Of Horses and Men

Over thirty-five years have passed since St. John Paul II issued his encyclical, Laborem exercens. Its key principle—that human labor has priority over raw capital (§12)—was, and remains, a revolutionary proposition. It shouldn’t be. Capital is, after all, a thing: it is something of value that can be bought, sold, or used as a means of exchange. Labor, however, is not a thing: labor is the act of human persons, of actual laborers doing something. Of course, it has a value, but it is the value of a person’s act, done by persons, and persons are never means to an end.

Note that I said that labor has a value. I did not say it has a price, and did so deliberately to invoke the old adage that: “Some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

Consider a recent piece from the April issue of  The Economist,  containing a Free Exchange essay, “Remember the Mane” (April 1, 2017; p. 70). Its argument is that, a century ago, the work prospects of using horses looked pretty solid. Particularly in rural America, they were, literally, the country’s “workhorses.”

But along came the motor—for the automobile, and other means of transportation, as well as the tractor, and other mechanized farm equipment—and workhorses gradually found themselves unemployed. The article went on to say that: “But some useful horse-work remained (as it does today). The difficulty facing horses was in reallocating the huge numbers displaced by technology to places where they still could be of use.”

The essay’s main theme is that where horses stood in 1917, men now stand in 2017. The spread of automation today, like the spread of motorized technology yesterday, threatens to make man obsolete. Because “their numbers are growing, as is the range of tasks they can tackle—findings of robot-driven job loss are worth taking seriously. As robots encroach on human work, study the fate of the horse.” Dystopian futures of robotic dominance used to be the stuff of sci-fi movies. But as technology replaces workers, dystopia could lie not in robot-run rule, but in robot-driven unemployment or, more dangerously, robot-depressed wages. Two authors suggest that “one additional industrial worker per thousand workers {the current U.S. ratio is <2:1000} reduces wages across the economy by 0.5%.” Remember that one of the reasons for our current electoral climate is dissatisfaction with both middle class and working class wage-stagnation.

Pure economic theory should push out lowly paid workers (“excess labor”) but “rich economies provide some social support: unemployment benefits, social security or disability payments, and assistance with housing and food. When the jobs offered are poor, that cushion, though meagre, can be enough to draw people out of the labor force into indolence—particularly if families offer extra help.” If they won’t go to the workhouse, and would rather die, then they had better do so, and decrease the surplus population.

In the 36 years since Laborem exercens, its radical principle of the subordination of capital to labor continues to be disregarded as the uneconomic pontifications of an economically illiterate pontiff. So instead, everything has a price, and nothing, value. Take houses. Houses cease to be hearths and homes, instead becoming just “investments” to be “flipped”—which is why middle class and working class Americans increasingly are unable to afford to live in our big cities (or at least those neighborhoods that are not life-threatening environments).

I suspect it’s also why the Rust Belt voted as it did in 2016. Even now, I hear refrains in some conservative circles, post Hillbilly Elegy, that workers should just pick up and leave old factory hometowns in search of brighter economic horizons. It’s the same contempt one hears among liberals when they sneer at “fly-over country.” Neither camp, in their rootless axiologies, places a value on “home,” much less “hometown,” so they just zero the value out. To which dissenting Pennsylvanians and Michiganders—like the Chancellor who, after nearly dying along with Romney Wordsworth—retorted: “I am not obsolete.”

The United States endured a multi-year recession because everything had a price … but the rich were “too big to fail” when their price was called. Electoral responses on the right (President Trump and his “baskets of deplorables”) and the left (Bernie Sanders and Occupy Wall Street) were united on one thing: if the average American was too small not to fail, then major investment bankers should not enjoy protections paid for by those same taxpayers from the policies that produced failures—for them and for countless “little guys” who lost jobs, lost homes, and/or watched 401(k) plans be decimated because of policies that put prices on everything (plus, we can’t afford to give pensions to our workers anymore).

And now we’re told: “Workers, beware the fate of the horse!” The workers’ response should be: “Don’t be a horse’s derrière!”

I am no Luddite. There is no doubt that technology and automation will change the twenty-first century workplace. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that we continue to craft our economic policies oblivious to the priority of labor. Instead of calibrating economic policy in light of the human value of the worker, we continue to tolerate an economic orthodoxy that regards labor as just another cost, to be shaven, reduced, cut, or eliminated, as far as possible. In some ways, it’s not Laborem exercens that is unrealized; it’s Rerum novarum, because we really don’t believe in a living wage.

Nor is it just a matter of money, important as that is. In Laborem exercens, St. John Paul II reminded us of the personalistic value of work. Work, like every human action, does not just get things done. It also makes the worker/doer into a particular kind of person. It allows the person to develop, to express himself, and his creativity. These are not just cost-incalculable aspects of some touchy-feely approach to labor, but a basic human need of every man, and woman, by virtue of their sharing as co-creators in God’s work of creation. It’s a problem of anthropology, not economics.

Remember: God made the world; He didn’t manufacture it. Creation is presented as an act of Divine deliberation and wisdom, not a mass-produced, stamped-out mold of a universe, replicable by any impersonal deity.

Horses (and animals in general) are not creative. Bees, as Karol Wojtyła pointed out in his book, Considerations on the Essence of Man, may produce complex bee hives, but they’re all the same. There’s no Romanesque beehive, no Gothic or Baroque style. Their complexity is not a matter of creativity, but of function—pure and simple.

Man is not just one step along the path of economic evolution, a species that made horses obsolete, and can now be rendered obsolete by his machines. It wasn’t man, after all, that replaced horses, but man’s motors, his tractors, and his cars.

Still, we have a constant temptation to displace man with a golden idol, and if we can dub it “efficient,” so much the better. Let’s beware, though, of the profound anti-human challenge posed today to our entire Genesis heritage. That heritage is under assault on multiple fronts:

  • By those who repudiate human stewardship over creation by making man “just another species,” on the level of a workhorse, even as they confer human rights on animals;
  • By those who would replace the light of the Divine Image, reflected in the fact that “male and female He created them,” with fifty shades darker;
  • By those who call the first Divine blessing on man, to be “fruitful and multiply,” a curse, and push planned un-parenthood as the path to human fulfillment;
  • By those who, rejecting that humans image Him who was “begotten, not made,” chose to manufacture their children like commodities in test-tubes, petri dishes, cryogenic freezers, and embryo transfer, all the while imposing “quality control” to kill the disabled prenatally;


  • By those who would reject human creativity and dominion over the world in favor of their “bottom lines” by putting their fellow human beings of the laboring class out, like old horses, to pasture (and maybe even sending them to the glue factory of assisted suicide, if post-retirement health care benefits cost too much).

The core significance of Laborem exercens is not its economic principle, but the humanity upon which it is based. Like the entirety of John Paul II’s pontificate, it reminds us that today’s struggle—and not just in the business world—is to build and keep a world that is human. Think about that, and reflect on the fact that St. Joseph is often depicted with a donkey, not a horse.

Dr. John M. Grondelski About Dr. John M. Grondelski

John M. Grondelski is an independent scholar from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Fordham, and served as associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He has written for Angelicum, Antonianum, Irish Theological Studies, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.


  1. Dr. William C. Zehringer Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

    Dear Dr. Grondelski: Your thoughtful, unsparing comments on an increasingly inhuman world
    support my conviction that the time is long overdue to rediscover the sober insights of John Steinbeck’s still timely novel of hapless dust bowl migrants, THE GRAPES OF WRATH.
    In my memory nothing stands out so starkly from the reading of that book, than the scene where
    a group of malnourished children, whose displaced families have finally arrived in California, “the promised land,” are transfixed as they gaze, for the first time in their lives, at a huge grove of ripe oranges. But they can only view them through a tall, imposing fence that forbids entry under pain of arrest. And they are soon chased away by a roving highway patrol. I’m particularly taken by the fact that Steinbeck offers only terse comments on that scene.
    Like other memorable American authors, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Flannery O’Connor,
    he invites us to draw our own conclusions from what he has presented for our examination.

    Regards, and thanks for your essay.