For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The Obligation to Work"

by Becker, Lawrence C (1980)


Many of the putative obligations of citizenship are nonvoluntary. The obligation to obey the law applies to children well before the law itself declares them capable of making enforceable, voluntary agreements. And every existing state enforces obligations on adults who never consented to those obligations -or even to any second-level procedure (such as majority rule or judicial review) which they imagined might produce such obligations. (I am not thinking here of the sweeping tacit agreements one might attribute to good-spirited, thoughtful, civic-minded people. I am thinking instead of the more meager agreements we must be content with in the case of mean-spirited, shortsighted, resolute free riders. At least for them, it is true that many putative citizenship obligations are nonvoluntary.) My purpose here is to explore one such putative obligation: the obligation to do socially useful work. It is an interesting case because people who agree that work is a good thing differ sharply over whether it is a social obligation,' and people who agree that it is an obligation differ sharply and vehemently over whether the obligation to work should be enforced by law. I shall argue that work is a social obligation, but that the work requirement should not be enforced by law, except in cases where it counts as reciprocity for a special benefit. But I want to begin by describing a striking example of enforcement: the work obligation imposed by law in the Soviet Union. In addition to its intrinsic interest, the example provides a practical context against which to assess the theoretical arguments to follow.

Key Passage

doi: 10.1086/292201 ()


Duty To Work, Soviet Union, Reciprocity, Obligation, Socially Useful Work


Duty to Work

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