On the “Dignity of Work”

Much has been made of the recent comments of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan on the need for instilling “the value and culture of work”, particularly among “inner-city” people. The gist of Ryan’s statement is that many minority Americans live in poverty because they prefer not to work, a convenient conservative excuse not to do much about creating good, family-sustaining work in minority communities or doing much to improve mass transit or doing much of anything. The NY Times columnist Paul Krugman has ably addressed the latent racism in such conservative ideas, so let’s look at a broader issue: the dignity, or not, of work.

In the interview in question, Ryan uses the phrase “dignity of work”, a favorite Republican theme:

“And so, the dignity of work is very valuable and important and we have to reemphasize work and reform our welfare programs like we did in 1996 so that we have an eye on getting people into the workforce.”

The Republican (and sometimes Democratic) idea of work is too simplistic, for it boils down to “a job.” So if you got “a job,” you got “dignity.” A job is a thing you leave home to do and it involves making money, no matter if the money you make is too little (or too much) or the work you do is vile or harmful or dishonest or boring or dangerous or demeaning. As long as you are playing an active role in whatever the free market dictates, you are a productive, worthy citizen who ought to be grateful. If you are “underemployed” or “unemployed” for any reason–if you are disabled or ill or care-giving or parenting or housekeeping or unlucky or making things that don’t make money– you are, in the conservative universe, “a moocher” in need of a lecture on the dignity of work. This type of thinking is what the Vatican has criticized as “commercial logic.”

Human work is a lot older than the “free market” and has values and cultural meaning far wider than wage slavery or commercial logic. As a politician who has previously discussed his Catholic faith with regards to governing, Rep. Paul Ryan might refresh his understanding of what the Catholic Church, in the voice of Pope Benedict XVI, has to say about the relationship between economics and human dignity:

 “Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple  application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the  pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular  must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave  imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for  wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for  pursuing justice through redistribution.

The Church has always held that economic action is not to be regarded as  something opposed to society. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not  become, the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to  protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso  facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the  market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a  certain ideology can make it so. It must be remembered that the market does not  exist in the pure state. It is shaped by the cultural configurations which  define it and give it direction. Economy and finance, as instruments, can be  used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends.  Instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful  ones. But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the  instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called  to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and  social responsibility.

The Church’s social doctrine holds that authentically human social  relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted  within economic activity, and not only outside it or “after” it. The economic  sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to  society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is  human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner.”

I don’t agree with all Catholic doctrine, God knows, but this religious understanding of the moral foundation of  a good economy is a helpful rebuke to the blame-the-poor-for-poverty theory of work and economics. If government and individuals do not act upon the free market to foster moral, healthy, sustainable, fair-wage work worth doing, especially in our poorer communities, if our economy is not “structured and governed in an ethical manner,” we are failing our democratic responsibility. Nor should we belittle crucial unpaid work, like the raising of children. No one is lecturing unemployed wealthy spouses, whose days may not include cleaning, cooking or parenting, on the ills of idleness.  The “dignity of work”, it seems, is only good and necessary for some of us.