That Polly Toynbee is remarkably uninformed concerning the world around her is an obvious truism. She’s far more interested in the visions of sugar plums dancing in her head than any aspects of reality. But even so it really would be a good idea if she’d bothered to read her Adam Smith. Not because he’s right on all things, he isn’t. Nor because he’s a free market only free market all the time sorta guy – he isn’t. But because he did, some 242 years ago, point out the problems with many of the things Polly complains about. And if she wants to find solutions to her complaints it really would be worthwhile looking at the wisdom of the ages concerning how to solve them.
For example, all jobs pay the same amount. Which explains this:
Adam says he could find better paid work, but stays because he is fond of those he has cared for over five years: “They have become like family to me.” I have spoken to other care workers whose kindness is exploited by a system that pays them so little.
Well, no, he can’t find better paid work. He can find work which pays him more cash, certainly, but that’s not the same thing.
Utility – that’s what its all about. And utility is a personal thing. Entirely so. Sure, we can observe that there are things which many to most humans like, full bellies, happy children, that beer which is the happy produce of our isle. Things which most don’t, pools of ordure perhaps. But the blend of what we prefer and don’t, that mixture which makes us as happy as we can be within the boundaries reality imposes, that’s a personal thing. It can be pretty weird too, those pools of ordure. There was a bloke so sexually excited by cow s**t in large quantities that he used to visit slurry tanks to gain his kicks. Until one day he took his mind off matters – or perhaps concentrated a little too much on one particular manipulation – and drowned in one. Weird, sure, but that’s utility for you.
Ol’ Adam didn’t consider such a case but he did point out that all jobs pay the same – when we consider all that is paid for doing them. Hard labour in noisesome conditions – say, dunnikin diver – will pay well. Because the high cash wages make up for the noisesome conditions. Gary Becker made the same point about sex work – it’s unskilled labour in at least part of that market after all. The relatively high pay compared to other unskilled labour is explained by the loss of social capital from doing that labour.
Equally, running in the other direction, jobs that lots of people like doing pay little in cash. Those stage stars are surrounded by a penumbra of the star struck who will – AmDram proving this – pay for the privilege of strutting the boards. Oxbridge graduates will go to work in London on £20k for the honour of working at The Guardian.
So, why is Adam paid little cash for caring? Because he enjoys it. His pay being that combination of all the things he gains from turning up to work.
The thing is we’ve known this for 242 years now. It really is about time Polly read her Adam Smith, isn’t it?