There is a myth about the clearing of Penang Island during British colonization that can serve as a modern morality tale. According to the story, Captain Francis Light (1740 – 1794), the military officer charged with clearing the jungle, loaded his unit’s cannons with gold coins and fired them into the jungle, which promptly swallowed them. Knowing that retrieval of the coins required cutting away all overgrowth, the captain then announced that anyone, soldier, sailor, or native, who found a coin could keep it, or dispose of it, without restriction. All men available enthusiastically set about finding the coins, and in no time at all the jungle was cleared.
The men in this probably apocryphal story worked for free – Light outright told everyone there was no additional pay for any physical labor incurred during coin-hunting – in the hopes of obtaining a large reward. At a time when a penny was the average daily wage and the gold guinea (sovereign), the only British gold coin in circulation at the time, was worth a pound and a schilling, a single gold coin easily represented over a year’s income for every person on the island excludingt Light. To say the least, Light understood how to incentivize and motivate others.
Although Francis Light and his gold coins might easily serve as a parable of capitalism, it has more direct modern parallel with unpaid entry level positions and activities, such as internships and contributor blogging. Both of the listed activities tend to either be unpaid, stipended, or low-fee, with the participant expecting to be rewarded through intangibles, such as résumé building, brand recognition, and connections. It is the material reverse of Captain Light’s idea, but the principle remains the same.
Like the situation on Penang Island in the late 1700s, that some people are willing to work for little immediate gratification in exchange for long-term resources or reward is ultimately beneficial. However, media provocateurs and social justice warrior academics, from both sides of the political aisle, proclaim such situation a monstrosity that perpetuates social injustice. The crux of the argument is that such work discriminates against those who “can’t afford to work for free.” This was apparently no concern for the clearers of the Penang jungle.
Two scholars from contrasting sides of the socio-political divide appear to agree on the nature of unpaid positions. Richard V. Reeves of Brookings Institute called for government control of youth job opportunity, writing,
But we can do something about unpaid internships. These have become more commonplace and, in many cases, an important first step on a lucrative career ladder. As they are unpaid, they automatically favor the affluent. Effectively unregulated, they can also be handed out to the children of clients or friends.
In concord, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute wrote back in 2012,
For one thing, we should get rid of unpaid internships. [….] It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children. Those from the middle and working class, struggling to pay for college, can’t afford to work for free. Internships pave the way for children to move seamlessly from their privileged upbringings to privileged careers without ever holding a job that is boring or physically demanding.
The assumption of both arguments is that the “can’t” factor truly exists. Additionally, the idea that internships insulate privileged children from boredom or physical challenge, an assumption implicit in Reeves’ work as well, is unjust; most college students regardless of parental income level work part-time at just such a job during the school year. Aside from rather bitter insinuations, the two authors also assume that the purpose of an internship is to segue into a job in one specific field and ideally at the entity that hosted the internship.
The truth is that both arguments express an antiquated view of the world. From a practical perspective, young people now use internships to establish whether they have viable strengths in different fields. Also technology has introduced the possibility of interning remotely - externship - into the equation. Since much of Murray’s argument is predicated on the cost of living in cities where internships are offered, the hypothesis is invalidated due to sheer technological change. I would not call either man nostalgic, especially given Dr. Murray’s avowed Never-Trump attitude. But the truth is that the anti-unpaid internship cause fits modern circumstances about as well as the President’s 1950s view of manufacturing fits the new economy (less than ten percent of the population worked in factories in 2016 and that number is projected to drop to barely six percent in ten years). Work for reception of immediate reward and the idealized blue-collar worker might have existed once, but these models are gone and to attempt to revive them is to introduce identity politics; creating problems concerning entry-level positions will have the same effect.
The narrative espoused by Reeves and Murray, who are merely specific examples of a larger mentality, is predicated on a zero-sum attitude. Let Francis Light’s gold coins represent unpaid work and future opportunity in the modern employment jungle. Modern students are analogous to those who cleared the jungle in the quest for coins. In allegorical terms, the modern mentality casts the sacrifices made by those who found gold coins after abandoning daily penny-wage labor and working for free as somehow taking from those who preferred the security of a regular payment, however small. Just as it is ridiculous to think that the risk-takers who found gold coins somehow stole something intangible from the penny-laborers, it is illogical to think that unpaid interns have an unfair advantage over those working low-paying jobs.
In a free market, truly liberal society, those who wish to take risks should be allowed to do so. An unpaid internship is a risk, and abolition of it in the name of social justice equality serves no purpose except to limit young people’s options. It would successfully limit competition, certainly, but history indicates that the consequences of anti-competitive mentality and actions are undesirable.
Mary Lucia Darst
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