Debating The Value Of Work

The recent CBO report on the impact of the Affordable Care Act — which concluded that total hours worked by Americans will decline because people will chose not to work more in order to preserve their government subsidies for health care — has spurred a debate about work. Supporters of the law say that allowing Americans to choose more leisure time is a good thing. One article in this vein is entitled “Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?”

One point that seemingly is lost in this discussion is how we are going to pay for this leisure time. In the 20th century, utopians dreams about people having more leisure time involved the use of labor-saving devices that people purchased with their paychecks, not government programs that discouraged people from taking on work that was available to them and that they were capable of doing. One obvious question from the CBO report is, who is going to pay for the subsidies (and the other ever-growing government programs) if people are working fewer hours and therefore paying less in taxes?

But let’s lay aside the issue of who is going to pay for all of this, and focus instead on work as a standalone concept. If America as a country has really reached the point where people are debating the value of working, then we have strayed far from the very deep roots of our culture. Our Puritan forefathers believed that work promoted qualities, like industriousness, that were crucial to a successful social order. Pioneers and farmers worked from dawn to dusk. Immigrants were attracted to our country because the Land of Opportunity afforded the opportunity to work and build a better future for their families. For generations, all American political parties agreed that work was good — indeed, essential — and that our goal should be to achieve full employment. Now, apparently, that unanimous view is fracturing.

I’m one of those people who believes that work is a good thing. I think working involves important values, like personal pride and self-reliance and selflessness, in that many of us who are working are doing so to provide better lives and opportunities for our families. I think working gives structure to our lives and promotes qualities like cooperation and teamwork that you simply don’t develop sitting at home. I’m not opposed to leisure time, but I think it should be earned — not encouraged by government subsidies. And I wonder how much of that government-subsidized leisure time that some people are now extolling will be used productively, and how much will be frittered away watching the TV or indulging in other time-wasting or even personally destructive activities?

Work is work, and it is a good thing. I’m amazed that the topic is even open for debate.

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