Chesterton Views on Work in 20th Century America

One hundred years ago, the British writer G.K. Chesterton traveled to the United States for a lecture tour. He published his observations of America in What I Saw in America (1922). In an essay titled “The American Businessman”, Chesterton notes with surprise how passionate Americans appear about their professional work.

Chesterton recognizes this enthusiasm for work as more than mere greed.

This is the intro to my latest article for the OLL Reading Room. I discuss the American work ethic and Chesterton’s prescient insight into American economic dynamism compared to Britain. (Relatedly, Alex on British stagnation this week.)

Here’s a fun bit of the book that I didn’t include in the OLL article. Chesterton wrote this about seeing New York City for the first time:

But there is a sense in which New York is always new; in the sense that it is always being renewed. A stranger might well say that the chief industry of the citizens consists of destroying their city; but he soon realises that they always start it all over again with undiminished energy and hope. At first I had a fancy that they never quite finished putting up a big building without feeling that it was time to pull it down again; and that somebody began to dig up the first foundations while somebody else was putting on the last tiles. This fills the whole of this brilliant and bewildering place with a quite unique and unparalleled air of rapid ruin. 

Interested New Yorkers can find the rest online at Project Gutenberg. Delightful throughout if you like history. Amazon link to the book here.

Chesterton on Prohibition, and Game Theory

English philosopher G.K. Chesterton traveled to America for a lecture tour. His observations are recorded in What I Saw in America (1922).

The book is not primarily about Prohibition nor is it mostly critical of America. He wrote one of his essays on Prohibition, which begins as follows:

This was 100 years ago, so start with this summary of the facts from Britannica:

Prohibition, legal prevention of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920 to 1933 under the terms of the Eighteenth Amendment. Although the temperance movement, which was widely supported, had succeeded in bringing about this legislation, millions of Americans were willing to drink liquor (distilled spirits) illegally…

Chesterton clearly is not a teetotaler, and I will not argue for or against temperance here. What was counterproductive about Prohibition is that elites passed a law that they would not abide by themselves.

Consider the decision by an individual to drink or not drink. For many people, drinking is social. If your friends are meeting at a bar, then you will drink at the bar to be with them. If your friends are going hiking with water bottles, then many people can pass the day without alcohol happily. We can model a game called Meeting Friends that has multiple equilibria.

Borrowing from Myerson (2009):

In such games, Schelling argued, anything in a game’s environment or history that focuses the players’ attention on one equilibrium may lead them to expect it, and so rationally to play it. This focal-point effect opens the door for cultural and environmental factors to influence rational behavior.

There was an opportunity for American elites to move social life to a new focal point after the 18th Amendment was passed. They could have led by example. Laws that do not follow norms cause problems, such as a large prison population arrested for drug offenses today. In 2021, I wrote about why attempts at drug prohibition helped the Taliban defeat the US coalition in Afghanistan.

Here’s my tweet thread last week about Chesterton and the American work ethic.

Myerson, R. B. (2009). Learning from Schelling’s strategy of conflict. Journal of Economic Literature47(4), 1109-25.