Celebrating Labor’s Freedom

I see Labor Day as being about learning as well as working. It’s about each of us practicing the freedoms we have to work by using the freedoms we have to learn new things. The economic freedom we each have to market our value is a function of how marketable that value is. No central planners are going to tell us what to do if the market for us changes.

Celebrating Labor Day in the United States is different than in most of the world. We picked September for our date rather than May 1. Our celebration is more about a holiday for working people than an occasion for political statements of all sorts. Our Labor Day parades consist of marching bands and floats rather than ICBMs to acknowledge the contribution of working people to the general welfare of the nation.

Labor Day in the United States is a celebration of one of our freedoms—the freedom to work. We are free to choose the type of work we wish to pursue and where we want to pursue it.

These individual choices are ours to make because the historical impediments to them have gone away. It’s difficult to get one’s mind around a time when slavery and indentured servitude were practiced in this country. Those so-called institutions (a peculiar word for them) took away the freedom of choice about what a person did for work and where they could do it. These systems and others failed in large part because they ignored the value a free individual brings to a given task.

Our freedom to work means we can sell our labor (what we know) to the highest bidder. There is nobody brokering us. We are our own brokers, and we’re free to negotiate the best deal for each of us. This is a good thing, but carries responsibility.

In a larger sense, our economic system, as a whole, is driven by choices. A manufacturer is free to make and sell whatever it wants. There is no central planning committee to tell a manufacturer to make this widget or that. As individuals, we are in control of our skill sets, and likewise, companies (groups of individuals) can choose the nature of the business they want to be in.

However, these freedoms are not completely unbridled. In our system, there is an overarching force that doesn’t forbid choices, but it certainly determines which are successful and which are not. It is market forces that call the tune in our system.

For example, a business has the freedom to manufacture butter churns if it chooses to. But selling butter churns in the marketplace? That could be a problem. Now, there was obviously a time when butter churn manufacturing was a viable and profitable business for many. However, as markets change, so must those of us who participate in them.

I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s possible that somewhere out there in the world, there is a company that once made butter churns, which has morphed its business into manufacturing butter processing equipment on an industrial scale. That’s how it must work for companies, and that’s also how the system must work for us workers.

Like the business side of the economic equation, those of us who work for a business are subject to market forces, too. The labor we have to sell must be of a kind that someone wants to buy.

To remain in business, a company must constantly take the pulse of the market and make sure there is demand for its offerings, adjusting those offerings as demand changes. We workers must also take the pulse of the market in which our skills are employed. We, too, must make sure that there continues to be demand for what we do, and we must be willing to make adjustments as demand changes.

It used to be that when we finished school, on whatever level, our formal education process stopped. We’d choose a job, learn that job and hope that would be enough to make a career. Markets change too fast for that to work today.

It’s probably only a coincidence that our Labor Day falls in September—roughly the same time of year that school starts. I see it as reinforcing the vital connection between labor and education. As skill-set requirements continue to change at an accelerated rate, learning new things is the responsibility of the individual.

Therefore, I see Labor Day as being about learning as well as working. It’s about each of us practicing the freedoms we have to work by using the freedoms we have to learn new things. The economic freedom we each have to market our value is a function of how marketable that value is. No central planners are going to tell us what to do if the market for us changes.