Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: Joy and Tedium of Labor - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
2: Joy and Tedium of Labor - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Joy and Tedium of Labor
Only extroversive, not immediately gratifying labor is a topic of catallactic disquisition. The characteristic mark of this kind of labor is that it is performed for the sake of an end which is beyond its performance and the disutility which it involves. People work because they want to reap the produce of labor. The labor itself causes disutility. But apart from this disutility which is irksome and would enjoin upon man the urge to economize labor even if his power to work were not limited and he were able to perform unlimited work, special emotional phenomena sometimes appear, feelings of joy or tedium, accompanying the execution of certain kinds of labor.
Both, the joy and the tedium of labor, are in a domain other than the disutility of labor. The joy of labor therefore can neither alleviate nor remove the disutility of labor. Neither must the joy of labor be confused with the immediate gratification provided by certain kinds of work. It is an attendant phenomenon which proceeds either from labor’s mediate gratification, the produce or reward, or from some accessory circumstances.
People do not submit to the disutility of labor for the sake of the joy which accompanies the labor, but for the sake of its mediate gratification. In fact the joy of labor presupposes for the most part the disutility of the labor concerned.
The sources from which the joy of labor springs are:
The various kinds of work offer different conditions for the appearance of the joy of labor. These conditions may be by and large more homogeneous in classes 1 and 3 than in class 2. It is obvious that they are more rarely present for class 4.
The joy of labor can be entirely absent. Psychical factors may eliminate it altogether. On the other hand one can purposely aim at increasing the joy of labor.
Keen discerners of the human soul have always been intent upon enhancing the joy of labor. A great part of the achievements of the organizers and leaders of armies of mercenaries belonged to this field. Their task was easy as far as the profession of arms provides the satisfactions of class 4. However, these satisfactions do not depend on the arms-bearer’s loyalty. They also come to the soldier who leaves his war-lord in the lurch and turns against him in the service of new leaders. Thus the particular task of the employers of mercenaries was to promote an esprit de corps and loyalty that could render their hirelings proof against temptations. There were also, of course, chiefs who did not bother about such impalpable matters. In the armies and navies of the eighteenth century the only means of securing obedience and preventing desertion were barbarous punishments.
Modern industrialism was not intent upon designedly increasing the joy of labor. It relied upon the material improvement that it brought to its employees in their capacity as wage earners as well as in their capacity as consumers and buyers of the products. In view of the fact that job-seekers thronged to the plants and everyone scrambled for the manufactures, there seemed to be no need to resort to special devices. The benefits which the masses derived from the capitalist system were so obvious that no entrepreneur considered it necessary to harangue the workers with procapitalist propaganda. Modern capitalism is essentially mass production for the needs of the masses. The buyers of the products are by and large the same people who as wage earners cooperate in their manufacturing. Rising sales provided dependable information to the employer about the improvement of the masses’ standard of living. He did not bother about the feelings of his employees as workers. He was exclusively intent upon serving them as consumers. Even today, in face of the most persistent and fanatical anticapitalist propaganda, there is hardly any counter-propaganda.
This anticapitalist propaganda is a systematic scheme for the substitution of tedium for the joy of labor. The joy of labor of classes 1 and 2 depends to some extent on ideological factors. The worker rejoices in his place in society and his active cooperation in its productive effort. If one disparages this ideology and replaces it by another which represents the wage earner as the distressed victim of ruthless exploiters, one turns the joy of labor into a feeling of disgust and tedium.
No ideology, however impressively emphasized and taught, can affect the disutility of labor. It is impossible to remove or to alleviate it by persuasion or hypnotic suggestion. On the other hand it cannot be increased by words and doctrines. The disutility of labor is a phenomenon unconditionally given. The spontaneous and carefree discharge of one’s own energies and vital functions in aimless freedom suits everybody better than the stern restraint of purposive effort. The disutility of labor also pains a man who with heart and soul and even with self-denial is devoted to his work. He too is eager to reduce the lump of labor if it can be done without prejudice to the mediate gratification expected, and he enjoys the joy of labor of class 3.
However, the joy of labor of classes 1 and 2 and sometimes even that of class 3 can be eliminated by ideological influences and be replaced by the tedium of labor. The worker begins to hate his work if he becomes convinced that what makes him submit to the disutility of labor is not his own higher valuation of the stipulated compensation, but merely an unfair social system. Deluded by the slogans of the socialist propagandists, he fails to realize that the disutility of labor is an inexorable fact of human conditions, something ultimately given that cannot be removed by devices or methods of social organization. He falls prey to the Marxian fallacy that in a socialist commonwealth work will arouse not pain but pleasure.3
The fact that the tedium of labor is substituted for the joy of labor affects the valuation neither of the disutility of labor nor of the produce of labor. Both the demand for labor and the supply of labor remain unchanged. For people do not work for the sake of labor’s joy, but for the sake of the mediate gratification. What is altered is merely the worker’s emotional attitude. His work, his position in the complex of the social division of labor, his relations to other members of society and to the whole of society appear to him in a new light. He pities himself as the defenseless victim of an absurd and unjust system. He becomes an ill-humored grumbler, an unbalanced personality, an easy prey to all sorts of quacks and cranks. To be joyful in the performance of one’s tasks and in overcoming the disutility of labor makes people cheerful and strengthens their energies and vital forces. To feel tedium in working makes people morose and neurotic. A commonwealth in which the tedium of labor prevails is an assemblage of rancorous, quarrelsome and wrathful malcontents.
However, with regard to the volitional springs for overcoming the disutility of labor, the role played by the joy and the tedium of labor is merely accidental and supererogatory. There cannot be any question of making people work for the mere sake of the joy of labor. The joy of labor is no substitute for the mediate gratification of labor. The only means of inducing a man to work more and better is to offer him a higher reward. It is vain to bait him with the joy of labor. When the dictators of Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy tried to assign to the joy of labor a definite function in their system of production, they saw their expectations blighted.
Neither the joy nor the tedium of labor can influence the amount of labor offered on the market. As far as these feelings are present with the same intensity in all kinds of work, the case is obvious. But it is the same with regard to joy and tedium which are conditioned by the particular features of the work concerned or the particular character of the worker. Let us look, for example, at the joy of class 4. The eagerness of certain people to get jobs which offer an opportunity for the enjoyment of these particular satisfactions tends to lower wage rates in this field. But it is precisely this effect that makes other people, less responsive to these questionable pleasures, prefer other sectors of the labor market in which they can earn more. Thus an opposite tendency develops which neutralizes the first one.
The joy and the tedium of labor are psychological phenomena which influence neither the individual’s subjective valuation of the disutility and the mediate gratification of labor nor the price paid for labor on the market.
[3. ]Engels, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft (7th ed. Stuttgart, 1910), p. 317. See above, p. 137. [Friedrich Engels. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution of Science (Anti-Dühring), Lawrence & Wishart, Ltd., London, 1934; Marxist-Leninist Library, 1936, p. 322.]