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Workers are not artichokes

15 August 2019

 

“Labor is a commodity like any other.”

“Any job is better than no job.”

“Any policy that creates jobs is good social policy.”

We hear arguments like these in almost every discussion about the conditions under which people work. Economists like to make arguments based on ideas about markets, supply, and demand. In economic models, when unemployment goes up, the price of work must go down. When a lower equilibrium price is reached, the economy will return to full employment. As logical as it may sounds, it’s also, unfortunately, wrong — because labor is different from, for example, vegetables. The labor market is fundamentally different from the market for vegetables.

The German journalist Wolfgang Uchatius made this point very clearly in 2006 in the German weekly magazine “Die Zeit.” He wrote: “Vegetables have no dignity. A cucumber does not want to fulfill its personal potential. It does not need to feed its family. But in the labor market, such things play an important role.” He cited the Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solow, who, calling on other economists to expand their theoretical horizons, had made the argument fifteen years before. In “The labor market as a social institution,” Solow wrote: “Among economists, it is not obvious at all that labor as a commodity is sufficiently different from artichokes and rental apartments to require a different mode of analysis.” Uchatius summarized Solow’s point concisely: “Workers are not artichokes.”

The point is just as relevant today as it was in 2006, or in 1990. The legal, economic, and technological relationships in which working people find themselves are constantly changing. But one thing has not changed and will not change: human beings are not a commodity. Human beings have dignity. Today we can interpret this as: we cannot allow humans to become the subjects of abstract rules implemented automatically by algorithms. Humans — including YouTube Creators — have the right to understand and to shape what is done with the product of their labor.