6 June 2012

Not Well Employed

Joseph Wood Krutch, Human Nature and the Human Condition (New York: Random House, 1959), p. 57:
Referring to a depression in his own day, Thoreau once wrote to a friend: "If thousands are thrown out of employment, it suggests that they were not well employed." To most readers who come upon that casual remark for the first time it seems merely heartless: "If there is no useful work for these thousands of people to do, then just let them starve." But there is another way of looking at it. If you are thinking not only of their plight but of how they came to be plunged into it, then Thoreau's remark goes straight to the heart of the matter. A major fraction of the population is engaged in making things which nobody needs. All the arts of publicity are proving insufficient to persuade a sufficient number of people that they even "want" them. Is there nothing better that that the now unemployed could have been working at? Must they boondoggle on a gigantic scale? Must boondoggling be accepted as the foundation of our economy? Or are there tasks upon which all might be "well employed"? Is our definition of what constitutes the good life the real reason they are not?