Imagine. There’s no jobs. There’s no companies. (No hell below us, above us only sky.) There’s just work that needs doing – mending roads, serving coffee, milking cows, critiquing restaurants, calculating interest on bank accounts. Anyone can put themselves forward to do these things, for as long as they like, at the hourly rate they like. Whoever needs these things doing can appoint the person they think they can do it best and/or cheapest.
So, for example, a former work contact of mine tweeted the other day she was sick of spreadsheets. I don’t know what she was working on, but I love spreadsheets. She could either do them herself, or pay me whatever she thought I was worth to do them for her. I, on the other hand, hate sales, so if I wanted to sell myself as a hydrotherapist (this is imaginary) I could pay someone to tout me round.
You need training? You can pay someone directly to train you to the standard you think you’d need. Can’t find the right trainer? You can pay someone to source a trainer for you. In return, they might pay you to repair their laptop for them. Rather than working in companies, people could come together in endless temporary configurations like this to get things done. If I went to a coffee shop, I could maybe put in half an hour behind the counter, earn some cash, pay for my coffee and cake and walk home, putting in an hour’s gardening at the park on the way.
What would this do for people’s wealth, health and happiness?
For a start, there is some work that no-one would be keen to do – important work, essential to society, but unpleasant or discomfiting in some way, like unblocking sewers, wiping old people’s bottoms, working with dementia sufferers. Many people would instinctively rule themselves out of those jobs. I know I would. I’d be useless at it. The supply of workers for these jobs would therefore be low, but demand would remain high. Low supply, high demand – basic economics means those workers could command very good salaries. They would be covered in excrement on a regular basis, but they would be rich.
And who would pay those salaries? Well, society needs its sewers unblocking before the turds start flowing down the streets, so we’d all have a vested interest in getting those workers paid. We would have to appoint some freelance administrators to take care of essentials. Administrators who would sit around in an office, dishing out other people’s cash, making people do the crap jobs that they wouldn’t want to do themselves. Politicians, in other words. That kind of work sounds cushy – safe, comfortable, unsmelly, good for the ego. The kind of work a lot of people would find it easy or desirable to do. We don’t need many of them though, just enough to make sure the essential workers get paid. High supply, low demand – this would be low salary work, but there’d be plenty of people willing to do it, so we could pick the best to do it for us.
What about work like investment? We do need some people to help the flow of money around the place, making sure there is enough to finance the activities we want to undertake. It needs a fairly high level of numeracy, so that would rule some people out. However, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in his book, Fooled By Randomness, if you have a set of equally competent people operating with the same information, success and failure in the stock market is essentially random. We always mistakenly assume that outperforming investment managers are inherently ‘good at their jobs’, underperforming investment managers inherently ‘bad’, ignoring the effect of randomness and survivor bias. Trained monkeys could produce a similar spread of results, provided they were all trained to the same standard. We’re all essentially trained monkeys, so as a society, we might as well appoint the cheapest set of trained monkeys we can to fulfil this function for us.
What about people who sit on their arse all day playing X-Box and wearing shell-suits? You know – the benefit-scrounging chav scum that are everywhere, prowling our streets drinking Lidl Vodka, breeding every five minutes and bringing this great country to its knees. Firstly, there are only about 12 of them in the entire country (see Jan Eichhorn‘s work to see how few benefit claimants don’t work, are happy not working and have no intention of seeking work). Secondly, if they’d only put in a couple of hours mopping up sick they could earn enough to sit around and play X-Box the rest of the time. That’s not a problem.
The rest of us? We all have tasks we hate. We all have days we’d rather stay in bed. Problem solved. We could spend the week in bed, then pull a few twelve hour shifts ferrying old people to the hospital and back. We could do our whole apartment block’s laundry and washing-up for a week, then go on holiday, while our neighbours have the more pleasant, but poorer paid work, of sitting in leather armchairs and ‘managing’ a company.
I needn’t go on. It is obvious. All the crap but important work that people are forced into because they have nothing else, or that they actually want to do because they are kind souls that care about society not money, this is the kind of work that would get paid more if we made everyone freelance. All the self-serving, empire-building, getting-one-over-your-competitor type work – the mistakenly-named ‘wealth creation’ work – that’d all get paid less. You could do that kind of work if manipulation, control, bossing people around was your bag, but you don’t also get the huge pay packet, the yacht, the holiday home in Tuscany.
The masters of the universe could still have someone clean their toilet for them, but they’d have to pay that person, directly and respectfully, a decent amount for literally cleaning up their shit, not pay their mate’s service company (registered in Jersey) to cream a load of cash off the top, then pass on a derisory, below living wage salary to a Polish grandmother who has no other choice. God forbid, they might have to be on speaking terms with them.
Ignore the logistics; this is imaginary. We’d still need a welfare state for the needy, obviously, and there’s a million other holes in this happy little scenario. But none so big as the society’s privileging of those with ownership and control. That’s what stops us all being healthier, wealthier and happier.
The disciples of the free market only like their version of it. They wouldn’t like it so much if they suddenly discovered the value to society of sitting in a boardroom pontificating was piss-all.