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Books that Shaped Work in America

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William Brock

William "Bill" Brock,
Former Secretary of Labor and U.S. Senator

Throughout human history, progress has consistently been enabled and advanced by freedom—political, economic and social. The world of work has inevitably been interwoven with that progress, and this is reflected in numerous published works, five of which I describe below:

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (1776). In this book, Scottish moral philosopher Smith effectively argued for an economic system employing the highest and best use of the most efficient factors of production, enabled by open markets and enlightened self-interest. In so doing, he influenced many authors and economists going forward, including several of America's founding fathers.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (1788). In this series of 85 articles and essays promoting ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Hamilton, Madison and Jay laid out the case for self-determination, personal freedom and individual responsibility through a system of self-government.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Despite the ideals of equality proclaimed in America's founding documents, it took the efforts of individuals like abolitionist Stowe, through Uncle Tom's Cabin to help ignite public indignation against the desperate human tragedy of slavery. Actions such as hers allowed us, as a nation, to begin to deliver on the promise of opportunity for all through employment.

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962). The industrial revolution gave a whole new meaning to work and the "workplace"—at least until the Great Depression dramatically demonstrated that this new world was not immune to failure. Ever since, the debate regarding the proper role of government in the economy, especially as it affects the workplace, has been vigorous, led by intellectual leaders, such as John Maynard Keyes and Friedman. The latter's book had a major impact on the world of work, making an effective case for a world of free markets unfettered by excessive and intrusive government. Yet, this debate is not over, and the workplace may continue to be roiled by policy swings between its participants.

John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). Finally, as our cultural imperatives changed, so too did those of the economic and social world around us. The world of work, no less than the essential prerequisites of self-government, demanded that education be available to every individual. Among those who led that cause was Dewey, whose book laid the foundation for universal public education. Today, we have to compete for jobs and growth in a knowledge-based, technology-driven, global economy, and the competitive demands it imposes are far tougher than those of earlier years. Today, to maximize their life opportunity, every American must have the world's best education and training. There can be no higher priority, for in this very new and very exciting world, most of the new jobs and much of the workplace will be shaped more by each of us as individuals than any other factor.

William "Bill" Brock was the 18th U.S. Secretary of Labor, serving from 1985 to 1987. He also represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1971 to 1977.

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