Saturday, 27 October 2012

On behalf of the work-shy community

Charles Crawford, former British Ambassador to Warsaw, writes a lively blog and contributes thought-provoking articles of an anti-collectivist slant to a several websites. Here in The Commentator, he contrasts the vibrant hustle of Vietnam to the lugubrious socialists marching in London against the 'cuts', and the work ethic on the streets of Saigon with that which he experienced on return to the UK...
You see the difference as soon as you get off the plane at Heathrow. People working at the airport project a lower order of urgency and purpose. Whereas anyone in Vietnam with a proper job wears an immaculate uniform with pride and works at something like top speed, the ranks of British immigration and other officials come across as indefinably scruffier and usually overweight. They look like people who know all too well that it is next to impossible to sack them for slacking: a general "good enough" 70% effort will suffice, and even a dismal 55% effort is unlikely to provoke any serious sanction. Back in Vietnam if you don’t try hard in your job you get thrown out in favour of someone desperate to succeed. That sort of merciless pressure is, well, merciless. But it keeps up standards and morale and ambition.
The Vietnamese, living a hard-scrabble existence as they race forward as a nation to become wealthier, are portrayed by Charles in a positive light. Without a munificent social safety net, without the protection of health-and-safety regulations, the Vietnamese are rapidly improving their collective standard of living.

Collective. Yes, according to management and organisational researcher Geert Hofstede, Vietnam is one of the most collectivist countries on earth. On a scale of 1-100, where 100 is pure, full-blooded, rugged individualism and 1 is the human equivalent of the worker ant, Vietnam scores 20, which makes it one of the most collectivist countries on earth. At the other end of the spectrum, America is the world's most individualist society, at 91. Just behind it - is the UK (89). Poland, incidentally, scores 60. [See world map showing individualism-collectivism here.] Is there a correlation between how individualist a country is and how hard its citizens toil to make a living? Clearly, according to Hofstede's criteria - there isn't.
Is there something else going on? The State imposes itself upon people making their own way in life. Ideally, it should protect them from crime, foreign aggression, and take care of those citizens unable to do so for themselves. And how much more should it do? Compare the social benefits on offer in the UK and in Poland. To what extent is it the existence of a relatively high level of welfare put people off working? And how much responsibility (a key theme of Charles Crawford's) should fall onto individual citizens for their own lot in life?

Never having been east of Lvov, I can't really make a comparison between the hustle of life in Vietnam and the slower pace one witnesses in the UK. I've been in Britain on business since Wednesday, I can see how Polish migrants have contributed to the British economy. Poles here in the UK are harder-working than the median within British society.

But that's not entirely a fair comparison. It is a comparison between migrants - who by their very nature are more thrusting, dynamic and entrepreneurial than the stay-at-home types, who are more comfortable vegetating in their small Polish town or village than seeking a new life in a richer, more open economy.

The work-shy are with us wherever we live; those with 'development opportunities in the scope of personal motivation', the ergophobes, who see little point of expending effort to better themselves, academically, financially or socially. In Poland, the harder working gravitate towards the big cities or to the recently opened labour markets of western Europe. Those that stay behind, without work, doing the bare minimum to get by, do not live the comparatively easy life of a Brit on benefits. Most long-term unemployed people in Poland receive zero benefits other than being eligible for free healthcare treatment on the state.

Charles Crawford does point out the direct causal link between high social security (including job protection) and a slowing down of an economy. Once people have satisfied their needs, many tend to take their foot off the accelerator and coast; multiply this several million times and whole economies start running out of puff. This happened in Japan in the early 1990s, when a country that had been working flat-out since it pulled itself out of the radioactive rubble of WW2 had reached the top and felt, collectively, that there was little point in busting a gut to keep ahead of the world in terms of productivity. This will happen in South Korea, which has undergone a similar transformation powered by Hard Work. The first symptoms - car factories no longer working night shifts, students questioning the value of youth spent cramming for exams - are there.

Britain has been slowing down, gently, since Victorian times. High social benefits have dulled incentive, and large government at national and local level has consumed more tax revenue than the value created by it.

But does it make for an unhappy country? People are born to grow up being different in height, in physical agility and in intellect. Maybe drive - the motivation to continually push forward, in whatever field of human endeavour - is also innate. Maybe the work-shy, the less driven, the motivationally challenged - do have the basic right to a decent living without having to stretch themselves too hard, at the expense of those who are more hard working?

Systems tend towards equilibrium. Too much inequality will push societies towards the introduction of egalitarian checks and balances, much as they did towards the end of the Victorian era. But then too many spongers and slackers living off the taxes of the harder working will also breed discontent, particularly among those who work hard to maintain a standard of living just slightly higher than those comfortably off on an array of benefits.

Having spent four days in Britain, I can see just how much richer it is as a society than Poland. There's really little more to do - new flavours of snack, new online services, new advertising campaigns - a market searching for novelty - so if there's little more to do - why strive? Poland's still got decades of catching up ahead of it. During that time, my guess is that Poles will be working harder.

This time last year:
Classic truck cavalcade

This time two years ago
Narrow back-roads clogged with commuters

This time three years ago:
Autumn gold, Łazienkowski Park

This time five years ago:
Of bishops and bands


Anonymous said...
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student SGH said...

Great post!

Reassuring to see someone else has mentioned the good enough concept. I presume this will become the bane of our lives as more and more young people strive only to get by rather than get ahead.

To recap all your excellent musings, I would draw on theory of utility to explicate it. Marginal utility from another unit of welfare in highly developed countries is lower than in countries which are in the phase of growing rich. Once you achieve a certain level of welfare, you make do with it.

I would disagree with you remark on Japan in the early 1990s. You completely disregard the effects of bursting bubble on property and stock markets. While few economists point at changing human preferences between income earned and free time availables as one of cause of the business cycle.

Michael Dembinski said...

@anonymous - thank you for pointing out the lower scores in Hofstede's ranking - will check and correct. However, I've deleted your comment on account of its rude tone - "Wrong as always" - I may be wrong from time to time, but not always. Ad hominem generalisations, not followed by a ":)" and delivered anonymously will be taken down.