America Takes Early Retirement
by Mark Steyn
February 10, 2014
Faced with the Congressional Budget Office's determination that Obamacare would cost 2.5 million full-time jobs, the Obama Administration has declared that that's not a bug, it's a feature: "Full-time jobs"? Who needs that? With "free" health care, Americans will also be free to dump the daily grind of a steady job with benefits and finally write that opera they've always wanted to compose. Obamacare is "liberating", declared The New York Times. At last Americans will be free to "choose" whether they want to spend their days working or writing poetry or cooing multicultural dirges to their children. It's all about "choice". I'm pro-choice and I
vote lie around the house all day watching TV.
I wouldn't disagree with the new Democrat conventional wisdom that many people would, if they could, choose not to work. In many American families, two adults with college degrees work full-time to live as well as one provider with a high-school diploma did in the 1950s. Nevertheless, the government is not offering "choice" but dependency. To endorse the proposition, Politico hired a near parodic character who "works" as Professor of Leisure Studies at the University of Iowa to pen an editorial headlined, "Why Do Republicans Want Us To Work All The Time?"
So work is now just a partisan obsession: unsatisfied with the war on women and the war on "reproductive choice" and the war on Hispanics and all the rest, Republicans have now opened up a new front with a war on sloth. To take the question more seriously than it merits, here is why I want people to work. This comes from my most recent bestseller, After America, available in hardback, paperback and audio editions, personally autographed copies of which are available right now from the SteynOnline bookstore. Which I mention only because I'd rather live off my royalties than work. Anyway, here's my answer to that Politico question:
As the fog of Obama's rhetoric lifted and the scale of his debt mountain became clear, the President's courtiers began to muse about the introduction of an EU-style "VAT". Americans generally translate that as a "national sales tax", but it actually stands for "value-added tax", because you're taxing the value that is added to a product in the course of its path to market. Yet what Europe needs is to add "value" in a more basic sense.
There are two main objections to the wholesale Europeanization of America. The easy one is the economic argument. But the second argument is subtler: The self-extinction of Europe is not just a matter of economics. Advanced social democracies don't need a value-added tax; they need a value-added life. "The Europe that protects" may protect you from the vicissitudes of fate but it also disconnects you from the primary impulses of life. Government security does not in and of itself make for a satisfying, purposeful life.
In the futuristic nightmares of yesteryear such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) [SEE PICTURE ABOVE], the masses are slaves chained to vast mechanical contraptions they're forced to keep running day and night. But these days the mechanical contraptions mostly run themselves, and the world that beckons presents quite the opposite conundrum from that contemplated by Lang: masses with nothing to do. To quote again from After America:
Once upon a time, millions of Americans worked on farms. Then, as agriculture declined, they moved into the factories. When manufacturing was outsourced, they settled into low-paying service jobs or better-paying cubicle jobs â so-called "professional services" often deriving from the ever swelling accounting and legal administration that now attends almost any activity in America. What comes next?
Or, more to the point, what if there is no "next"?
Consciously or otherwise, our rulers seem to accept that thesis. In a world in which "capital" no longer needs "labor", there will still be a "working class" and a "leisured class"; but they'll have changed places: an aristocratic class will do such "work" as is rewarding and fulfilling, while the masses will be "leisured", and hopefully sufficiently distracted by "free" health care and electronic trinkets that they will remain quiescent and compliant.
I would doubt such a society would be peaceable for long. As I wrote two months before the Democrat-media complex began celebrating the liberation of the citizenry from full-time employment:
Consider Vermont. Unlike my own state of New Hampshire, it has a bucolic image: Holsteins, dirt roads, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, Ben & Jerry's, Howard Dean . . . And yet the Green Mountain State has appalling levels of heroin and meth addiction, and the social chaos that follows. Geoffrey Norman began a recent essay in The Weekly Standard with a vignette from a town I know very well â St. Johnsbury, population 7,600, motto "Very Vermont," the capital of the remote North-East Kingdom hard by the Quebec border and as far from urban pathologies as you can get. Or so you'd think. But on a recent Saturday morning, Norman reports, there were more cars parked at the needle-exchange clinic than at the farmers' market. In Vermont, there's no inner-city underclass, because there are no cities, inner or outer; there's no disadvantaged minorities, because there's only three blacks and seven Hispanics in the entire state; there's no nothing. Which is the real problem.
Large numbers of Vermonters have adopted the dysfunctions of the urban underclass for no reason more compelling than that there's not much else to do. Once upon a time, St. Johnsbury made Fairbanks scales, but now a still handsome town is, as Norman puts it, "hollowed out by the loss of work and purpose." Their grandparents got up at four in the morning to work the farm and their great-great-great-whatever-parents slogged up the Connecticut River, cleared the land, and built homes and towns and a civilization in the wilderness. And now? A couple of months back, I sat in the cafÃ© in St. Johnsbury, and overheard a state official and a Chamber of Commerce official discuss enthusiastically how the town could access some federal funds to convert an abandoned building into welfare housing.
"Work" and "purpose" are intimately connected: Researchers at the University of Michigan, for example, found that welfare payments make one unhappier than a modest income honestly earned and used to provide for one's family. "It drains too much of the life from life," said Charles Murray in a speech in 2009. "And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors â even more to the lives of janitors â as it does to the lives of CEOs." Self-reliance â "work" â is intimately connected to human dignity â "purpose."
Another quote from After America, from the presiding genius of the British welfare state:
When William Beveridge laid out his blueprint for the modern British welfare state in 1942, his goal was the "abolition of want," to be accomplished by "cooperation between the State and the individual." In attempting to insulate the citizenry from the vicissitudes of fate, Sir William succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: Want has been all but abolished. Today, fewer and fewer Britons want to work, want to marry, want to raise children, want to lead a life of any purpose or dignity. "Cooperation" between the State and the individual has resulted in a huge expansion of the former and the ceaseless withering of the latter.
Which is more likely in Obama's world after work? The new golden age of poetry and music foreseen by Nancy Pelosi? Or more heroin, more obesity, more diabetes, more crime, more children raised in transient households that make even elementary character formation all but impossible... And, if you're one of those who works in the "knowledge economy", how confident are you that you can insulate your life from the pathologies beyond the Green Zone?
The basic problem with the western world today is that not enough people do not enough work for not enough of their lives - and yet still expect to lead a First World lifestyle. One more quote from my sadly prescient After America: As Bernard Shaw asked in Heartbreak House, "Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favor of England because you were born in it?"
"Of course!" say Obama and Pelosi and The New York Times and the Professor of Leisure Studies at the University of Iowa. I think not.