Perhaps more than any other Western democratic people, Americans revere work. This is not surprising, given our history. Unlike the aristocratic European societies that colonized the Western Hemisphere, where unaccountable noblemen gave the order to work to their peasant subjects, and where labor was carried out for the benefit of society’s rulers, the United States is a nation of pioneers, of strivers, of people who actively seek their life’s calling in work. Our most obvious deviation from this ideal, the horror of slavery, stands in sharp contrast to an ethos of a freedom guaranteed by hard work, work that a person does willingly, for their own sake and for the sake of their family. Our belief in personal freedom is inseparable from our belief in hard work. If it had not been for the difficult labors of many past generations, we would not be living in a free country today.
Depending on their political beliefs, however, Americans might tell themselves different stories about work, its place in our society, and what kind of work most deserves to be praised and rewarded. We might tell ourselves that business owners are self-reliant heroes, kept down unfairly by meddlesome regulators and greedy unions. Or we might tell ourselves that business owners are greedy SOBs ready to squeeze every last penny from their hardworking employees, and can only be constrained by heroic unions and public servants.
These disagreements, unfortunately, are linked to the general rancor and deep political polarization of our era. At a time when far too many of us look on our fellow Americans as immoral or enemies, rather than as fellow citizens with whom we disagree about certain beliefs, it is important that we try and realize that our conflicting understandings of work and fairness are rooted in the same core values. Bringing our fellow Americans together, not as people who always agree but as people who respect fellow citizens despite strong disagreements, requires that we at least acknowledge the validity of each other’s concerns, about work as much as anything else.
It is easy for both conservatives and progressives to believe that the other side does not truly value work, or at least does not value it in the right way. A conservative who reveres entrepreneurs may point to the long hours and great risks it takes to start a new business and make it work, and might think government regulators and workers who go on strike don’t value the entrepreneur’s input. Likewise, a progressive who thinks highly of labor unions will see them as the best available shield vulnerable workers have against unfair treatment by employers, and may fear that employers do not significantly value workers’ input.
Our differing emphases when it comes to work often carry over into our beliefs about government programs and their relationship to work. Social Security, to which more tax dollars are devoted than any other federal program, has consistently been very popular across the left-right divide. It’s a pretty straightforward mechanism – it collects money from people across the span of their working lives, and distributes money to people who have retired after decades of work. It is a reward for a lifetime of work, and as such it feeds directly into the American respect for people who persevere and put their noses to the grindstone.
In contrast, programs that are explicitly aimed at low-income people tend to divide left and right. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which used to be known as food stamps, is a classic example. Progressives often see it as a necessary expenditure to help people make ends meet, including people who are actively looking for work and people who work but do not earn enough to provide for themselves and their families. Many conservatives, meanwhile, worry that SNAP discourages poor people from working harder and becoming more self-reliant, that it saps their incentive. It’s possible to pair both these opinions with cynical beliefs about the opposite side, to believe either that a SNAP critic is alright with poor people starving, or that a SNAP defender does not mind people lazily mooching off government largesse.
Different beliefs about favoritism and justice also enter in. The operator of a literal “family business,” may hire relatives on the assumption that they know those individuals well, and therefore can trust them. To an outsider looking to work in the same company, though, such favoritism is completely unwarranted, and it is easy for said outsider to think of the boss’s kin as undeserving, as a brat who only got their job because of their DNA. A similar divide can be found in debates over affirmative action. Which is more just: giving an edge to members of disadvantaged groups to make up for difficulties people like them have had in the past, or evaluating a job applicant purely on what his or her resume says, regardless of demographic factors?
Some of our resentments toward each other could be cooled if we better understood that we all value work and fairness, even though we have different definitions of fairness at work. For example, people who stress the difficulties of running a business, and people who stress the difficulties of performing manual labor for low pay, both have respect for the demands of work, and both believe the person enduring those demands deserves admiration. Neither is inherently more right than the other, and having more intrinsic respect for one type of person is not the same as disrespecting the other.
Conflicting attitudes toward unions and regulation also stem from different understandings of where the risk and pain in work is most present. People who want to see more power in the hands of unions and regulators view them as necessary to protect vulnerable workers, to ensure that they can do their jobs without having to worry about being injured, sickened, abused, cheated or killed. Apart from a small percentage of true extremists, who genuinely detest capitalism and view capitalists as automatically suspect, they are not motivated by a base desire to punish business owners. They know that if they harmed businesses to so great an extent they went bankrupt, there would be far fewer job opportunities around.
Likewise, people who want to see more power and discretion in the hands of business owners view them as better equipped to run their companies, as people who know better what a company needs to thrive. Apart from a small percentage of true extremists, who genuinely look down upon workers as inferior and view any regulation as a step toward communism, they are not motivated by a base desire to turn the economy into a feudal system of lords and serfs. They know that if they don’t treat their workers well enough, or show enough concern for their customers and communities, there won’t be anyone around to work for them, buy from them, or speak highly of them.
Similarly, people who don’t mind employers hiring people they know personally (including relatives), and people who would rather those employers choose people who have more objectively demonstrated their ability to carry out tasks, both recognize that employers need people by their side whom they can trust. It’s just that they have different ways of measuring that trust. People who see affirmative action as necessary to compensate for past injustices, and people who see it as unfairly disadvantaging people who have done nothing wrong, both recognize that a job is key to Americans’ ability to see themselves as part of the social mainstream, to feel like people worthy of praise for their contributions to society. They simply have different views on how many things should be factored in when judging what a person must do to prove his or her worth as a worker.
Being a public policy nerd, I can’t help including a few quick suggestions for ways our leaders could help bridge this gap in perceptions. Social Security, with its vaunted position at the center of the American social safety net, can play a role in narrowing the divide, at least if its long-term solvency is guaranteed. If no changes are made in the next 15 years, in 2034, everyone who is receiving Social Security will see their benefits drop by 21%. Unfortunately, debates about what to do with it tend to involve proposals to cut benefits for many retirees, or to expand benefits for everyone while only raising taxes on the very affluent.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has done a remarkable public service by publishing The Reformer, a tool showing how much an increase (or decrease) in long-term solvency would come from a variety of changes. Lifting the cap on the payroll tax, by itself, would extend Social Security by another 29 years. In 2020, the cap will be $137,700; people making more than that amount can afford a tax increase. Expanding it to cover state and local government employees (whose separate pension systems are the cause of many bitter budget battles around the country) would also help. Keeping something as popular and respected as Social Security going, making sure the government can keep its promise of a secure retirement for every American who has worked, would make it easier for people to find common ground on other discussions related to work and fairness.
As much as we all value work, we Americans will never agree on a single conception of whose work counts most, how work should be rewarded, and what role the government should play in it. What we can do, however, is recognize that our disagreements about particulars are born not out of any fundamental rejection of fairness, but of differing interpretations of a key value. Americans have never been able to agree entirely on what freedom means, or why it’s important—and yet all still value it highly, making it possible for us to advocate our opinions in terms of freedom. The same can, and should, be true of work.