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Dr. Sutter: Labor Day reflections on quiet quitting

Labor Day was established in 1894 to honor America’s workers.

“Quiet quitting” refers to working no more than necessary to keep your job and then bragging about it on Tik Tok.

Does quiet quitting disrespect Labor Day?

Each Labor Day we should celebrate the labor market. The labor market is part of the market economy, an economic system based entirely on voluntary participation and the freely given consent of all parties. The labor market is a foundation of personal freedom.

By contrast, throughout most of human history, commanding others to work as slaves, serfs, or subjects under the pain of beatings, imprisonment, and death was seen as the path to prosperity.

Liberalism (in the classic sense) limited governments by making leaders serve the people and in time ended other forms of servitude, ushering in freedom, dignity, and prosperity.

Karl Marx, oblivious to the transformation of the market economy (that he disparagingly labeled capitalism), called employment wage slavery. The richest Americans cannot force anyone to work for them, although they can afford to pay others to do many things. Paying people to cook or clean or shop for you is not slavery.

Freedom for all means that typically you must pay someone to do something for you. But paid work can be done by either hiring employees or contracting with a firm. A company can clean their offices by hiring janitors or paying a cleaning company.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase identified this choice between the firm (employees) and the market (contracts with another company) as fundamental in markets; it also offers perspective on quiet quitting.

A distinguishing element of an employee is control, or what economists call decision rights. A boss can assign employees tasks not detailed in advance. An employee-janitor can be directed to unload a delivery truck; employees of a janitorial service will move on to their next job when finished cleaning.

The production of goods and services depends not just on the hours of labor but how hard people work, or effort. In principle, employers should spell out a job’s hours, effort, and pay. Yet effort can be difficult to detail and measure. This creates a tension, labeled the wage-effort bargain in industrial relations.

Exactly how hard are employees supposed to work, and are they working this hard?

From the assembly line to Amazon tracking warehouse workers’ steps, employers have tried to ensure employees work hard. But because working hard is hard work, employees will want to slack off. The radically different perspectives of owners and workers explain this tension.

The businesses entrepreneurs start matter enormously to them; owners want employees to care as much as they do. Yet employees have other job options and might easily tell an overbearing boss to, “Take this job and shove it!”

What does this mean for quiet quitting? First, it is perfectly acceptable. Freedom includes the freedom to not work if one is either independently wealthy or OK living meagerly. Freedom to quit one’s current job implies the freedom to not work hard.

Quiet quitting is not wrong, in contrast with, say, employee theft. Quiet quitters should know that market compensation depends on productivity, which depends on effort. Slackers tend not to get raises or promotions. And because employment is voluntary, quiet quitting may get one fired.

Writing at Forbes, Neil Hare attributes much quiet quitting to poor management. As bosses demand more of workers (e.g., responding to emails while off the job), workers will push back. It’s today’s wage-effort bargaining.

Not working hard might produce poor earnings prospects, but effort affects work-life balance. Is hard work and careerism the path to happiness in life? Time spent working at the office is not spent with family or friends.

And here is the importance of labor market freedom: people can pursue different life goals. We should celebrate an economy which accommodates quiet quitters and workaholics and accept when others make choices with their freedom which differ from ours.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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