Son, We Live In A World That Has Walls

N2NiZDg0ZTMxNCMvV1JUX0Q2WU1SN3c1aEYtbnlqTmV6eGZ0RHJZPS81OHgxNDoxMzY3eDY0OC8xMjgweDYyMC9maWx0ZXJzOnF1YWxpdHkoNzUpL2h0dHBzOi8vczMuYW1hem9uYXdzLmNvbS9wb2xpY3ltaWMtaW1hZ2VzL3Jmdm14Z3cydDZxaHRrd3RrbHBlYm1vZGk0d2ht“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?”; Col. Nathan R. Jessup in “A Few Good Men”

The efforts of men are utilized in two different ways: they are directed to the production or transformation of economic goods, or else to the appropriation of goods produced by others(*).

In America, the fraction of the labour force providing security for people and property and imposing work discipline, has been steadily increasing since 1890, and it’s not been the military(1).

What is happening in America today is both unprecedented in our history, and virtually unique among Western democratic nations. The share of our labor force devoted to guard labor has risen fivefold since 1890 — a year when, in case you were wondering, the homicide rate was much higher than today. (“One Nation Under Guard”)

Guard Labor United States 1890–2002

I suspect that the same happens in my own country, Spain. (Another dubious record.)

Guard Labor: Cross-National Comparisons


Guards are everywhere in a capitalist economy. A few are dressed up in uniforms, so they are easy to spot. But most do not look like guards at all. Some sit in comfortable offices; others work on assembly lines in factories. (Michel Perelman, “The Rise of Guard Labor”)

The extent of guard labour depends on exactly what you count, of course. Arjun Jayadev and Samuel Bowles decided to do a rough breakdown of the United States economy’s guard labour, and published their results in a paper(2) in 2006. They estimated that roughly one in four in the United States economy was engaged in guard labour.

One would expect that countries with more conflicts between classes, ethnic or political factions devote more resources to guard labour. That’s the case, but what’s more interesting is the correlation of guard labour with income inequality itself: the more inequality, the more guard labour.

Guard labor is also more common where those starting out in life face a sharply tilted playing field, such as America, Britain and Italy. These are countries in which the income of a father is a good predictor of the income of his adult son. The countries with the least guard labor are those in which there is greater equality of economic opportunity by this measure: These are Denmark and Sweden, countries in which knowing the father’s income does not enable a very accurate guess of the son’s income when he grows up. (“One Nation Under Guard”)

America: World Leader in Guard Labour

Does the graph show that inequality causes a country to devote more of its labour force to guard labour? It is difficult to prove, but the correlation evident in the graph could be evidence that economic disparities push nations to devote more of their productive capacity to guarding people and property.

Measures of political legitimacy and social and welfare spending are also strongly inversely correlated with guard labour. In a recent article for the Guardian, Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) remarks:

The amount a state needs to expend on guard labour is a function of how much legitimacy the state holds in its population’s reckoning. A state whose population mainly views the system as fair needs to do less coercion to attain stability. People who believe that they are well-served by the status quo will not work to upset it. States whose populations view the system as illegitimate need to spend more on guard labour.

It’s easy to see this at work: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea spend disproportionate sums on guard labour. Highly redistributive Nordic states with strong labour laws, steeply progressive taxation and tenant protection spend less on guard labour. They attain social stability through the carrot of social programmes, not the stick of guard labour. (“Technology should be used to create social mobility – not to spy on citizens”)

He goes even further. Cory reasons that productivity gains in guard labour will make wider wealth gaps sustainable. When coercion gets cheaper, the point at which it makes “economic sense” to allow social mobility through education, health, and social welfare moves further away.

IT has been responsible for a 2-3 order of magnitude productivity gain in surveillance efficiency. The Stasi used an army to surveil a nation; the NSA uses a battalion to surveil a planet.

Maybe people in guard labour jobs could be reallocated to doing something more productive. Maybe not. Whatever, technology is giving an edge to the elites:

Why spy? Because it’s cheaper than playing fair. Our networks have given the edge to the elites, and unless we seize the means of information, we are headed for a long age of IT-powered feudalism, where property is the exclusive domain of the super-rich, where your surveillance-supercharged Internet of Things treats you as a tenant-farmer of your life, subject to a licence agreement instead of a constitution.


(*) So explained Vilfredo Pareto in the “Manual of Political Economy”.
(1) Bowles, Samuel, and Arjun Jayadev. 2007. “Garrison America.” The Economists’ Voice 4 (2).
(2) Jayadev, Arjun, and Samuel Bowles. 2006. “Guard Labor.” Journal of Development Economics 79 (2): 328–48.

Featured Image: A Few Good Men

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