Humans are designed to work, and work is good. But a pandemic sweeping American culture is suppressing our innate understanding of work as both the precursor to material gratification and a source of gratification itself. An entitlement mindset is setting in, classifying our basic needs – food, shelter, health care – as goods to which we have a “right.” As our society fosters this entitlement attitude through reinforcement, a tragic side effect is a shift from viewing work as a central component of human flourishing to viewing it as an evil to be avoided.
Just after the adoption of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, some newspapers gleefully reported that able-bodied people were leaving jobs they found unfulfilling now that they were entitled to receive health-care subsidies from the federal government. Those who celebrated this phenomenon failed to recognize the inherent dysfunction of a government that makes working optional for able-bodied adults. But Benjamin Franklin warned us long ago, “When people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”
So it is refreshing to find that some Americans are rejecting the “Government, give me …” attitude. Some are unwilling to accept a handout when they are perfectly capable of working to earn the things they need and want. They cling to the original, work-based version of the American dream and reject promises of provision from Washington, D.C. These voters understand intuitively that real success and gratification are earned, and they appreciate the blessing of living in a nation where they are free to earn them.
It is fascinating to watch reporters and political commentators puzzling over these old-fashioned Americans.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, reporter Jessica Contrera details a day in the workplace of Keisha Saunders, a nurse practitioner treating low-income patients in McDowell County, West Virginia. The article, entitled, “An unhealthy contradiction,” hones in on the fact that the county “voted overwhelmingly for President Trump, whose promise to repeal the [Affordable Care Act] will soon affect nearly every patient. …” Both the title and the thread of innuendo running throughout the piece suggest that the only possible explanation for these voters’ support of the conservative values of personal responsibility and limited government is that they were just too ignorant to know what was best for them.
But the plain words of those interviewed tell a different story. As the article recounts, “When Trump mentioned repealing Obamacare, Clyde wasn’t sure what that might mean for his Medicaid. But if he had a job that provided health insurance, he reasoned, he wouldn’t need Medicaid anyway.”
How have we come to a place where the logic – and the virtue – in Clyde’s thinking is lost on so many of us?
Further evidence that it is lost on many is found in pundits’ hopeful prediction that Trump supporters who don’t find goodies in their stockings will vote differently in the future. In one recent commentary, E. J. Dionne Jr. encourages Democrats to focus on “how Trump’s policies will do severe harm to many who thought he would help them.”
Statements like this indicate a serious misinterpretation of the message delivered by frustrated working-class voters at the ballot box last November. Hardworking people like Clyde are not demanding that the government help them by doing more, but rather that it help them by doing less. They aren’t looking for government to dole out money for food, shelter or health care. They’re looking for government to mind its own business so that they will have business to mind – and the paycheck they earn from minding it. By and large, the members of the working class are more than happy to work, and they reject a government that rewards those who won’t, even as it over-taxes and over-regulates their own employers out of business.
In other words, the liberal analysis has omitted a critical factor. And that factor is good, old-fashioned virtue. It’s the innate longing that every human being has to work, to achieve and to enjoy the just rewards of his or her labor. It is a critical component of the American ethos.
The allure of “easy money” earned by someone else being redistributed to me will always persist. But it is not irresistible. Thank goodness it is still overcome by the virtuous longing of most Americans for honest, rewarding work. These citizens recognize that no amount of government-provided goods and services can outweigh the birthright of human dignity that a limited government leaves them to enjoy.