Of course, it wasn’t always so. Incentive dates back to the 15th century, and comes from the Latin incentīvus, “incite to action.” It shares some linguistic DNA with incantāre, “chant” or “charm,” which evokes the image of a troubadour gently rousing a sleeping beauty with a lovely Renaissance melody. So what happened to our dear incentive?
Well, to put it bluntly, capitalism happened.
Incentive, in the sense most familiar to us, dates back to 1776, the year of publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the founding text of classical economics. Economics, being a system of theories about life, is like philosophy, really, except that it has a compulsion to quantify everything in terms of money, which it believes is the one true yardstick. So on second thought, maybe it’s not really like philosophy, except in the most perverted sense. In any case, Smith defined incentive as a means of steering a market toward a balance of supply and demand (equilibrium). Import tariffs and tax exemptions are two such examples. Thus was our Renaissance melody stripped of its beauty, bent to serve the machinations of Industry.
On the actual nature of work itself, classical economics is silent. Intrinsic motivations, such as passion and altruism, and individual, societal, and environmental well-being, immeasurable qualities that they are, are labeled “externalities” and considered irrelevant. With those messy intangibles taken out of the equation, labor is neatly reduced to a commodity like any other, something to be exchanged (bought) for money (wages) on the labor market (that is, the open-air fair where people who need jobs meet employers who need employees).
Just like the prices for other goods, wages — the prices of labor — are supposed to serve as an incentive to attract the right workers to the right jobs. And, money only being useful insofar as it can be exchanged for other goods and services, the whole purpose of work, the “charm,” if you will, then becomes simply the ability to buy stuff. (Ad execs just love them some Adam Smith.) But the siren song of the Industrial Revolution fell on deaf ears. Most townspeople at the time were quite content to work just enough to provide for themselves, and no more. They were understandably loath to give up their self-sufficiency and leisure to be employed for long hours at meager wages in grim and grueling factories and mines, much to the consternation of the early industrialists. I mean, wouldn’t you be too?
Enter the Protestant work ethic. Captains of capital called upon men of influence to make work into a moral issue. Hard work — for another — is virtuous, they proclaimed; one must suffer on earth to be granted salvation up above, or else face eternal damnation. Needless to say, the superstitious scare tactics worked (pun intended). In fact, Americans’ fervor for work drew the admiration of visitors from around the world, including no less than Friedrich Nietzsche. And then, at the turn of the 20th century, the edicts of Calvinism and capitalism, both having assumed something akin to divine rule in our society by then, gave birth to consumerism. Case in point: Henry Ford did not offer his employees the highest factory wages of the time out of benevolence; he simply wanted them to buy more of the cars they were making.
It’s an unfortunate testament to the power of these myths that, even today, so many people still accept the surrender of much their waking life and autonomy to a boss and a paycheck as a fact of life, even if not in such overtly religious terms. It’s not that religion has disappeared; rather, it would be more accurate to say that a little of the Calvinist spirit was kept alive in the new consumerism of the American Dream, which became our object of worship from the 50s until recently. Anyone, no matter where they come from, can earn their spot in the ranks of the middle class, complete with car, house, picket fence, and manicured lawn, through the merits of their own hard work. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.