a sense of entitlement

May 14th, 2008

By some people's logic, this how the economy is supposed to work:

  1. New companies emerge all the time.
  2. No companies ever close.
  3. Consumers always buy the cheaper and better products.
  4. No products ever become obsoleted and force the company to go out of business.

Sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn't it?

When a new company opens in a town and provides a thousand new jobs, there's noone protesting that this is unfair, we didn't do anything to deserve this, that you can't just suddenly create new jobs out of nothing, there aren't people complaining that it's not right, we didn't get jobs at the new company. No, people accept it with great fanfare. Great, the economy is growing, our town will prosper! People will have more money, there'll be less unemployment, we'll be able to afford a higher standard of living.

And yet when, after 40 years, the company goes out of business or moves their production to a cheaper location, people say this is outrageous, 1000 jobs will be lost! There's anger and pandemonium, how can they do this to us, we were loyal to the company for 40 years. People appeal to some sort of higher ethical body; you can't take our livelihood away, what are we going to do with ourselves? And the town itself, which never had much industry, and really just had that one company that employed everyone in town, starts to regress. People move out in search of jobs, young people leave and don't come back, noone moves in because there's no local economy.

It's a sensitive topic. Losing your livelihood is one of the more challenging life situations. But before you start screaming that it's those damn crooked politicians and those greedy executives that have stolen your life, take a moment to think about why you had that job in the first place. In fact, let's start with the basics: what does it mean to have a job?

It means that you are producing a product or offering a service that someone is willing to buy. It does not mean any of these things:

  1. Someone is being nice to you.
  2. You deserve this.
  3. You're going to keep your job because you've been loyal to the company.

If you actually believed any of that then you were under a complete misapprehension. Sure, sentimental concerns do come into it sometimes, like the boss's son getting a summer job because he's family. But in the long run, the only thing that matters is the economic reality.

If you think that's a raw deal, think about this. Most artists aren't wealthy, in fact most artists are struggling to get enough work to live on. A painter may think that he deserves to live a decent life as a painter, but if noone is willing to buy his work, well he's not going to. Is that unfair? No, it isn't, because if he's not producing anything of value, why should anyone have to pay to keep him in business? So if a painter can't do the job he wants to, why should it be any different for you making shoes, or catching fish, or whatever it is you do?

There used to be people working in elevators who would press the buttons. We don't need them anymore. Shepherds aren't in great demand either. Neither are telegraph operators. These professions have all be superseded and they're not coming back. Many others still exist, but have been moved to where production is cheaper, like textiles.

It's always a turbulent transition, you can be sure of that. We don't have hunters anymore, we have domesticated animals now, no need to chase them in the woods. Think about how many hunters were out of work when this happened. But what should they have done, lynch the guy who came up with the idea of keeping animals on the property? Compared to the hunters' relatively narrow interests (although there were many of them), domestic animals were very beneficial to the village. For one thing, you didn't wonder where dinner was coming from, the animals were right there. So should the villagers have discarded this new idea just to make sure the hunters could keep their jobs?

I've got news for you. The very same thing you're protesting against, your job being taken away, you're doing the same thing to people everyday. That's right, you're not so innocent yourself. Have you ever bought a car from a different automaker, because it was cheaper? Did you ever buy peaches from Spain instead of domestic apples? Well, I'm sure it must have been a very gruelling decision for you, right? I mean to think that you could be putting car makers and farmers out of business because you're not buying their products, that's a tough one to swallow.

And what did you get out of it? You could afford to buy more things, because the new products were cheaper. And they didn't break as quick, so you could use them longer. And they had some functions that the old products didn't have, which made you happy. And just as this was happening, the old companies that couldn't stay competitive were going out of business one by one, people were losing their jobs. But hey, you got a pretty good deal out of it, didn't you?

Here's what it comes down to. You're not entitled to your job. You'll only have it for as long as people are willing to buy your product. And even if you've had it for 40 years, that doesn't mean the global market won't make it obsolete tomorrow. There was a demand for your product, now there isn't. You didn't do anything to deserve getting it, and you didn't do anything to deserve losing it.

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3 Responses to "a sense of entitlement"

  1. Zeth says:

    That is a very corporatist point of view. No offence but this kind of thinking has not had the best outcomes (.e.g. 1930s Germany etc).

    It is also quite selective.

    >"When a new company opens in a town and provides a thousand new jobs"

    How many subsidies/tax breaks did they get from the state or local government to locate to that town? How many times were they given a free ride over planning
    support or pollution or whatever because they were locally important?

    There is not any company that large which does not have some kind of direct or indirect support from the state (i.e. society). So therefore society has a stake in the company.

    At the very least the business depended on the infrastructure funded originally by the state. Can the business start without roads, or water or whatever? Without workers who were educated by someone else, without police protection from bandits and without peace from foreign invasion, and so on and so on.

    Secondly, companies this large are "public" companies. This I suppose depends on your beliefs around property. In Britain where I live, according to tradition, no one actually owns anything, everything on the island belongs to society, i.e. the Queen who is supposed to be the physical embodiment of society and the people.

    Private people and institutions may "hold" shares, people may have a "freehold" or "leasehold" on land or buildings, but the means of production are only being held in trust for society.

    So take SCO, they threw away their company over braindead legal theories and they are in bankruptcy. This is not a private matter, there is a US trustee there to protect the interests of society.

  2. numerodix says:

    I know don't know what you're getting at, Zeth. I'm arguing that once a certain product or service becomes obsolete people lose their jobs, inevitably. I don't see you refuting that.

    Maybe you're saying that companies have a certain responsibility to the local community, but even there you're not so convincing. I agree with what you say about all the conditions that have to be met for a company to open in a certain location, but it's something that goes both ways, in some sense a symbiotic relationship. So if you're saying that the taxpayers are funding this, then fine, but what they get in return is jobs, which is pretty much the most valuable commodity for any society, isn't it?

    But what does it matter if the product they're making doesn't sell anymore, what are they supposed to do? Well, you can subsidize certain industries, we do that all the time. I doesn't really seem like the brightest idea though, because it's not sustainable. Once you start subsidizing an industry that can't compete on the international market you're stuck doing that forever.

    What you can do instead is fund a transition period. So if you're a farmer and you can't compete on quality or price, maybe you shouldn't be a farmer anymore. Maybe you should go to school and get another education, and the state can help you through that with some funding. That seems a lot more forward thinking to me.

    And how on earth did you manage to bring SCO into this, that's practically Godwin!! :D

  3. Thanks for this post. Sense of entitlement has helped, in a small part, to bring about the current recession of the USA. Capitalism and a lightly-governed free-market is the way to true democratic freedom.

    Good post.