The Importance of Work
Benefits of Honest Labor
America has always stressed the
character-building nature of labor
By: Victor Davis Hanson |
December 22, 2021
The United States was founded on the idea of the inherent nobility of work. A nation of free, self-sufficient homesteaders believed their hard labor could ensure their prosperity, liberty, and autonomy.
Through our 233 years as a nation, the American national ethic, our various religions, even our popular culture stressed the character-building nature of labor – and its pathway to personal self-sufficiency and a prosperous and powerful nation of industrious citizens.
When World War II broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, an isolationist, underemployed, and neutral America was still in the throes of serial Depression-era recessions. Its military was undermanned and nearly unarmed.
Yet 80 years ago, after entering the war on Dec. 11, 1941, in the aftermath of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans – men and women, teenagers and the elderly, all races and religions – worked nonstop, 24-7 as no nation has before or since.
Less than four years later, the U.S. won the war, by enrolling over 12 million men and women in uniform. Its economy was larger than those of all the major combatants –Britain, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan – put together.
The U.S. Navy was not just the largest sea power in the world. Its thousands of newly built ships were also more numerous than all the navies of the world combined.
America did not fall back into recession after World War II. Instead, its work ethic grew in peace. Labor created a massive interstate highway system, millions of new suburban homes, and thousands of new airports and skyscrapers.
Americans created so much capital and wealth that they could afford to be the most generous people in the world and supported what was then called government “relief “or ‘welfare” for the indigent, the ill, the elderly, and the disabled who could not work.
To suggest that the government curtail incentives not to work is considered insensitive, even mean-spirited.
The work ethic persisted even amid the hippie cultural upheavals of the “tune in, turn on, drop out” 1960s. Teens still looked forward to summer and part-time jobs instead of dependence on parental allowances. The nation worked feverishly on the space program, massive water reclamation projects, and won the Cold War by simply outproducing communism.
Apprentice carpenters, plumbers, and electricians often began steady work at 18. “Working your way through college” was a given for students – in the days before trillion-dollar federal loan programs and subsidies.
Yet the present labor participation rate stubbornly has dipped even lower to about only 62% of the available workforce. Currently, signs like “Now Hiring” and “Help Wanted” dot nearly every city block and suburban mall in America.
Trucks and vans drive the freeways with painted ads “Workers Wanted”. The recovering economy is starting to sputter. Everything from supply chain shortages to inflation is attributed to shortages of labor.
Some nonparticipation is no doubt due to fears over contracting COVID-19.
The worker shortage is also caused by early retirements. And there is a lack of affordable child care for working parents, whose children for nearly two years have been stuck at home, locked out of schools.
But all that said, much of the blame for our current crippling labor shortages is also because of state and federal serial supplemental entitlements. The cash handouts ostensibly started as necessary but temporary support during the pandemic. But they now persist as a sort of de facto guaranteed income that often pays better than joining the workforce.
There has been relatively little pushback against this new idleness. To suggest that the government curtail incentives not to work is considered insensitive, even mean-spirited.
Few make the argument that it is far more immoral that millions of the able are not working in full expectation that millions of others will work. And the employed must work even harder to produce food for the healthy nonparticipants, to ensure their gas and power supplies, to keep them safe at home and abroad – and to subsidize their idleness.
There is a danger when generations of America grow accustomed to not working – they may have forgotten why and how to work.
Psychologically, citizens can become prolonged adolescents who lose the confidence that comes from independence from government and the ensuing sense of achievement that only work provides.
Have we also lost the idea that a collectively hard-working America is needed more than ever to remain competitive with rival nations?
China especially boasts its economy and military will soon surpass our own, in the fashion that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev once boasted over America, “We will bury you”.
Let us hope we will rediscover the work ethos of an earlier generation and keep safe by outworking our enemies, while we become happier and better Americans – the more we are all busy and employed.