Regarding the quote by President Coolidge, I think he was
mostly right. I think the "business of America" is what most people
do to earn a living. But earning a living is not the same thing as the abstract
pursuit of wealth. Earning a living is how people pay their bills, which
consists primarily in feeding themselves, finding shelter and acquiring the
things necessary for a normal life. Anything beyond the basic necessities for
life is often considered a luxury. But most
people (certainly most Americans) are not content with the bare necessities for
existence. They want a higher level of comfort in their lives. Over time, as
our economy has grown, our "pursuit of happiness" became associated (perhaps
mistakenly) with a desire for physical comfort, i.e., leisure. Is comfort the
same thing as luxury? Well, it can be. It all depends on how much comfort you feel
you need in your life. The industrial revolution made possible the creation of
wealth on a larger scale which made some people rich, while giving many other
people the ability to acquire things which made life more pleasant, such as
washing machines, televisions and cars.
Adam Smith talked about the social organization of labor.
Thanks to the industrial revolution and its compartmentalization of labor, the
factory became a more efficient system for producing goods than the old pre-industrial
arrangement based on individual craftsmanship. With machines, you no longer
needed skilled labor to do many of the jobs which could now be done faster
through automation. Unfortunately, we learned that repetitive behavior and
treating people like machines leads to boredom and the loss of pride in one's
work. This results in higher absenteeism in the workplace. Today, many employees
no longer feel any loyalty to their work or their employer because they know
that they can be easily replaced by other non-skilled workers. This results in
a downward spiral of low self-esteem, absenteeism and a steady decline in quality
control. This trend was famously exposed in the American auto industry in the
70s when Japan started bringing its cars into the American market. Japanese
cars demonstrated a higher level of quality for less money than American cars.
Within 10 or 15 years, Japanese cars dominated the American market. Some of
this can be explained by saying that the price of labor was cheaper in Japan.
But the Japanese also proved to be more innovative in their systems management.
The relationship between employer and employee is completely different over
In a mechanized economy where manual labor is increasingly generic
and disposable , will competition result in an aristocracy of labor or its eventual
demise? The old Greek term "arete" (excellence) referred to the art
of doing things well. Pride in one's work was expressed in the craftsmanship of
the finished product. But when manual labor today is reduced to flipping
switches to activate machinery, there doesn't seem to be much room for either
pride or virtue to be associated with work. Work then becomes simply a means
toward a paycheck, which doesn't seem to inspire anyone to rise above the
mediocrity of manufacturing goods and selling them at the lowest possible price.
Of course, it is possible that machines will continue to improve both in
efficiency and quality until the products of human labor will become much too
expensive or perhaps not even worthy of being marketed. In this technological future,
when machine made objects are perfect and superior
to anything a human being could do, what role will humans play in the