I’m thinking today about work, both productive work like building houses or caring for sick people, and less productive work like packaging bad mortgages for resale or designing marketing strategies for cigarettes. I’m thinking about this because I’ve read a number of comments recently from people on facebook saying things like that work is available for anyone who wants or that there’s too many people not working.
I’m thinking about the phrase “all mothers work.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard in response to the idea that mothers are divided between those who really work and those who stay at home and eat bonbons while watching soap operas. All mothers work, even those who stay home and take care of their children. I can’t help thinking it needs to be expanded. All people work. Not all of that work is paid and not all of the work is beneficial to society but having it paid doesn’t make it morally superior.
There are people with bad jobs. There are people whose jobs it is to make things worse in society. There are others who do good things to help others and are not paid. Being paid or not paid, or how much a person is paid, has no relevance to how much one contributes to society.
So then I think about two people who both do volunteer work as well as raising their children. I think about how one of them has a spouse who can afford to support her and the other one relies on government assistance. The work is being done the same, so why should one be considered legitimate and the other not? The counter argument of course is that the one relying on her spouse depends upon someone willingly giving up the money to her, while the person relying on government assistance is taking money from the unwilling taxpayers.
So then let’s admit, the issue isn’t the work that is being done, the issue is the ability to get others to give you money. According to one model of how society works if you can get others to give you money for stupid unproductive things or things that actually harm society, that’s fine, as long as you are managing to get people to give you money and you don’t rely on the government. There’s an argument that those who have money deserve to be able to choose where it is all spent and they should not have to help support those they don’t want to support.
Why? Why does having money mean a person should have total say in it? Why shouldn’t taxes be the price we pay for civilization? Why shouldn’t we recognize that no one becomes wealthy on the basis of only their own effort – everyone is helped along by luck, circumstance, infrastructure built by government and the labours of other people? Linda McQuaig does a great job on that argument in the book The Trouble With Billionaires. No person is an island deserving to have total control over everything they earn because no one truly earns everything on their own. Taxes are the prices we pay for all the ways we depend upon others.
It makes sense to support people, through the government, who do support themselves in the market. It keeps everyone else’s wages up, because then businesses have to pay decent wages in order to maintain employees. It provides a level of insurance for all of us since none of us can predict everything that is going to happen to ourselves. It lets us maintain human dignity.
I’d like to propose an alternative image to the idea that those who are in paid employment are by virtue of their paid employment more virtuous than those who are supported by the government. I’d like to offer this model: that we recognize that all of us are in some ways supported by the government and that we all benefit from having social safety nets.
I’m also going to propose that people work on changing the way they think and talk about work. We need to recognize the unpaid work done around us. (I want to offer a thank you to the grandparents that babysit my children sometimes!) We need to recognize that not all paid employment is productive. Having every last person working in paid employment isn’t going to improve life for us.
My husband likes to point out that a lot of the hostility towards some people not working probably comes from people’s own frustrations with their jobs. Maybe they wish they didn’t have to do what they do? Maybe, but forcing another person onto workfare isn’t going to really make your job any better. In fact, its possible it could make yours worse.
If employers know that employees fear unemployment, then the employers can lower the standards. They can demand employees work longer hours, worse (more flexible for the boss, more unstable for the employee) hours, and in worse conditions. Employees scared of what will happen if they lose their jobs are going to be less likely to argue back, less likely to work to improve things. By making unemployment something with a bit of safety built in, we can make life better for those who do have paid employment.