Peggy Noonan reflects on the meaning of work:
A job isn’t only a means to a paycheck, it’s more. . . . To work is to be integrated into the daily life of the nation. There is pride and satisfaction in doing work well, in working with others and learning a discipline or a craft or an art. To work is to grow and to find out who you are.
In return for performing your duties, whatever they are, you receive money that you can use freely and in accordance with your highest desire. A job allows you the satisfaction of supporting yourself or your family, or starting a family. Work allows you to renew your life, which is part of the renewing of civilization.
Work gives us purpose, stability, integration, shared mission. And so to be unable to work—unable to find or hold a job—is a kind of catastrophe for a human being.
This is true, and when people start thinking of work as simply one means of getting their hands on cash—on par if not inferior to seeking handouts from the state—you know we’re in trouble.
“We learn from unemployment the true significance of work,” wrote Eli Ginzberg in his 1943 study of joblessness during the Great Depression, The Unemployed. During the Great Depression, there was strong resistance by Americans to going on the dole—to accept handouts from private charities let alone the public purse. In part, they viewed it as wrong to live off the labor of other people. But they also knew that not working was harmful to the recipient. According to Ginzberg:
What is pleasure to the employed man—to be at home with his family—is a burden to the unemployed. . . . The fact that the men hung around the house led to friction. Mrs. Silverman said: “There is constant bickering and quarreling in the household. Her husband is nervous He yells at the children and at her and she nags at him . . .”
[The unemployed man] cannot spend his energies in work. He is deprived of the pleasure that a farmer has when he sees the wheat which he has sowed blowing in the wind. And the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker also experience satisfaction at the end of a day’s work. Even the man on the assembly line or the clerk behind a counter feels that he has contributed something useful. The unemployed man goes to sleep with his strength unspent, or worse still, dissipated in frustration. He has seen the clock go round but he has nothing to show for the hours that have passed.
This is a problem government intervention cannot solve. It can give men unearned money—it cannot give them purpose or self-respect. (It can give them make-work projects, but as one participant in FDR’s make-work schemes reported to Ginzberg, “It had no purpose and no importance. It definitely made [me] feel that [I was] getting charity. This feeling of receiving charity is a ‘bitter pill and makes one feel as if he were dead.’”) The only thing it can accomplish is to make it harder for individuals to find enjoyable and remunerative work.
For an in-depth discussion of these issues, see the new paperback edition of Free Market Revolution, due on next Tuesday.