Sunday, 20 October 2019

Laziness - a driver of, and a brake on, human progress

People use the word 'capital' to mean lots of quite different things, especially in economics.

In its purest sense, I like to define capital as 'labour saving devices'. From stone tools and animal pelts for clothing (or whatever the earliest true labour saving devices were), up to sat nav's superseding maps, which superseded using your own experience and memories (or whatever they invented last week).

The whole idea is that people spend some time inventing or discovering or developing something which enables them to achieve the same results for less effort (or better results for the same effort, or something that was previously impossible). Sooner or later, everybody learns how to do it, and everybody benefits. That's capitalism at its finest.

This is all good stuff, but let's not forget that ultimately, laziness was the driver behind all this.

So 1:0 for laziness!
Clearly, there are situations that are not so clear cut.

a) Business see wages as a cost, so newspapers replace type-setting with word processing; supermarkets replace shop assistants with self-checkouts. In the long run, this aids human progress, but in the short term, it's no consolation for people who have, or who'd like to have, a job as a typesetter; shop assistant.

b) People can guard their own trade secrets as jealously as they like. That's human nature, sooner or later, competitors reverse engineer them and we all benefit; the nicer you are to your employees, the less likely the trade secrets get out, so in the medium term at least the employees benefit.

Where it goes too far is government protection of patents and IP rights, especially for things which aren't really a scientific or technological advance. One business' progress is a brake on every other business, but patents lapse and then everybody else can pile in.

That's a contested goal for and against laziness. The one for laziness is given after close scrutiny by the VAR team.
And there are situations where laziness is a massive brake on human progress, which is rent seeking in all its forms.

Each individual wants an easy life and something for nothing. So everybody wants to pack in work and be a landlord; home-owners want house prices to go up even if that means their real wages are declining. People play the lottery, even though its a negative sum game and the average player ends up worse off.

Businesses want to take out patents on things purely to stymie and stifle the competition; they want tariffs to protect them from foreign competition. The laziest team member does just enough to not get chucked out and wants their share of the team effort.

Members of mutually owned businesses vote to become shareholders for the one-off, up-front windfall gain of free shares, even though in the long run, they are marginally worse off and everybody else is a lot worse off.
That's a clear goal against laziness, making the final result 2:1 for laziness being a driver of progress.


Lola said...

I thought 'capitalism' was all about doing more for less every day...not 'laziness' per se...

Mark Wadsworth said...

L, I see no real difference between "labour saving" and "laziness", it's a spectrum. It's just that "labour saving" requires a bit of foresight and effort up front, in exchange for which you expend a lot less effort in future.

Bayard said...

Laziness + intelligence = labour saving, laziness + stupidity = time wasting.

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, good summary.

Lola said...

MW Hmm. Laziness is a 'sin'. Labour saving is not?

Bayard said...

"Laziness is a 'sin'"

That's just the Protestant work ethic. Why work harder than you need to?

Lola said...

Bayard. Well, I am not so sure I agree with that. Isn't the 'sin' 'idleness'? And is that synonymous with 'laziness'? Anyway it also begs the question - 'what is work'?

Bayard said...

L, The deadly sin is sloth, if that helps.