We’ve all heard the arguments before. Americans are lazy! College students are entitled couch potatoes! Teenagers don’t know the real value of hard work! But how much legitimacy do these assertions carry? Are Americans in fact lazy, or is there something more that doesn’t meet the eye?
Free market economist Henry Hazlitt warns us that we cannot just focus on what is seen, but must also be prudent in uncovering what is unseen. Observing what is seen is easy, and this is something we are all capable of. However, discerning what is unseen takes a more careful analysis and requires a keen observation of human action.
When a recent college graduate is moping around in his parents’ basement, we are able to see the obvious. When a single mother uses food stamps to pay for her groceries, we are able to see the obvious. And when a child refuses to do his chores, we are able to see the obvious.
It is commonplace for us to then rush to conclusions based on these observations, and many of us wind up at the wrong conclusion. We see the college graduate on his mother’s couch and assume he is lazy. We see the mother on food stamps and assume she’s not a hard worker. And we see the child who refuses to do his chores and assume he’s a spoiled brat. Now let us take a moment to consider the unseen, and in doing so, we will be able to rationally deduce that there is no such thing as laziness.
Why would a college graduate be sleeping on his parents’ couch, you ask? Let us look at the economic climate in the United States to get a better understanding. The average college student will graduate college with $30,000 in student loan debt. You would tend to think that this would give college graduates more of a reason to work hard and get off their parents’ couch, but when you consider that roughly 40% of those unemployed in the United States are millennials between the ages of 13-34, you realize that the jobs aren’t quite there for them.
When you consider the case of a single mother on food stamps, you may ask why she needs to use food stamps to buy her groceries when she can just work harder. Much like the college graduate, we have to look at the incentives at play here. What incentive does the mother have of working harder to get the same level of income she’s already attaining by doing less? As human beings, we naturally look to maximize our utility while exerting the least amount of effort. The mother is not being lazy for accepting the food stamps, she is being rational.
A child that refuses to do his chores may be lacking a very critical component of commerce; an allowance. If the child is not incentivized to do his chores, what logical reason would there be for him to do them? Much like the single mother, the child is not lazy. He is rational. The child, like every other human being, wants to maximize his utility, and if his utility is in no way increased as a result of doing his chores, then he’s not going to do them. If his parents were to offer him some sort of reward, then the act of doing chores would become rational.
Humans act because they find said action to be of more value than anything else at the moment. If it weren’t of value to them, they wouldn’t do it. Therefore when a college graduate mopes around on the couch collecting unemployment benefits, it is because this is of greater value to him than arduously searching for a non-existent job. When a single mother collects food stamps, it is because it is of greater value to her than working harder to earn the same level of income. And when a child chooses not to do his chores, it is because he finds greater value in his present state than he does in utilizing his labor to gain nothing of value.
With this said, we can empirically state that there is no such thing as lazy people, for there are only rational people. Men naturally act on incentives and seek to maximize their utility. In the face of market interruptions via government intervention, we will often see people make decisions that we are not happy with and that would otherwise not exist in a truly free market.
But nonetheless, the people that make these decisions are still acting in their best interest and acting rationally. Hard work isn’t going to solve the problem of this supposed plague of laziness in the United States. Market incentives will. We need the state to leave people alone so that companies have the flexibility to hire more college graduates, so that the single mother can finally get a raise, and so that parents can finally afford to offer their children an allowance for doing chores.
There is no such thing as laziness. There are only rational human beings that respond to incentives.