I do one article for Wired per year.
A From here to economy essay social philosophy, neoliberalism, was transforming society, including the nature of employment, and career counsellors and business writers had to respond. The Soviet Union had recently collapsed, and much as communist thinkers had tried to apply Marxist ideas to every aspect of life, triumphant US economic intellectuals raced to implement the ultra-individualist ideals of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and other members of the Mont Pelerin Society, far and wide.
In doing so for work, they developed a metaphor — that every person should think of herself as a business, the CEO of Me, Inc. The metaphor took off, and has had profound implications for how workplaces are run, how people understand their jobs, and how they plan careers, which increasingly revolve around quitting.
Today, many people share this conviction, and that is in part because of the influence of Hayek and his cohort. At the time that Hayek and his circle began making their arguments, it was an eccentric and minority position. For Hayek and the Mount Pelerin group, the centralised economic planning that characterised both communism and fascism was a recipe for disaster.
Hayek held that humans are too flawed to successfully undertake the planning of a complex modern economy.
A single human being, or even group of human beings, could never competently handle the informational complexities of modern economic systems. Hayek understood that markets do not emerge naturally, that traders, consumers and laws construct markets. Once established, markets have tendencies towards monopoly and other business practices that could undercut forming an even playing field.
Indeed, this is the primary reason why governments should exist — to ensure that markets function well. Governments should not be providing services to its citizenry such as public transportation or a postal service — Hayek believed that private interests most efficiently manage these services.
Also governments should not be providing forms of welfare to its citizens, since welfare undercuts how the market allocates value and introduces too much centralised planning. Instead, what governments should focus upon is organising markets well, keeping them functioning to promote competition, and thus also promoting innovation.
Because market competition is the goal, arbitrarily curtailing this competition through tariffs or other nationalist strategies for undercutting a global market was also deeply undesirable.
Hayek wanted a global market. This approach to markets and governments, commonly called neoliberalism by its critics, has grown increasingly dominant. As this theory moved off the page and the blackboard, people who wanted to live according to neoliberal principles ran into a basic problem.
This is a specific way of dealing with markets, even for those committed in principle to capitalism.
So, as more governments and businesses adopted market measures as often as possible, new ways of talking about many aspects of life, including work and careers, arose. Every total way of life, after all, requires its own vocabulary. Hayek did understand that his model of making the market so foundational would require a specific kind of person, a new kind of person.
But he never developed an effective model for making complicated decisions such as deciding whom to hire for a job opening, or how to fashion a career over a lifetime.
Others, the Nobel Prize-winner Gary Becker for example, who coined the idea of human capital, had to come up with concrete models for how people should, in market terms, understand everyday interactions. Inspired by Becker in adopting the market idiom, business writers began to talk about how people need to think about investing in themselves, and viewing themselves as an asset whose value only the market could effectively determine.
Over time, a whole body of literature emerged advocating that people should view themselves as a business — a bundle of skills, assets, qualities, experiences and relationships to be managed and continually enhanced. The change that saw business writers, career counsellors and others adopting the view that individual employees, or potential employees, should think of themselves as businesses occurred at the same time that the way the value of a company was assessed also changed.
Not so long ago, business people thought that companies provided a wide variety of benefits to a large number of constituents — to upper management, to employees, to the local community, as well as to shareholders.
Many of these benefits were long-term. Quarterly earnings reports and stock prices became even more important, the sole measures of success.I remain the official Senior Maverick for Wired, a magazine I helped co-found 25 years ago.
I do one article for Wired per year. My most recent published writings are listed here, in chronological order. My newest book, The Inevitable, a New York Times bestseller, is now available in paperback.
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