Sharon Beder’s errors of logic and judgment – notes in progress

(book, Selling the Work Ethic)

I’ m also providing a link to this from my blog. This is unedited and will remain in ‘draft’ form. Sanjeev 23 March 2007.


A book that rambles without a coherent objective or argument, confusing itself and tying itself in illogical knots. One searches hard to find out a clear indication of what the author is trying to advocate: That we should all stop working? That we should work less hours? That we should not ‘outsource’ work to the Third World? That working hard is without reward, and we should work long hours but not work hard? That Christianity should be abolished, particularly Protestants? That poverty, disease, filth and early death – a natural outcome of not working intelligently, is preferable to its obverse? That working less will improve our environment? Don’t know, simply can’t figure out what the book is about. I’m therefore forced to challenge its innumerable logical and factual fallacies. As this is too daunting a task in terms of time, I’ll stop after a little while and move on to more useful ‘work’.  Stopped further reading and note making. 17,21 and 23 March 2007.


Beder’s comment

 Beder’s error of logic/ judgement

The true situation

Beder’s lack of clarity on the basic question: what is work?

Beder wants people to stop working and to be creative and involved in cultural/ philosophical activity without  acknowledging that work is creative – no matter what the kind of work.  She excludes the possibility that policy development, retail and marketing, or science and medicine are critically dependent on creativity.

People are creative in different fields in different ways. Scientists or engineers are creative in their own way, doctors differently, and retailers in yet another way. Maslow spoke of n-ach or the need for achievement. We all gain a sense of satisfaction from a piece of output well done. That we all subsist ultimately by exchanging these pieces of output is the next step, its corollary.

People seem to be working very hard without just reward.

A theme running throughout Beder's book is that people who work hard should have reaped significant awards through becoming successful, but in real life do not necessarily achieve such success. This argument is reminiscent of the labour theory of value propounded erroneously even by Adam Smith, apart from Karl Marx who took it to monumental extremes.


The value of what we produce is not determined by the labour we put into it, but by the demand for what we produce. It is therefore critical that every individual focuses effort only on things in which they have a comparative advantage, and which are demanded by the rest of the world. If people choose to produce things that no one wants, no amount of hard work will yield success.

While people are putting in more work today, on average, than they did as hunters in primitive tribes, it is not true that they put in more work than slaves or servants in the past, even agricultural workers/ serfs.  Given the significant productivity gain available to us today in comparison to our ancestors, we are able to produce far more in the same amount of time, thus displacing food production as the only major activity of mankind till its recent history. In primitive societies, though, such as India, food production still remains a major activity where, despite working extremely hard, farmers can barely make ends meet. All agricultural societies were extremely poor on average (notwithstanding rapacious kings) in comparison to any industrial society today. The lifespan of human beings was also extremely short in that period, leading to a longevity of around 30 years at the most.


Today, poverty has almost entirely been wiped out from this planet, leading us in many parts of the world to a situation of surplus in food and even manufacturers, thus driving down the prices of every item produced.


This has not happened merely by hard work, which is an insignificant part of the success story of mankind, but by doing work intelligently. To demean the success of the human brain and science by expecting that hard work alone should be rewarded, is to upturn the entire process of modern civilization and freedom.

Claims that people in the past lived into a ‘good round age’ (p.14).

This is a plain and simple lie.

Half the children born prior to the scientific revolution died before the age 5. Others died a little later. A little over 2 out of the average 7 children each woman had in those days survived to age 30. That is why the world population grew extremely slowly for tens of thousands of years. Full fertility was needed merely to maintain the human species.  A person was very lucky to live beyond 30. Most had damaged bones, teeth, and aged significantly by 45. Most were undernourished, entire families lived in a single room in a small house, and had little or no education.

Claims that social mobility or ability to move economic ‘levels’ in a lifetime declined as result of capitalism (p.42)

Cites someone to allege that “while the wealthy reaped the gains, the poor seem to get even poorer”.

Any basic book such as Maddison’s Dynamic Forces in Capitalist Development, or Easterlin’s Growth Triumphant will show how terribly false this claim is. A recent book of significant relevance to Australia is Peter Saunder’s “Australia's Welfare Habit and how to kick it” that addresses the issue of poverty in developed societies with great care.

Beder questions the so-called ‘work ethic’ Comments that very few or none have ever questioned the work ethic.

There are good reasons why no one goes around questioning the basic need to work and why people abhor the thought of able bodied people on the dole. Does she want all of mankind to stop working and simply to pray to God for manna?

Food, shelter and clothing does not happen by magic. Even animals have to “work” to hunt prey. “Work” – the activity needed to accumulate one’s food, shelter and clothing, is a natural and necessary requirement of any creature on earth, whether an amoeba or human.

Alleges that people indulge in mindless wealth acquisition

Claims that some “work ethics” promote the mindless acquisition of wealth. People apparently exist who use wealth creation as a certificate of their superiority.

In a free market system people are free to do whatever they choose including abiding by a range of different work ethics. Foolishness of the sort cited by Beder is not the prerogative of a capitalist society alone. It can be displayed by any individual.

No one is required by any writer on ‘capitalism’ to ape someone those spend life in mindlessly acquiring wealth at the cost of their health or family. Most writers of capitalism such as Hayek or Friedman were ordinary professors earning modestly and living modest lifestyles.

Complains that we now have an increased standard of living at the cost of more demanding worklife

p.256 – cites Juliet Schor “Capitalism has brought a dramatically increased standard of living, but at the cost of a much more demanding worklife”

Like Marx, this view first complements capitalism on its wealth creating properties, but then ignores the fact that without it there is anarchy, feudalism or socialism where worklife may not be “demanding” (ask a feudal serf about that)  but life itself is always in danger, being brutish and short

Capitalism has brought a dramatically increased standard of living, but that is the least of its merits. It is an ethical system that allows people to reap the just rewards of their efforts. People are able to choose freely whatever lifestyle they wish to pursue within the framework of a just system.

Opposes outsourcing

Complains about outsourcing to the “Third World” and workers in the first world losing jobs, being made part time or becoming casual workers.

If work is not good in the first place shouldn’t the objective of the grandiosely self-proclaimed “First World” be to send off all jobs to the Third World? Everyone in the first world would then be on welfare and everyone in the third world should produce for the first world. But that begs the question: why should the third world work in the first place?

And second, from where then will the first world fund its ‘welfare’ system?

The world should run on justice, with whoever is able to deliver a product or service at a better quality and cheaper price gaining the right to produce it. A world where subsidies are provided for those who produce shoddy products at a high price would turn the concept of justice upside down.

Alleges that capitalism is based on blaming the poor (p.46).

The philosophy of capitalism has been built in tiny stages by people imperfect in many ways, eg. corrupt people like Francis Bacon, slave holders like Jefferson. Citing partially misguided thinkers of the past does not prove anything today. Australia had a white Australia policy till recently; does it mean that Australians are racists today?

The ideals of a free society depend on individual responsibility and accountability. No one is obliged to look after another, for free. Despite that, all capitalist societies promote altruism, and invariably have schemes to look after those unable to stand up on their own feet.

Alleges that work creates stress

Attributes stress to work

False data on increasing stress claims (not 40% per year) – p.254. Fact is that workplace injuries have been declining not rising since feudal times. More farmers and hunters died due to ‘workplace’ accidents than the number that die earning their livelihood today, with the stringent OHS laws.

No one should have to undergo stress at work. Stressful work conditions created by an employer are abhorrent and abominable and violate the principle of freedom – whereby everyone is accountable for their actions and behaviour. Stringent punitive action must be taken against employers (or anyone else) that bullies or harasses another person at work, whether here or in Japan (number of citations of work-related deaths in Japan – don’t know the context). That capitalist societies have not evolved sufficient controls and punishments for such behaviour does not mean that this is acceptable.


Mere working, though, does not create stress, particularly if people choose work that is best matched to their talents.

Seems to habour an ambition to ‘reform’ society without specifying what is expected

p. 270. “We need to find new ways of judging and valuing each other which are not dependent on work and income”

Diversity in standards of valuation is part of a free society.


That some such people exist does not make them representatives of the entire society.

Indeed, I note that at least some people in society value skin-deep ‘beauty’ such as in fashion models or actresses. Such people earn by merely showing their face.

Value in exchange is always monetary, but value in the ultimate sense is always based on valuing life.


Stopping people from working in the way they wish to, and in the quality they desire to, is not my idea of freedom.


I disagree with virtually every conclusion of Beder but I value her existence and her right to express such thoughts and to wonder about a different world where people do not have to work and still survive.

Laments the decline of leisure

She laments that leisure is declining in a modern society.

Yes, given that there is so much to do. The work-leisure choice remains a fundamental human choice, though.


What do many people do with their leisure anyway? Is polluting the world by traveling around the world a good thing? Or watching TV endlessly?


Being human precludes using leisure meaninglessly, like a cud-chewing cow standing in the fields.


Many people are so deeply involved in their ‘work’ that they continue to do those things even in their so-called leisure time. This indicates that what is seen as work by some is leisure to others. These are at times artificial boundaries. I read philosophy and policy analysis in my “leisure” time and enjoy the prospect of applying these insights to my “work”. To that extent, work is a natural part of my life, integrated into my chosen lifestyle. I also do see myself retiring or without significant activity.

Claims that there are no “self-made” men (p.45) Claims that very few of the so-called successful people have arisen from the lower or middle classes. Also no value in reading biographies of successful people, for these are misleading (p.46)

This claim somehow assumes that success is material. 


Self-made Nobel prizewinners, philosophers and writers, who are more important to mankind's advancement than individual ‘capitalists’ have not arisen from laziness or from not "working" hard. And these people have arisen from all economic ‘classes’, whether poor or rich.


The fact is that from biographies of people like Marie Curie we learn perseverance, simplicity and using our lives sensibly. It is Beder-type books that are to be abhorred; for these attempt to prevent people from achieving their highest potential. 

There is ample research today that demonstrates that success is strongly contingent on the effort put in, after controlling for basic requirements such as intelligence or a minimal talent.


This does not preclude a very significant role for random chance. The random ‘noise’ factor will always play an important role. Our personal existence is a product of random chance itself.


Second, while many of the successful people come from already successful families, tracing this backward, the first successful ancestor is likely to have been a self-made man (or woman). As the ‘cake’ is constantly growing, there is plenty of scope for new successful people to arise on the horizon.

Demonstrates that some people have used their wealth to bribe their way in life (p.55)

It is true that all kinds of corrupt people have existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future. It is difficult to understand what Beder is trying to deduce from this corrupt behaviour.

No one who bribes should be spared from being held accountable in a free society.

Cites Malthus (p. 58) as a contributor to the theory of capitalism.

False. Malthus did not understand how free people choose the number of children they want to have. His arguments were flawed almost in their entirety and do not represent wisdom.


Argues (p.58) that it is improper that paupers are not paid is higher levels of social welfare than the lowest wage,

It would be wonderful if I could be paid a significant payout by society for not working. All of us would like it this way.


Not sustainable.

Someone has to work. If so, the worker must receive a higher reward than the non-worker. 

Attempts to show that the work ethic evolved from a religious principle

First of all, it is not clear what Beder means by a work ethic. Second, to claim that people did not work prior to a particular religious viewpoint coming onto the scene is nonsensical.


Citing Adam and Even who apparently did not work till their ‘fall’ is the greatest possible nonsense, in a world where people have worked to feed and clothe themselves since the dawn of life itself.

Primitive societies involved the significant exploitation of lower social classes by war-mongerers and ‘kings’.  All these lower classes would have preferred peaceful western democracies of the sort today where they could work and live a normal life.


It is a privilege to work in modern society that any feudal surf, Roman slave, or even a black slave, would literally die for.


Adam and Eve living in a paradise without work is fiction. Basing a book on such fiction is preposterous.

Claims at p.2 that modern society forces products down the throats of consumers

Utter balderdash. No one forces anyone to buy anything in the marketplace.

People exercise their reasoned judgement while choosing what to buy.  Everyone purchases different things that best suit their requirements.


Claims  at p. 3 that “millions of people are being coerced to work long hours”

Ditto. Was Beder coerced to work in the Uni of Woolongong?

Let her provide the evidence before talking such nonsense.


A grandiose claim that  “Unless the work/consume treadmill is overcome there is little hope for the planet.” p.4

An absurder claim will be hard to find. Beder seems to consider other human beings as mindless fools, driven by the pied piper of corporates into making blind choices and terrible decisions that ultimately doom the planet. 


She also implies that corporates are blindly driven like lemmings to collective suicide.


A more inaccurate and disrespectful position on the intelligence of mankind, diligently mastering the physical world, will be difficult to find.


Mankind has not evolved to its current intellectual condition in order to commit collective suicide. 


Provided capitalism and democracy are firmly rooted in every society, under the philosophy of freedom, mankind is always going to succeed in negotiating, in its self-interest, agreements for the common good of the planet.


Harks back to slavery ridden Greek and Roman societies as ideals of ‘culture’ and philosophy p.9.

It was from barbers who cut open bodies at night that surgery evolved, not from the idle speculation of the Greeks or Romans.


Science evolved from the cradle of curiosity and rebellion and logic, not from spiritual quibbling and theology.


Harking back to the ancient, ill-formed period of human history as a model is not tenable.


Aristotle’s views on work cited as an ideal. p. 11

How did Aristotle feed himself, clothe himself? Aristocrats are no longer welcome. Let everyone work and deserve their income.


Spanish people who looked down upon working people or traders cited as an ideal.

How does this become a ‘role’ model for us today?  Who will want to feed the culturally sophisticated and philosophical Beder and be looked down upon as a bonus?


Alleges that work was secondary to the contemplation of God in the past. p.13.

Even if it was (highly doubtful) why is this a thing to be admired? The epoch of religious fervour also came with its witch-hunts and burnings on the stake, its ghosts and spirits, its irrationality and torture. Religious fervour (eg. Some elements of Islamic fundamentalism lead to similar problematic outcomes today). What if people no longer feel that is appropriate? Should we revert to the Medieval Dark Ages? Should we all stop work and start praying? Why not let people decide what they want to do?