Workers and labour activists have often attacked strict discipline as coercive, unfair and potentially counterproductive.
Text-book economics suggests, though, that in a competitive labour market any attempt to coerce people into working harder than they want will fail, since workers can simply switch jobs.
Studies of factory work paint a more complicated picture, however.
People would like to work hard and earn high wages, this story goes.
But they struggle with self-control and do not work as hard as they wish they would.
They consequently choose to work for firms that use disciplinary measures to push them.
During industrialisation, workers “effectively hired capitalists to make them work harder”, says Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, in a seminal paper on the subject.
If that seems an implausibly sunny description of life in 19th-century factories, researchers have found evidence for such behaviour in modern contexts.
Supreet Kaur, of Columbia University, and Michael Kremer and Sendhil Mullainathan, of Harvard University, ran a 13-month experiment using data-entry workers,
who were paid according to the amount of work successfully completed.
Some struggled with self-control, the authors deter-mined, as shown by their tendency to slack off for much of each month but put in more effort as payday approached.
When workers were offered contracts that penalised them for failing to hit performance targets,
those who struggled to stay on-task disproportionately accepted, and achieved big gains in output and pay as a result.
In many settings, pay is less clearly linked to performance.