This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
We shall best define the field of this agency by discussing one of the most severely contested questions of political economy, viz.: —
What is the distinction between productive and unproductive labor?
The form of this question is unfortunate, and has caused the greater part of the confusion prevailing on the subject. In itself, it is of slight importance; but, in the course of the discussion, a very grave matter has become involved with it, helping the understanding of neither.
Dr. Adam Smith insisted strongly on the distinction between productive and unproductive laborers. In the former class he embraced all those who produce material objects, which are generally admitted to be of use and benefit to mankind. Such, clearly, are farmers, mechanics, and merchants, in the general application of their industry. Of unproductive laborers, he says, " In this class must be ranked some of the greatest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions, — churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds, players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, &c." This somewhat extended list by Dr. Smith has suffered curtailment by almost all writers since. The distinction between physical and mental labor, between direct and indirect agency in production, could not long be permitted to remain as founding a distinction between productive and unproductive labor. It is clear that the physician who preserves the life and strength of the workman on the farm or in the shop is equally productive with him; and that the lawyer by whom transfers of property are effected, and personal safety secured, is equally productive with the owner or the overseer.
One occupation after another, " important or frivolous," was withdrawn from the unproductive class, as prejudices disappeared in the light of a better philosophy, and as the part of each in the great economy became manifest; so that now little is left of that sweeping condemnation of unproductiveness passed by the father of the science upon the learned and artistic professions. Yet there is a residuum, which it is our business to clear away.
All labor, in the economic sense, is productive. The only office of labor is production. We do not, in either popular or scientific language, call by that name the efforts a man makes to do mischief, to dig away a dam or girdle trees, though he may devote his utmost energies to such destruction. Nor do we call that labor which does not seek a reward, whether it be play, though of the hardest kind, or gratuitous service, however useful to the recipient. No more should we call by the name of labor that misdirected or mistaken effort which fails of its reward.
Labor is defined as the efforts of man directed to the satisfaction of his desires. Every effort that is not so directed is a shot thrown away. It is wasted power, not labor. If I spend a twelvemonth in the invention of a machine, which, when completed, is of no sort of use to any one, and for which I can get nothing,.my exertions have been unproductive. I have worked enough for a reward; but, as it proved, my work was not directed to the satisfaction of human desires. So of expenditures to improve land, which in no way enhance its fertility. There is a great deal of this kind of effort: perhaps much is inevitable. It is waste, not labor.
But it may be urged, Suppose a man works for months preparing ground, planting, and cultivating till his crop is nearly ready; but a flood comes, and carries all off from before his eyes, and leaves him nothing to show for what he has done. Was there not labor bestowed? Certainly; and the labor was productive, and it had its reward, not the less that each individual effort did not carry off its result in a complete form at the time, but waited for the harvest. Value was produced at every stroke of the shovel — palp-, able, appreciable, marketable value—just as truly as if it had been taken home at the close of each day. Labor had been there, and received its recompense; but the flood made a robbery of it all. Not the less was there labor, not the less was there production, not the less was there value.
In this view, we see that all labor is productive.
But it may be asked, Does it make no difference to the community what objects of labor are selected, and by what means these objects are attained? Certainly ; and, in this inquiry, we reach the field of economic culture, which is that education of the desires, that instruction of efforts, and that use of satisfactions, which will unite to bring out desires, efforts, and satisfactions in ever-increasing circles of industry. Here arise, properly, all the important questions which were formerly discussed under the head of productive or unproductive labor.
Now it can be asked with effect, whether the opera-dancer, the physician, and the churchman are useful; whether they expand the desires, instruct the efforts, and dispose the satisfactions of men to a constantly enlarging industry.
Let us inquire closely. It will be readily granted, that these and other similar classes may have influence upon, or power in, production in two forms, either primary or secondary.