[August 23, 2003]

Rethinking Labor Day

By Wayne Dunn

Labor Day honors working men and women. And while it's proper to admire hard work, the actual physical labor life requires is less grueling than ever thanks not to the power of muscles, but the power of minds.

The idea for a Labor Day holiday sprang up in the late 1800s and is premised, frankly, on a Marxist fallacy then gaining ground: since progress is owed to the "common" man's toil, which capitalists merely "exploit," laborers deserve veneration.

But that begs the question: if progress stems from physical exertion, why then did cavemen's labor not yield blast furnaces and printing presses? Why were there no airplanes and cell phones in, say, 900 AD, when men, women, and even children toiled from dawn to dusk?

Clearly, manual labor is no more responsible for industrial civilization than biceps are for light bulbs. Each new discovery that nudged-- or rocketed-- mankind forward is the result of some individual's thinking.

Even a basic concept like growing crops, for example, had first to originate as a thought in someone's mind, history knows not who. But someone must've gotten fed up with foraging grain and berries and figured out to plant seeds where he wanted food to grow.

Now, to us, agriculture's a given. But to the originator's contemporaries, it must have seemed radical. No doubt it met opposition. No doubt he was told his plan would anger the gods or disrupt society, for whom he should sacrifice personal thoughts and goals. Perhaps he was even put to death before his idea finally took root.

Ayn Rand wrote in "The Fountainhead" that the man who first discovered how to make fire "was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light."

Sadly, that's how common people have often greeted new ideas-- with suspicion, fear, even hostility. Case in point, Luddites, a 19th-century group opposing automation, smashed machines, burned mills, and murdered owners. Yet factories led to cheaper, more abundant goods and created more jobs than they erased.

Indeed, common men are the greatest beneficiaries of uncommon men's thinking. Even the simple or infirm, under capitalism, profit from the achievements of geniuses like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates. Consider, for example, that a carpenter is more productive and thus earns a better living because of the invention of power tools. Consider that a farmer with a bum leg and a weak heart can plow hundreds of acres while sitting in the air-conditioned cab of his tractor, sipping lemonade and listening to the radio.

Far from being "exploited," the average poor person in a capitalist society has a car, TV, phone, electric lights, indoor plumbing and music at the touch of a button -- a standard of living besting all the monarchs of old. These are marvels not of human labor, but of human minds.

Perhaps this Labor Day weekend we ought to take a moment to rethink who and what we should really be celebrating.

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© COPYRIGHT 2003 by Wayne Dunn