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Archive for the ‘Work Ethic’ Category

There have always been hard-working Americans.  And the respect for work and expectation and value put upon work was long an American virtue.  Americans also have long had a streak of impressive risk-taking.  The motive of so much of the hard work of Americans has long been to get rich and not have to work, preferably with as little real work as possible along the way.  What else is the meaning of “wild-catters” and “land speculators” and the old ’49ers.   Both trends–honest work-and get-rich-quick scheming–have coexisted since our republic’s founding.

Along the way came a third trend:  the will to idleness on the dime of others, without anything more required than breath in one’s lung and a vote.  This corrosive newcomer’s influence reached its high water mark in the 60s, where work, productivity, and the like were scorned as “selling out” by the elites and as a “sucker’s game” by the idle poor.  For a lot of reasons, mostly guilt of one kind or another, the idle rich in particular supported throwing a few bones at the poor.  A helping hand or a pay-off depending how you look at it.

Today all three of these ethics–the old work ethic, the scheming ethic, and the scheming ethic of socialism–coexist in varying degrees.  The decline of the old American work ethic has been the most notable consequence of an increasing culture of consumerism and self-gratification.  Consumerism and the extensive use of credit has fueled the two alternatives American visions’ attractiveness and undermined the vitality of the work ethic.

Below is an excerpt of an excellent essay by Steven Malanga on the work ethic’s present doldrums:

Behind America’s balancing act, the pioneering French social thinker [Tocqueville] noted, lay a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty—virtues that grew out of the pervasiveness of religion, which Tocqueville called “the first of [America’s] political institutions, . . . imparting morality” to American democracy and free markets. Some 75 years later, sociologist Max Weber dubbed the qualities that Tocqueville observed the “Protestant ethic” and considered them the cornerstone of successful capitalism. Like Tocqueville, Weber saw that ethic most fully realized in America, where it pervaded the society. Preached by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, taught in public schools, embodied in popular novels, repeated in self-improvement books, and transmitted to immigrants, that ethic undergirded and promoted America’s economic success.

What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? In place of thrift, they would find a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses. In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth, they would find bankers and financiers with such a short-term perspective that they never pause to consider the consequences or risks of selling securities they don’t understand. In place of a country where all a man asks of government is “not to be disturbed in his toil,” as Tocqueville put it, they would find a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures, or bail out old ones. They would find what Tocqueville described as the “fatal circle” of materialism—the cycle of acquisition and gratification that drives people back to ever more frenetic acquisition and that ultimately undermines prosperous democracies.

Out of abject fear, saving is rising.  Perhaps the work ethic will enjoy a renaissance.  But this is unlikely so long as some can live quite well on the dole, while others live extraordinarily well playing games with other people’s money in a manner that has no apparent benefit for the public or the system.  I should think anger and resentment directed at those latter groups is more likely.

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