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December 1999
Volume 17 Number 12

The Workaholic Canard
Michael Levin

The workaholic, or more precisely worry about him, is back.

During the 1980s, just as the free market's reputation was beginning to rebound, the guardians of the national psyche discovered "workaholism." The victim of this disorder was defined as working compulsively, spending far too much time at his occupation, too little with friends or loved ones. He loses the capacity to enjoy what little leisure he allows himself, and eventually cannot even recall the point of his own frenetic activity. We were all advised to ease up, slow down, and smell the roses.

I had thought that this idiocy had passed, but my optimism was premature. A few weeks ago I spotted an op-ed piece entitled "Unions Can Save the Workaholic;" not long after a new play by noted English playwright Simon Gray appeared, entitled "The Late Middle Classes" and described as concerning "a woman desperate for distraction [and] her workaholic husband." The very absence of accompanying explanation shows that, at least among literary types, the prevalence of the disease is taken as fact. Families once threatened by addiction to strong drink are now threatened by addiction to work.

Let's get one thing clear right away: there is no such disease. The implied comparison of hard work to alcoholism ("workaholism"; get it?) is bunk. A compulsion is a drive that causes its sufferer to do what he doesn't want to do, and which he regrets acting on the very moment, or immediately after, he acts on it.

Druggies and alcoholics can't stop even though they want to, and are ashamed of what their habits make them do. Addictions and compulsions interfere with goals that all rational people, including the addict himself in a cool moment, wish to pursue. Addiction is an unhealthy dependence. Finally, there is the suggestion of an ever-rising threshold of relief-every time the addict shoots up, he will have to inject even more next time to ease his craving.

Now think of those productive souls putting in long hours in the office or the field. Is it likely that computer whizzes-who notoriously work day and night-really wish they were at home watching TV but are afraid of going to pieces if they leave the lab? Do they wake up "the morning after" regretting their lost weekends spent poring over printouts? Just what are the odds that Steve Jobs suffered the DTs rescuing Apple? Is Bill Gates on a downward spiral, doomed to work ever harder just to obtain that transient "high"? These comparisons need only be made explicit to be recognized as laughable. If anything, hard workers experience exhilaration and, when successful, a great sense of triumph; the rest of us should envy those who find work so inherently rewarding that time away from it is felt as lost.

Of course, single-mindedness can have its downside. The private lives of many creative scientists and artists are littered with divorces and the complaints of neglected children. (This is less true of high executives in business.) Geniuses and high achievers generally tend to focus on their own interests to the exclusion of everything else. But that is a very different matter from their being unhappy or "sick." For the same reason we have to reject George Gilder's sentimental notion that free markets are driven by "altruism." Gilder defines altruism as concern with the desires of others, and of course anyone hoping to sell anything must offer what other people desire. But this does not make the well-being of others his paramount aim (the proper definition of altruism)-only that knowledge of what gratifies others is necessary for his own success.

Gilder of course is seeking to acquit capitalism of the charge that it rests on "greed," but his contortions are unnecessary. The unique virtue of the market is that it rewards activities that satisfy the desires of others, whatever motives prompt them. In truth, as I keep insisting, the motive characteristic of entrepreneurs and innovators is neither love of others nor of self, but of what they do. That's why they work so hard. A wag once said the secret of happiness is to figure out how to get paid for doing what you would gladly do for nothing. He should have added that this works best in a free market. Why, then, the persistent diagnosis of "workaholism?" The usual suspect, I'm afraid: the increasingly desperate desire of intellectuals to discredit freedom in favor of socialism. Remember, the disease was originally spotted when east European communism was in its death throes. New outbreaks have been spotted again in a remarkably prosperous America (and at a time when mainland China, the last bastion of communism, is burying its past).

It becomes more obvious daily that freely-chosen labor, undertaken in cooperation with others who have chosen likewise, not only adds to the wealth of the world, it is the sole way wealth can be created. Intellectuals do not like this message, but, unable to dispute it on the facts, they have shifted tactics. Now they ridicule hard work and achievement, to try to make it out as pathological. Workaholism is an invention of the intellectual class to discredit the market.

This shift really just updates the old Marxist canard that workers under capitalism are crushed and oppressed. The charge that capitalism immiserates the proletariat physically having become pretty threadbare, given the superior health and affluence of today's paid employees as compared to that even of princes of ages past, the thing to say now is that it harms their mental health. It drives both workers and bosses crazy. Capitalism destroys our psyches, or, in language fashionable a few decades ago, it causes "alienation."

Indeed, if one takes the workaholism literature seriously, it is the professional and managerial classes who suffer the most. Socialism, by contrast, is good mental hygiene. And socialism it must be, for by any name the alternative to individual control of resources and labor is control by government. Here at any rate is how Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer, thinks we might be saved: "Perhaps in a future decade, a foreign government will intervene and impose some sort of detox program, banning fax machines at home. . . Only when there's a labor movement that's strong enough to limit weekly hours to 40, or to make normal the idea of taking off the whole month of August, can those in the salaried classes bring some sanity to their own lives as well."

Thank you, Thomas. The basic error of "workaholism," like that behind all versions of socialism, is denial that people are the best judges of how they expend their energy, and the corollary belief that there is some further standard accessible to the enlightened. Telling someone else how much work is too much is no less absurd, or intrusive, than telling him how much sex or exercise is too much. Given the attention people devote to the topic, maybe everyone is a sex addict. Americans spend billions on running shoes and other athletic equipment; perhaps some outside force is needed to bring "sanity" to our lives in that respect too.

Fortunately, nobody takes talk of "workaholism" very seriously. Even its proponents keep their tongues half in their cheeks, allowing them to say in effect "only kidding" should they be pressed about exactly what they mean. I trust this latest verbal dart will go the way of "alienation," "dialectics," and the buggy whip.


Michael Levin teaches philosophy at the City University of New York.


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