The Disutility of Labor: A Comment on Fegley and Israel
Abstract: Fegley and Israel (2020) have advanced the thesis that the status of leisure as a consumer good is an immediate inference from the action axiom rather than an empirical postulate as maintained by Mises and Rothbard. This comment argues that we can easily imagine a world in which leisure does not represent the opportunity cost of labor, and that Mises and Rothbard have been misconstrued. Additionally, I am strongly unsympathetic to the mode of argument they use in making their case, which is to directly challenge well-established foundational concepts and relations of economic theory. This may only provoke arid quibbling over epistemology.
JEL Classification: D01, J01, J20
Joseph T. Salerno ([email protected]) is academic vice president of the Mises Institute and John V. Denson II Endowed Professor in the Department of Economics at Auburn University.
In their article, Tate Fegley and Karl-Friedrich Israel (2020) make two bold and sweeping claims. The first concerns the foundations of praxeology, the method of Austrian economics. Their second pertains to a different sphere altogether, that of “economic semantics” (Machlup 1967). Both spheres of inquiry are important in the development of economic theory, but it is crucial to maintain strict separation between them. Fegley and Israel (2020, 46) state their claims as follows:
[1.] Leisure (the state of not engaging in labor) is a necessary complementary good for consuming other goods. As such, leisure’s status as a consumer good is a priori true, not an empirical assumption. [2.] Furthermore, the concept of disutility of labor is not only unnecessary but also leads to confusion due to its being used in two different ways, and therefore ought to be discarded.
Unfortunately, the discussions of these two propositions are confusingly entwined throughout the article although they have no logical connection to one another. For the sake of conceptual clarity, I will analyze each proposition separately. I will begin with proposition 1, which is more important because it cuts to the heart of the praxeological method, which is the method of imaginary constructions, “the specific method of economics” (Mises  1998, 237).
Fegley and Israel contend that the proposition “leisure is a consumer good” is not an empirical postulate supplementing the action axiom. Rather, they argue, like the concepts of means and ends or uncertainty, it is an immediate inference of the axiom. This is tantamount to denying that a world can be conceived in which acting beings do not experience disutility of labor and, therefore, always expend their full capacity to work. This denial underlies their claim that labor always involves an inherent opportunity cost. As Fegley and Israel (2020, 51) state their argument:
Contrary to what Mises and Rothbard argue, we cannot without contradiction conceive of a world in which…engaging in labor has no opportunity cost. Hence, it is not really an additional assumption that supplements otherwise a priori praxeological theory, but rather an aspect of it that is already implied in the concept or axiom of action. Any specific course of action, be it classified as labor or leisure, has opportunity costs, as the choice of one action presupposes alternatives that must be forgone.
In fact, as I will argue, we can easily imagine a world in which leisure does not represent the opportunity cost of labor. However, the authors preempt the conception of such a world by a semantic sleight of hand. After initially defining leisure as “the absence of labor,” Fegley and Israel (2020, 48) subtly change their definition a sentence later. They first cite Mises’s definition of labor as “the employment of the physiological functions and manifestations of human life as a means” (Mises  1998, 131). They then assert that leisure as “the absence of labor” can “alternatively” be defined as “the employment of the physiological functions and manifestations of human life as an end.” From this they infer that “leisure is not only the act of ‘doing nothing,’ but the use of one’s body for consumption, rather than production.” And voilà, leisure is always and everywhere a consumer good and, therefore, labor bears an intrinsic opportunity cost.
Fegley and Israel believe that they have demonstrated aprioristically that leisure is a consumer good and labor always incurs an opportunity cost in terms of foregone leisure. But they have done no such thing. They have stated two premises:
- Leisure is the absence of labor.
- Labor is a means to an end and requires the use of one’s body.
From these two premises they claim to have logically deduced that leisure is the use of one’s body as an end and, therefore, that there is a tradeoff between time devoted to production and time devoted to consumption. For this syllogism to hold true, however, other—empirical—postulates are required relating to the human body, whose functions, capacities, and limitations are a datum for economic theory and closed to praxeological inquiry. This was clearly spelled out by Mises ( 1998, 11, 642):
The unconscious behavior of the bodily organs and cells is for the acting ego no less a datum than any other fact of the external world. Acting man must take into account all that goes on within his own body as well as other data…. Praxeology deals with human action as such in a general and universal way. It deals neither with the particular conditions of the environment in which man acts nor with the concrete content of the valuations which direct his actions. For praxeology data are the bodily and psychological features of the acting men, their desires and value judgments, and the theories, doctrines, and ideologies they develop in order to adjust themselves purposively to the conditions of their environment and thus to attain the ends they are aiming at. (emphasis added)
Mises (2003, 16) specifically argued that praxeology may assume as a datum a human body with radically different features, limitations, and capabilities than exist in reality. For example, it may assume that “men lacked the possibility of understanding one another by means of symbols” or that they were “immortal and eternally young” and therefore “indifferent in every respect to the passage of time.” Indeed, according to Mises (15–16), it is possible to construct “a universal praxeology so general that its system would embrace not only all the patterns of action in the world that we actually encounter, but also patterns of action in worlds whose conditions are purely imaginary and do not correspond to any experience. The axioms of the theory could conceivably be framed in such universal terms as to embrace these and all other possibilities.” For Mises, the economist does not undertake such a project “because conditions that do not correspond to those we encounter in our action interest us only in so far as thinking through their implications in imaginary constructions enables us to further our knowledge of action under given conditions” (16).
This leads us to the question of whether we can imagine a world in which the physical bodies or psychological makeup of acting beings is such that they experience no disutility of labor? If the answer to this is yes, then Fegley and Israel have failed to prove their thesis that “
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