For the longer answer, I’d like you to consider a metaphor. Imagine that I’m an operations engineer for an organization and my job is to set up computers to run various software, or maybe I create relationships between different computer systems. Regardless, this labor essentially takes the generalized processing power of the computers and turns it into specific processes that is used to multiply labor productivity in order to create valuable information. It is the process of taking computational power and turning it into tools. We pay people a lot of money to do this kind of thing.
You can probably already see where I’m going with this. When a person is being educated, they are essentially doing the same thing. They’re performing labor to take their potential abilities and turn them into into tools. They are learning the processes and relationships that are needed to create value. Is it not reasonable then that we should value education the same as any other labor that creates tools?
But, you may notice, there is a difference between computers and people. Namely, a computer can’t demand a wage and decent working conditions. While it is true that we need to treat people like people, I don’t even think this difference is that simple to make. We pay for a computer’s electricity. We keep it cool so it doesn’t break down1. We pay for everything the computer needs to continue functioning. Would that we could extend the same consideration to people!
Next up is this idea of “investment”. Frequently we hear people say “an education is an investment in yourself,” but is it really? People get paid based on their ability to gain leverage in a market by objectifying themselves into rare, desired commodities. As soon as the kind of commodity you’ve made yourself into is no longer rare, your wages plummet, regardless of how much education you have. This happens even if the skills you learned generate lots of value. That’s actually what employers want: people who are both cheap and valuable.
Even from the point of view of the owner, it is worth it to pay for education, because it makes it harder for any specific person to negotiate a higher wage based off from their unique skills. We already see this happening with large tech companies constantly sponsoring educational initiatives or “coding camps.” The goal is to create a larger labor force with the specific skills the tech companies need in order to drive wages down. When you hear someone complain about a “labor shortage,” make sure to double check that it doesn’t actually mean “labor is able to demand higher wages than we want to pay.”
Ideally though, labor would not be something that is not exploited by people owning capital in order to gain more power. It would be what people perform in order to actualize the life that they want to live. Labor would not be a burden, but a pure expression of liberty. In a world where that can happen, there is no meaningful difference between labor and education, and—in my opinion—there never really has been.
1 In some ways, computers have it better than humans, because when a computer has a problem we don’t blame the computer. We blame the manufacturer, or the person taking care of the machine.