“And I saw Sisyphus at his endless task raising his prodigious stone with both his hands. With hands and feet he tried to roll it up to the top of the hill, but always, just before he could roll it over on to the other side, its weight would be too much for him, and the pitiless stone would come thundering down again on to the plain. Then he would begin trying to push it up hill again, and the sweat ran off him and the steam rose after him.” Homer, The Odyssey Book XI (trans. Samuel Butler 800 B.C.).
In his work Sophisms of the Protectionists, Frédéric Bastiat pointed to Sisyphus as the epitome of “infinite labor; result nothing.” Frédéric Bastiat, Sophisms of the Protectionists (trans. Horace White 1870). He used this image to illustrate the absurdity of political doctrines that by intent or effect promote labor itself as a desirable goal rather than as merely the means to a goal. He called this absurdity “sisyphism.”
Despite the origin of the term, sisyphism does not usually plague individual behavior because, setting aside slavery and charity, individuals do not usually labor for nothing. Instead, sisyphism is a malady caused by politicians and suffered by nations.
A recent example of sisyphism is the acclaimed cash for clunkers program. The buyer owns an item of value—a clunker—and takes it in to the car dealership to be destroyed. In return the government transfers wealth from the public to the car dealership and the car dealership in turn transfers a new car to the buyer. The total estimated transfer from the public to buyers was $2.877 billion. Each transaction diminished the nation’s overall wealth: the value of the clunker was lost and no new value was created. Even if you think that robbing the public is okay if it protects the health of the environment, the program was still a failure according to NPR (this despite NPR’s statist bias). Yet Nancy Pelosi congratulated congress and U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood claimed it was “a win for the economy, a win for the environment and a win for American consumers.”
This is not sisyphism’s first appearance and certainly will not be its last. Watch for it in the coming months as pundits and politicians attempt to justify or implement economic policies. Take note of the benchmarks they use to measure success. Will they focus on new jobs (labor) or wealth creation (value)?
In the mean time, struggle on America in your “endless task.” Invent, imagine, work, and suffer til the sweat runs off you and the steam rises after you. Just don’t get crushed when the stone comes rolling back down.