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First of May. The fair wages of virtue

Editorial - The pandemic and the work that needs to be valued more

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  01/05/2021

One of the legacies of the pandemic is its contribution in unveiling the quality of care work and its many virtues. Virtue, a word we had forgotten, which over time had taken on a slightly stale and old tinge, has now returned to the center of the public and ethical scene with force. We were finally able to see many things that we previously did not see at all or not enough of, among those, many virtues, especially as part of jobs where they were previously hidden from us.

When the first industrial revolution was radically changing the world of labour at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the best economists began to formulate theories on how to pay for labour. Before this, the work that went through the "market" concerned a rather small minority of people. Almost all women found themselves excluded from it. The jobs performed out in the fields were carried out within a system of servitude, where one did not buy or sell hours of work but people. Aristocrats and nobles did not work, interpreting this state of non-work as a privilege and freedom: «Having been born wealthy made me free and pure and it did not let me serve anything other than the truth. A thousand francs of annuity are greater than 10,000 from employment» (Vittorio Alfieri, Works/Opere, t. VI).

One of economists who attempted the first reflections on wages was Piacenza Melchiorre Gioja, who in his treatise "On merit and rewards"/"Del merito e delle ricompense" in 1818 wrote: «The fee of a judge is usually higher than that of a law professor, although this profession requires a greater wealth of knowledge. The difference between these two fees represents the value of the greater virtue required in a judge. In general, fees increase due to the abuse that can be committed as part of the office, because the number of people who offer a certainty that they will not to abuse it decrease due to this possibility» (Volume 1). For Gioja, therefore, the fee had to be directly proportional to the virtue required by the given activity. The scarcer the virtue necessary to do a type of work is, the more it need to be paid; the more you have to resist the temptation of corruption, the more you have to be rewarded.

Hence, in essence, an economic theory of scarcity, but unlike the main theory, from the get-go, the element that is scarce is virtue. Linking the market and labour to virtue was an attempt to link the new emerging commercial society to the ethics of virtue that for two millennia had sustained the best part of the Central European soul – the ethics of the Greeks, Cicero and Seneca, of the fathers of the Church, of the Italian merchants, of civil humanism - and the reforms of the Enlightenment. The new economy, although centered on vile profit, could still be profoundly moral as long as the remuneration of labour was firmly anchored in those virtues.

Gioja, furthermore, being an heir and innovator of the Italian tradition of civil economy, was very aware that those virtues, especially the truly important ones, cannot be created through "incentives" but must be acknowledged with "rewards". Material riches are not sufficient, in general, to buy any kind of virtuous services; in fact, many cannot be obtained at all except by offering ideal riches in exchange, that is, by substituting metallic coins with honorary ones».

A few years after the book of Gioja was published, the concept of the Common Good was shattered, as it was deemed too paternalistic, hierarchical and illiberal. Subjective utility had taken the place of virtue. Having renounced a universal and shared idea of ​​Good, each individual can only seek his or her own goods of utility though individual relationships of exchange with other fellow citizens. The market is in fact the admirable mechanism that makes life in common possible in the absence of a prevailing idea of ​​good, because it serves to align and harmonise the infinite ideas of private goods of each individual partner, leaving them different from each other. This is the absence of the metaphor of the invisible hand: «I have never seen something good done by those who claimed to make an exchange for the Common Good» (Adam Smith, "The wealth of nations", 1776). Modern economy can also be interpreted as an escape from virtue in the name of utility, and therefore an escape from the Common Good in the name of private goods.

Yet, the general decline of the ethics of virtues is also behind the increasingly evident and intolerable wage gap and injustice regarding care workers. Why? First of all, if we do not also connect them to the ancient idea of ​​the Common Good, the true "usefulness" of virtuous jobs cannot be fully comprehended. The contribution of a nurse or a teacher is not entirely attributable to the sum of the private assets of the patients, children and their families. The care of each person is a form of public good, at least a meritorious good, whose benefits (and costs) go far beyond the internal sphere of contracts and mutual benefit. However, if we eliminate the category of the Common Good, even trivialize and ridicule it, once we turn to evaluate the "marginal contribution" of an hour of care work we will simply end up making an erroneous calculation, setting wrongful and unfair wages as a result.

Today, much more than a year ago, we all feel the urgent need for greater and better investments in health, education and care. We urgently need to begin to see these jobs through more adequate glasses – after all, theories are nothing more than glasses with which to look at reality - and therefore to remunerate treatment with higher salaries and with greater social esteem. Because wages do depend on social esteem, any salary also has an intrinsic component that expresses esteem for the worker in question. Without these material and immaterial "increases" the best and brightest young people will not turn to these professions, but will continue in large extent to direct themselves towards other jobs that are now (often too) well esteemed and well paid. Care work, which is increasingly necessary, will grow in quantity and quality only when its esteem and wages grow as well.

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