Americans love to contemplate — and legislatively promote, to whatever degree possible — the virtue of hard work. Here in the United States, we already work more hours per year than our English-speaking counterparts in Britain, Canada and Australia — not to mention those enviable denizens of European social democracies, who enjoy the kind of leisure time only our highest-paid workers can afford.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that several new pro-work policy ideas are enjoying attention on the left and the right. On the right, work requirements for Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance represent the latest conservative effort to make sure Americans work for any benefits they receive. Meanwhile, on the left, the idea of a federal job guarantee has gained increasing attention, showing up in statements from the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
In all of these proposals, much is made of the special dignity that comes through work. In President Trump’s executive order outlining his desire that work requirements be attached to assistance programs, he called upon the federal government to elevate “principles that are central to the American spirit — work, free enterprise, and safeguarding human and economic resources.” In his column defending Booker’s job guarantee proposal, Bloomberg News writer Noah Smith pointed out that “jobs provide a kind of dignity that traditional welfare programs, or even innovative new ones like universal basic income, probably don’t.”
It isn’t that the programs are tonally identical. The right’s approach to making sure everyone who receives government aid works has always seemed vaguely punitive, while the left’s interest in providing jobs — and thus an income — to people who have neither rings of Rooseveltian solidarity with the victims of an unfair economy. Regardless, these pro-work programs inevitably fixate on work as a provider of independence or self-esteem. With just a little nudge in the direction of the labor market, one concludes, people who feel disempowered and diminished by their economic situation would find themselves newly dignified, self-sufficient, proud.
And maybe that is the case: Trump isn’t wrong, after all, in identifying work as a cardinal American virtue — and infractions against virtue are the stuff of vice. But in terms of our wider cultural context, it doesn’t appear to me that a lack of respect for work is the No. 1 threat to American dignity. If we undervalue anything to the detriment of dignity, it is the virtue of rest.