An online search of the term “hard work” will deliver a large number of discussions of the term “dignity of labor” as a Christian value or ethic, and that seems well in accord with the view of many in our nation. But who makes the evaluation that an individual has worked hard? Or when such hard work does not produce sufficiently to avoid hunger or poverty or qualify for benefits? How realistic are “work rules” to receive Medicaid? These questions have been elements of the nation’s political dialogue since colonial days. Historical figures have consistently honored the dignity of labor and coupled its meaning with moral values.
Raised a Baptist and later attending Presbyterian services, President Abraham Lincoln said:
Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.
Pope Francis has weighed in consistent with a number of his modern predecessors:
There is no worse material poverty than one that does not allow for earning one’s bread and deprives one of the dignity of work. Youth, unemployment, informality, and the lack of labor rights, are not inevitable; they are the result of a previous social option, of an economic system that puts profit above man; if the profit is economic, to put it above man, is the effect of a disposable culture that considers the human being in himself as a consumer good which can be used and then discarded.
If a society produced all the wealth necessary for the common wealth to prevent suffering from poverty or sickness among its entire population, what difference would it make were some members not to work? In colonial times, localities created charitable entities to assist members who had fallen on hard times, especially where the family breadwinner was involved. The public policy was to ensure that the stricken family did not become a burden upon the rest of society. It was, in fact, an affirmative policy of sharing the common wealth. The labor and work of the remainder of the community was no less dignified and the resultant output satisfied the common purpose of settling a new frontier.
At its basest, then, denial of sharing the common wealth reduces itself to a complaint by “producers” to receive a greater share of the output, withholding from those who did not contribute.
At its basest, then, denial of sharing the common wealth reduces itself to a complaint by “producers” to receive a greater share of the output, withholding from those who did not contribute. Which brings us back to the question as to how much must any individual contribute by work or labor to receive a common social benefit? In colonial and later times, support for poverty was deemed a matter of local responsibility. Poor laws, however, were steeped in morality and meant to deter poverty as a personal failing, creating a profligate, weak population, contrary to the needs of a developing nation.
That same profligate, weak population was clearly also one without any political power, and many states engaged in vendue (auction) of the poor to bidders in need of no-cost or inexpensive labor. The practice, of course, acknowledged no notion of the dignity of labor. In 2016, the federal government sued an Iowa company that utilized the labor of mentally challenged men for decades, paying penny wages. The author of a 1985 classic on the development of American law (Lawrence A. Friedman, A History of American Law, p. 488) observed:
The American system provided a voice and a share in the economy to incomparably more people than most of the societies of the old world; but for the unorganized and the powerless the share was niggardly indeed. The basis of politics, and the law, was the pressure of interest groups; the loudest, most powerful voices won the most. Old people, transients, the feeble-minded, dirt-poor, and crippled families–all these stayed by and large at the bottom of the social pit.
Friedman’s observation is especially poignant in light of the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, ostensibly to abolish slavery:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime . . . shall exist in the United States. . . .
A century and a half later, our nation’s prisoners continue to provide no-cost or low-cost goods and services to the more powerful. Some penologists insist to this day that such work is rehabilitative, despite evidence to the contrary. In fact, there have been multiple instances of prisoners organizing protests for minimum wages. Unexamined public policy continues in the myth that such forced labor benefits those forced to perform it. Worse, many states contract prison labor to profit-making companies as income offsets to the costs of prison maintenance. There is neither dignity nor moral value to persisting in this practice, which cannot be defended.
To what extent are our contemporaneous public policies driven by considerations of morality or fears of being taken advantage of by slackers? The question is heightened by economic data demonstrating that the 1% of the nation’s wealthiest individuals possess greater resources than 50% of those at the bottom of the scale. How much more can trickle up or be aggregated by a tax system that continues to deliver an even greater share of the gross domestic product to the top? The unequal sharing of the common wealth may be seen to create a disincentive to hard work and the dignity of labor, in contradiction to our earliest beliefs and public policies. Characterizing proposals to create a more equitable sharing as socialistic or communistic serves no productive purpose in consideration of the matter, or encouragement to discuss it.
At its inception, the US population was just under 4 million, while today it is 325 million. The present figure strongly suggests the capacity to honor both the dignity of labor and relent older beliefs about the necessity of valuing “hard work” for existence in the modern world. As Freidman implies, it’s a matter of politics and, in some measure, law. The political component requires an examination of conscience and transformation of the belief system that denigrates the neediest among us. That would be, in fact, a more effective conception of the dignity of labor than our present one, unburdened of animosity and infused with dignity for all. E Pluribus Unum.