People do things – often useful things. That’s pretty much the starting point for economics, politics, sociology, etc. But why do they do things, especially challenging things? Here’s two very general ways of answering that question, two ‘pictures’ that one might have in mind.
Boring disclaimer: to be clear, these ‘pictures’ are so abstract, vague, and general that there isn’t really any question of them being true or false, nor of them implying any particular political, social, etc. consequences. If they have any significance, it’s as subconscious influences on our intuitions – seeing things in terms of a certain picture may make us go one way rather than another when we try to imagine unfamiliar things, or reach tentative opinions about remote possibilities. So it might be desirable to reflect on what different pictures there might be.
Picture 1: Effort is a cost.
When evaluating a possible action, the effort it would require goes in the ‘negative’ column, along with being expensive, badly-paid, unpleasant, or having negative effects on some other area of life. Of two actions, the easier one is always preferable/preferred, other things being equal. (This may sound simplistic, but I’ve heard very smart people say this pretty explicitly)
Consequently, the only reason to exert effort is because of external incentives, whether ‘natural’ (if you don’t work to find food, you starve) or artificial (if you don’t work to earn money, you starve).
There may of course be some activities that aren’t like this – ‘fun’ activities. But they will only very rarely and accidentally coincide with what’s useful to do, and so generally they go in a separate category.
Picture 2: The human psyche equilibrates to a certain level of effort.
If ‘current exertion’ is to too low, the psyche seeks ways to raise it; if it’s too high, the psyche seeks ways to lower it. The ‘optimum’ level that is sought will vary, both between people and for the same person, both in the long term and in the short-term (e.g. for around 8 hours a day, most people’s optimum level of effort sinks below that required for consciousness).
The optimum level will also be very sensitive to the sort of effort – other things being equal, some sorts of effort will be preferred to others (more enjoyable or more rewarding). But activities need not fall into distinct categories of ‘work’ and ‘fun’, because how desirable they are will be influenced by the person’s general level of effort, whether they’re too busy or too idle.
Comments: Both pictures incorporate certain analogies. In particular, I think the first draws on what we know of machines and of money. In it, the human being behaves like a machine in the sense that its activity always comes from outside – something else ‘turns it on’ by imposing a need to work. Its natural tendency is towards ‘rest’, i.e. maximum ‘leisure’.
And it makes effort seem like money, in that one rationally seeks to preserve it – if you can get the same result with less money/effort, that’s always better, because then you ‘still have’ that money/effort and can spend it on something else.
On the other hand, the second picture makes a person seem less like a piece of productive machinery, and more like a biological organ(ism), or a system thereof. It presents ‘level of exertion’ as analogous to ‘temperature’, ‘blood concentration’, or more generally to the fluctuating-but-regulated processes that are characteristic of living things, in which activity arises endogenously rather than from external pressures.
It also, of course, makes the person seem a bit more like a market, that other system which famously tends (or at least tends to tend) toward equilibrium.
A final note: the task of ‘making humans do useful stuff’ looks different in these two pictures. In the first, more ‘machine-like’, one, this task is pretty much antagonistic from the get-go: you have to get people to do what they don’t want to do, whether by persuasion, or compulsion.
On the other, more ‘organismic’, picture, the task is firstly more complex. Not only are you trying to match up the necessary/useful tasks with people to do them, you’re also trying to keep each person at the right level of exertion (as one might keep a plant at the right level of moisture).
But it’s also a more co-operative task, because you’re working more with the humans and less against them – if one enjoyed paraphrasing Marx*, it would be about making the natural equlibrium of each coincide with the natural equilibrium of all.
*I do in fact enjoy paraphrasing Marx, although to be fair the actual content of this post more be more Kropotkinian.