Labor is the resource of wealth
In early 1490, Christopher Columbus wrote in his diary, “I asked the natives where is the gold, and spices, as soon I arrived in the Indies.” He had persuaded Queen Isabella of Spain to finance an expedition to the distant lands on the other side of the Atlantic. Queen Isabella was somewhat greedy and when wealth-seeking Columbus failed to find gold they were both disappointed.
In 1776, almost 390 years after Columbus reached the new continent, Scottish economist and moral philosopher, Adam Smith, published his classic economics book ``The Wealth of Nations” observing the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America. Smith foresaw the essence of industrialization in determining that division of labor represents a qualitative increase in productivity.
The economist wrote ``the value of any commodity is equal to the quantity of labor which it enables him to purchase therefore the labor is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.” In other words; all wealth is made by humans and wealth is created by human labor.
Some hundred years after Adam Smith, a Prussian philosopher and economist Karl Marx wrote, among others, ``Capital,” a study of the slum quarters in London contrasting poor laborers trapped in poverty with the rich lifestyle of their capitalist employers. Marx was filled with such a strong moral indignation for the poor that he divided economic society into two distinct classes; the exploiters and the exploited.
Again some 70 years after Marx’s death, I saw war devastate Seoul and Koreans struggle to reconstruct the nation. Now 60 years on, we stand side by side with the rich countries in the world. I was once one of the toiling laborers.
Korea had and still has practically no natural resources except fields that produce rice and spices and the fish swimming in the surrounding seas. The peninsula is mostly covered by rugged mountains with trees and shrubs most useful for absorbing runoffs during the storms. During the aftermath civil war in the early 1950s, we had lost hope and thought it was the end of Korea.
But, Koreans in the south took this point in time as an opportunity to begin over, after realizing that the existence of natural resources isn’t the only determining factor that makes a nation wealthy. There was no accumulated capital or land that holds gold or oil.
Realizing we couldn’t become wealthy from capital and natural resources, the only thing available was human labor, brains and brawn. The truth and practical application of what Smith wrote in 1776 resonated; ``Labor is the source of wealth.”
When the construction plan for the first Seoul-Busan Expressway was announced in 1967, a representative shouted in the assembly, ``It’s a stupid idea to build a highway in a country that does not produce a drop of oil.” Consider if our country’s landscape was of rolling hills or flat fertile fields and the people had no experience of war, for example New Zealand or Denmark, would Koreans have engaged so vigorously in foreign trade reached where we are now? If so, I might have become a farmer standing on a levee watching rice saplings growing.
In relation to recent free trade agreements, it’s time to again reevaluate the labor movement in our country, which fortunately wasn’t built on Marxist ideology. North Koreans unwisely and unfortunately still misinterpret ``The Wealth of Nations” and ``Capital” putting the country some 30 years economically behind the South though the both countries started over at the same time in the same rugged land.
The writer is a retired architect-specifications writer, who shuttles back and forth between Seoul and New Jersey. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.