Ayn Rand tells this storyi. She claims to know the protagonist. This is a paraphrased version of what she wrote.
A factory in South America was operating at 45% of capacity. An “American” college kid was hired to turn things around. The kid noticed the wages were very low and decided the workers didn’t have enough incentive. He suggested paying by the piece. The wise, old factory manager told him it wouldn’t work, but agreed to try.
At first, productivity skyrocketed. But at the end of week three, having made what used to be a months salary, the workers went home and took a week off. When they returned, nothing could keep them from taking a week off each month. So the plan was discontinued.
To Rand, this is an example of the South American’s “anti-conceptual mentality… a passive refusal to think abstractly”ii. Taking time for one’s own interests, instead of earning more money in a factory, is a sign of a mental defect.
The idea that a healthy life requires time with family and friends, time to reflect or pursue social activities; or that people find such things interesting, exciting or even demanding is rejected by her philosophy as a symptom of the “neurotic… desire to escape from reality”iii which leads people to participate in “family picnics, ladies’ tea parties or “coffee klatches”, charity bazaars, vegetative kinds of vacation- all of them times of quiet boredom for all concerned, in which the boredom is the value” allowing them to avoid the “the new, the exciting, the unfamiliar” and the demands of “discrimination, judgement, awareness”iv.
Rand’s philosophy holds that “productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life”v. People should go to work because being productive is a goal in and of itself; productive meaning in the marketplace. It is not considered that the employees might now have the time for the productive activities of their own lives.
Rand sums it all up with the decision to stop the plan, implying it is a rational decision. The facts in the story indicate otherwise. The factory was operating at about half capacity, so the goal was to double the rate of production. Since the employer wanted to keep the new plan, the goal must have been achieved; which means an additional 50% more units were produced for the same amount of wages, even with a weeks worth of capacity still to be utilized. More employees could have been hired for the off week with the same high productivity plan. But, apparently the idea of people with time for themselves was so offensive; the factory went back to the old, less profitable system. The employer would rather make less money.
That the story doesn’t make sense, makes it all the more an expression of emotional reality, like a fairy tale or stories from myth or religion. The fabled employees’ sins were to reject her morality’s rewards and demands- the reward of a bigger paycheck and the demand of servitude. When the South Americans chose personal time off, they chose to be immoral. The immoral behavior was both halted and punished by taking away the increased wage.
Rand’s morality tale is well understood by workers in the US. “In a new survey conducted over the first few days of 2015: nearly 42 percent of Americans said they didn’t take a single vacation day during 2014…”vi
One survey found 40% will not take all the vacation days due to themvii for fear of job related consequences. These concerns are not all self imposed, “nearly a fifth of all managers…, said they considered employees who took all of their leave to be less dedicated.”viii Vacationing workers try to compensate; according to one survey, “three in five (61 percent) employees who have taken vacation/paid time off admit working at least some while on vacation.”ix
Fear is not the only reason for refusing time off. Much as in Rand’s fable, economic pressure plays a part. “Many full-time employed Americans get at least ten vacation days, and our survey shows only 13 percent of adult Americans could afford to actually take that many vacation days for the year.”x
Another reason is that Rand’s morality is shared by many people in the US. One study “…found that Americans have a complicated view of taking time off, often thinking of it as a guilty pleasure rather than a worker’s right.”xi Voters in Europe secured 20 to 30 days paid vacation by law, US voters have approved zero legally required vacationsxii. US citizens criticize political leaders for days off, to the point Barack Obama ran on a promise he would not take vacations.xiii Since his election, his vacation habits have been a contentious subject in the media.
i The Missing Link, pg 37, Philosophy: Who Needs It, Ayn Rand, Signet, Penguin Group, 1984
iii The psychology of pleasure by Nicholas Brandon Virtue of Selfishness, pg 64, Signet, New American Library, 1964
iv The psychology of pleasure by Nicholas Brandon Virtue of Selfishness, pg 65, Signet, New American Library, 1964
v Objectivist Ethics, Ayn Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, pg 25, Signet, New American Library, 1964