Work, dignity, and the common good

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Many on the right (especially self-described “national conservatives”) say that there is no “dignified work” for Americans today. What they mean by this is, essentially, that there are few jobs where working-class individuals can provide for a family.

One aspect ignored is that jobs must ultimately be a service to consumers. In other words, work must be valuable. At a certain point, the horse-and-buggy makers are no longer serving their fellow man well. Rather than continuing to make a product that is, in the minds of the consumers, worse than a car, these workers must retool in order to best serve their fellow man.

While there are delays to retooling that are only exacerbated by labor regulations and protectionist policies, the creative destruction process, in the long run, makes everyone better off.

Let us look at a case where “undignified” work allows for human survival, that being the sweatshop. As we know, our choices are almost never between one great option and one awful option. Rather, most of our choices are between one bad option and one slightly less-bad option.

Sweatshops are often criticized for employing people who are too young and/or vulnerable for hours that are too long in conditions that are unsafe. Rather than being viewed as undignified in the sense that there is little work to provide for a family, sweatshops are seen as undignified due to abhorrent or sub-par working conditions. These claims ignore sweatshop workers’ alternatives. The relevant alternatives for someone working in a sweatshop are not either work in a sweatshop or become a successful venture capitalist; the options are to work in a sweatshop or do something much worse like prostitution.

Sweatshops allow individuals to feed their families, and demonstrably, sweatshop workers prefer working in these factories to their other options.

A common disingenuous claim coming from many on the right is that Americans are facing undignified work because of offshoring. Simultaneously, these same people will tout that there should be a concern for the “common good.”

Part of the schizophrenic nature of this statement is that one cannot claim to hold both a care for the common good of all men and at the same time the protection of a special class (such as American manufacturing workers). Offshoring, say, to Mexico allows Mexican workers to engage in dignified work.

Due to offshoring, poorer families in less developed countries now have better living conditions and better opportunities for their families to grow and develop. Caring about the common good requires understanding trade-offs. In this case, understanding that offshoring can help the less fortunate in other countries is necessary for a full analysis.

It should be clear none of what I have said is meant to diminish the pain that many Americans and their families have felt. I am merely proposing that the institution which has exacerbated or even created these issues in the first place might not be the best one to turn to when looking for solutions.

In his work, A Conflict of Visions, the great economist Thomas Sowell identifies two views of reality: the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. The constrained vision holds that man is fallen and self-interested, whereas the unconstrained view holds that man is, essentially, perfectible.

As true conservatives know, it is the constrained view that holds merit. Economic science also teaches us that reality is constrained through the lens of scarcity. Our means are limited, and our desires are endless. This truth is inescapable.

If we truly care about human dignity and the common good, then we cannot merely focus on one group or class alone. We must strive for the good of all men.

Regulatory agencies and especially the Federal Reserve all prevent Americans and their families from flourishing. If we wish to create a society where individuals can not only survive but thrive on one income, then we must look at the sources which prevent this from being the norm.

Instead of turning to the state, conservatives everywhere must embrace a constrained view of reality in terms of both human nature and economics.