Economy & Business

Bernie Sanders’s Make-Work Guarantee

Sen. Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail in Syracuse, N.Y., during his 2016 campaign. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Don’t fetishize labor for its own sake.

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits is reaching record lows, yet Senator Bernie Sanders has announced a plan to provide a government job to any American “who wants or needs one.” The plan would necessitate grievous tax hikes, but even if it were somehow economically feasible, we should still oppose it. The notion of a right to a taxpayer-funded job that is neither necessary to the function of government nor warranted by market demand is rooted in an illiberal philosophy that fetishizes labor for its own sake.

In the radical dawn of the 19th century, this belief in a right to a job was contrived by the French utopian Charles Fourier, who stated that “the first right of men is the right to work.” Promptly, the concept was popularized by the socialist politician Louis Blanc, who heralded it as a solution to the rising unemployment caused by the financial crisis preceding the French Revolution of 1848. Across the Atlantic, Horace Greeley, the founding editor of the New York Tribune, echoed Blanc and called for a right to “constant Employment with a just and full recompense.” Nearly a century later, during the Great Depression, the Louisiana demagogue Huey Long sustained that clarion call and added that incomes above a certain threshold should be grazed to fund the policy’s enactment. In due time, figures such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. lent their voices to the cause.

It’s no surprise that this notion –– which budded in France –– could bloom so easily in the U.S. Bertrand Russell once noted that “in America men often work long hours even when they are well off . . . they dislike leisure even for their sons.” He wasn’t exaggerating; Even today, Americans work more than any other people among the industrialized nations. We have longer days, take fewer vacations, and retire far later in life. This remarkable proclivity for labor can perhaps be explained by America’s overwhelmingly Protestant heritage.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber wrote that “the Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order.” And nowhere else is that order more exemplified than in the modern United States, where the secularized creed of puritan industriousness is brazenly preached. For instance, in his acclaimed recent book The Vanishing American Adult, Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) catechizes America’s youth to “Work first, play later; and limit your play as much as necessary to get back to bed to be able to work first thing again tomorrow.”

Throughout history, this fate of sterile and needless toil has been deemed among the worst punishments.

In this austere economic theology, labor itself is alienated from its fruits and is extolled as a means to edify individuals and improve society. With regard to precisely the sort of inessential jobs that Sanders’s program would guarantee, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “such work is the best police . . . it keeps everybody in harness . . . it always sets a small goal before one’s eyes and permits easy and regular satisfactions. In that way a society in which the members continually work hard will have more security: and security is now adored as the supreme goddess.” Nietzsche is right: Pointless jobs inhibit unrest, and the stern goddess that esteems this sort of work bears no resemblance to Lady Liberty.

In that vein, Sanders’s plan is antithetical to the Founders’ conception of liberty, which undergirds our republic. If the government were to guarantee jobs to the poor, then other citizens would be compelled to provide those jobs’ wages. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “To take from one . . . in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.” Worse still, to make America’s least employable citizens dependent on the whims of the state, rather than their neighbors, is to clear a path for demagogues.

According toHomer, Sisyphus was punished for his craftiness and treachery by being condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top, and to repeat this chore in perpetuity. Throughout history, this fate of sterile and needless toil has been deemed among the worst punishments. That Sanders could veil this punishment in progressive rhetoric demonstrates that we have become enamored with labor for its own sake.

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