mixed with the audience given that some people there were in politics in some official sense, wanted to be or at least supported some who were.
But in spite of that easily foreseeable opposition Isaac offered some pretty fair reasons to dislike politics. As I remember it basically translates into: it’s too much work.
Well, okay, to be a bit more charitable I should add on the, “…and there are no real benefits for all of that work”.
Maybe if Isaac had just left it at the first post I would’ve liked it a tad more. But as it stands it’s a point that resonates with me all the same.
I’m not interested in discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of electoral politics though. Instead, I want to focus more on Issac’s blog which features several articles on the topic of work.
For this first one I’m just going to focus on his most recent post.
Before that though I want to state I’m focusing on Isaac in particular not because I want to pick on him but on the contrary because I respect him and the arguments he makes.
He’s come off to me a respectable, informed and cheerful person who wants to see the advancement of creativity in the world. These are good things for sure and I don’t want to underplay them just because he and I have some disagreements about work.
I also want to say that Isaac and I differ on terminology. What he calls “work” is just some sort of consistently applied and disciplined form of energy-giving to a certain task or project. That’s my interpretation anyways, I could be wrong and if I am, hopefully Issac will correct me!
In any case, this is “work” in a similar sense to what Oscar Wilde gave in his “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” when he said that work was “simply … activity of any kind.”
My definition of “work” is a bit more politically loaded. It relies on a constricting force of choices and the appeal to rigor, discipline and such don’t really make me much more inclined to agree with Issac about works good nature. I think these attempts to induce us to be more disciplined, rigorous and even turn our imagination into work (we’ll get into that some other time) isn’t, in the end very helpful. It seems to treat effort as some sort of magical key to our problems and I’m not inclined to believe it’s such at all. As I see it, this appeal to rigor just creates new and possibly worse problems by giving us easy avenues to engage in unnecessary self-sacrifice and denying ourselves basic pleasures.
Of course, I don’t claim that any of this is Issac’s intent. But I do fear his arguments for work stem more from a cry for repression of the individual than the liberation of it at the end of the day. At least, historically speaking.
Now, that’s a heavy claim, obviously. But I’ll try to extrapolate on it as this series goes on and hopefully it’ll become more believable.
Let’s stop dragging it out and get into Isaac’s recent post though.
This is the post that actually kicked off my interest in Issac’s writings. I’m not going to review every piece he’s done on the topic of work (too much…well, you know) but I do want to tackle some of the ones I noticed that were particularly relevant, recent or both.
So Issac, because he talks about work has of course talked about the old “do what you love” thing (he has also talked about it more briefly here).
(As a side note, I’ve critiqued that idea here and I also recommend this piece on the Jacobin by Miya Tokumitsu. It should be noted though that I’m not a Marxist and I don’t agree with all of Tokumitus point (especially about conflating capitalism with markets) but I think they generally get it right that the “do what you love” can be an insidious catchphrase more than a good heuristic.)
Isaac, at any rate, doesn’t believe that what people actually want is a job they love. Some people might be better off with a job they hate because they’re making enough money to be able to relax once in a while.
First, I want to say that I find it funny when libertarians state that they think they understand other people’s minds better than their own. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do. I mean, if someone is saying the N-Word a lot, talking about how bad black on black crime is and how anti-racist is just a code word for anti-white and then denies being a racist themselves…well…
But still, Isaac doesn’t really give us any reasoning why he thinks most people are simply deluding themselves. How does he know this? It’s especially funny because this is the exact argument that Marxists make about workers in the workplace when they do enjoy their jobs. They’ve got a bad case of false consciousness and only the Revolution will save them from themselves, comrade!
Somewhat similarly Isaac is claiming not capitalism but something (someone?) has caused these people to fool themselves into thinking they know what they want. But again, I’m not sure why he thinks that. He doesn’t give us any reason to doubt most peoples intuitive beliefs about themselves. And really, if I’m going to doubt “a great many people” as Isaac says, I should have something to go on for why.
To be fair to Isaac he doesn’t think either choice is inherently bad. You might end up working and doing what you love and being happy or being unhappy with your job but happy outside of it. Either might work for an individual and Isaac seems to be content with people choosing whatever works best for them. So it ends up coming out to not that bad of a deal, really.
…But then the question remains how they’re going to choose what makes them happy if they apparently don’t know what’s best for themselves to begin with.
Maybe we should elect Isaac to tell us…
This dichotomous choice of love vs. non-love relies on some odd notions of what people can or can’t do though.
There are people who can never be happy unless they are doing work they love. For them, it doesn’t even matter if they make a lot of money at it. If those people chase money and status over fulfilling work, they’ll be miserable.
There are also people who can never be happy unless they have a large amount of money, free time, leisure, and a minimum of stress. For them, it doesn’t even matter much what kind of work they do, as long as it yields them enough money in a small enough amount of time to do what they really love. If those people chase a meaningful career with all the material and time sacrifices that requires, they’ll be miserable.
Now, I agree with Isaac that simply “doing what you love” isn’t some simple ingredient to happiness. Hell, I love writing. I enjoy writing this post, writing for the Center for a Stateless Society, working on their Youtube channel and so on. I love doing all of those things because they give me an outlet for my creative passions. I hate my current job. I’m glad it gives me the income to not have to worry so much when I want to travel to Boston or somewhere else. But other than that I could really live without it.
In any case, my net result isn’t happiness or even contentment. That’s because there are other factors in life besides work and non-work. A close relationship of mine isn’t doing so hot, to be brief. And this is really affecting my mental health right now. Maybe if that was in a better spot my job wouldn’t be so contempt-worthy to me. But nevertheless simply taking into account work and not-work doesn’t really capture the breadth of places to have happiness in.
To address the quote more specifically I can see what Isaac is saying here but I think he’s a bit too strict with his roles. It seems entirely possible to do what you love and care about status to some degree. On the other side of things it doesn’t seem as apparent to me as it does to Isaac that what you love must always involve some sort of “meaningful sacrifice”.
Both might be generally true, I’m not sure.
For example, I want to be a comic book writer. That’s not going to be easy and especially if I ever wanted to do it on a professional level it would be a good example of a passion that’d take a lot of meaningful and consistent effort to work like it should. But even though that’d be the case I’d still need to worry about things like status, money and nomalcy. Perhaps in a different context then if I was doing a non-dream job. But they’d still seem like significant factors in some way or the other. In other words, these qualities don’t seem mutually exclusive to me and I’m not sure why Isaac is treating them like that.
It’s also worth pointing out that if what you’re in love with in terms of work basically revolves around sacrifice then you may want to reevaluate your goals and ways to get there.
Work smarter, not harder.
Then again, I understand Isaac is limited by both space and imagination (as am I for that matter, this isn’t intended to be an insult at all) so he can only go so far into these models.
That is where this handy dandy graph comes in:
Okay, so according to Isaac,
The upper left quadrant represents those people who have gone all-in to find work that makes them feel alive every day. … The upper right quadrant is where people who have accepted the fact that work is not for them hang out. … Ah yes, the martyr. The people in the lower left quadrant are probably the hardest for me to be around. … Opposite of the previous category, those in the lower right quadrant believe themselves to be made happiest by money, status, and “normalcy”. But they are wrong about their true desires.
Just so we’re out in the open here I’m in the bottom-right quadrant.
And let me tell you that “money, status and normalcy” don’t give me much happiness nor am I/really ever were after them. I went to college for a year before I realized what a farce it was, at least for me personally.
As far as money is concerned with the exception of book I don’t buy much besides food though I understand that’s a fairly unique position to be in and a privileged one to be sure. I don’t deny that.
Status? I hardly understand status a lot of the time nor do I often care what it is. Isaac and I both sympathize with pushing back at status given his disposition towards the “voluntary dress code” at the SFL conference. I dressed in jeans and an ALL t-shirt. So, ya know, I feel you on this, Isaac!
Normalcy? As someone who has aspergers syndrome I tend to be anything or yearn for anything but normalcy!
So this description completely falls flat for me, personally. Now there are some reasonable explanations for this. Maybe I’m an outlier though or some sort of statistical anomaly, though I’m not sure of that but it’s at least possible.
In any case this caricature seems, like Issac’s earlier ones, very rigid. Most people who I personally know don’t hate their jobs and their lives because they like status but because their part-time job is how they’re getting by. Or it’s their way to something better in the near-future. Whatever it is it’s often less to do with their own personal values and more of the values of the economy. An economy, I think Isaac and I would both agree is heavily influenced by government intervention that makes people’s personal values artificially harder to realize.
I’m not saying no one is to blame if they fail. But what I am saying is that the chances of failure become much higher when you’re in a heavily distorted economy that tends to focus certain industry players to the detriment of many others. We’ve had that sort of economy for a long time now and its effects are complicated and perverse, to say the least. It doesn’t give us all some magical “get out of effort” card but it does impact our ability to get out at all. So I think that’s worth paying attention to.
More generally speaking I don’t find Isaac’s model to be very helpful.
But okay, at this point I’m sure someone has thought, much like Monty Python did:
Yeah, and okay, fair enough.
I get that it’s not meant to capture all of the intricacies of people’s personal desires and what situations they want. And it’s not like I don’t find any merit in Isaac’s model. I think leaving out people’s economic situation (i.e. whether they’re rich or poor) was a good idea. Because you can be rich but be unhappy with what you’re doing for work. Or you can be poor and happy with what you’re doing for work. One may not be as likely than the other but it’s still good to recognize the variety of situations or contexts that can happen within certain economic conditions.
The “But they are wrong about their true desires” bit is, again, not really my sort of analysis I’d favor. But at least hear it seems a bit plausible to tell someone that when they say X is amazing but it causes them misery that they have no idea what they’re talking about to one extent or another. So I’ll let that pass because, at least in this case, doubting someone’s value systems sees much more intuitively plausible to me.
The one quadrant that’s most interesting to me is the “I hate my work and I’m happy” so let’s look at that more in depth before I wrap up:
The upper right quadrant is where people who have accepted the fact that work is not for them hang out. They’ve also come to grips with the fact that the things they actually do love require a good bit of money and time, and work is required to get it. They configure their lives to do the minimum amount of drudgery to get the maximum payoff. I know business owners who have no interest in their industry, or salespeople who would just as unhappily sell something totally different. They just found a niche where they can get what they need.
They sometimes live the Four Hour Workweek life, and truly put in almost no time to keep the income stream going. Those with a longer time horizon and ability to defer gratification may put in a lot more hours upfront and endure a high degree of boredom for the payoff of evenings, weekends, or retirement. I know people who I don’t think would ever find happiness in any kind of work. They want leisure. But they’ve made their peace with this fact and put all their energy into being true to that reality, instead of unhappily chasing an illusive form of work they’d love, or feeling guilty for their material desires.
I take a particular interest in this because I feel like I could end up here. Maybe if my personal life wasn’t such a mess (no, I’m not getting into that) I’d be okay with where I’m at. I have a pretty good home situation in terms of finances and saving money so I can travel more effectively soon. But at the same time my work and non-work areas are being heavily overshadowed by personal matters that make the creeping sensation I get when I am at work for more than five hours at my job a lot worse than it would otherwise.
I mean, I’m speculating to some extent. But I don’t remember the depression hitting me this hard after five hours of work just a few months ago. Maybe it’s the job itself (totally possible) but I can’t help but think that it must be in some part due to the depression from external things.
To get back to the matter at hand though, as I’ve said before I feel like Isaac relies too much on caricatures that are too fixed in their places (even making the smart accounting for class) for this model to be very useful. At least for me and my experiences I just didn’t get much out of this model. I appreciate the attempt to some degree but it’s not nearly elastic enough with its assumptions about why someone would be in a given quadrant.
The factoring in of various class positions simply aren’t enough because class divides aren’t the only things that divide people up. There can be plenty of different personal frameworks or philosophies that lead otherwise similar people who hate their jobs and be unhappy but aren’t there because they like status or what have you.
There are other, pretty plausible and intuitive reasons, why they might hate their job and also be unhappy that could involve lack of economic choices, doing it to get to something better, being disabled or having some major external factor limiting their resources to do something else, etc.
Again, I don’t want to act like Isaac can account for everything but I’m not convinced that he’s really accounting for many of the basics.
I’ll have more to say about Isaac’s other articles on work (including his thoughts on working hard as well as companies and work) but let’s finish here for now.