The value and dignity of work—any work—used to be one of the core principles of conservative and Republican thinking. It drove the welfare reform push in the 1990s, and the support for the Earned Income Tax Credit in the present day. It is why people on the right work so hard to remove barriers to work like occupational licensing or required union membership so that opportunity does not remain out of reach for the poorer and more unfortunate. Work, to the mind of the conservative, possesses an intrinsic value that benefits workers, regardless of whether they make minimum wage or millions.
Nor did conservatives used to harbor prejudice against non-manual labor, as though it was “not real work” compared to farming or working in a factory. It is no accident that the cultural hero of the Reagan era was Alex P. Keaton, an up-and-coming lover of corporations, a man who increases value with his mind while others do so with their hands. At the other end, I am old enough to remember when conservatives told lefties who sneered at low-paying service work that “Flipping burgers is not demeaning, it’s an opportunity.”
Those days seem to be fading away, especially among the Trumpian populists bemoaning the decline in American manufacturing employment due to globalization and automation. These last can now be seen wholeheartedly embracing the crudely materialistic view of value they once laughed at in Marx. Per the populists, only the people who work in manufacturing provide value or possess dignity.
Where once financiers were people who provided a needed service, managing investments and injecting capital where it was needed and generally improving life for everyone directly and indirectly, now they are evil swindlers who “ruined middle America” and who leech off the country while providing no value. Very little daylight exists between this and the old “bloodsuckers of Wall Street” we used to hear (and sometimes still do) from the populist and liberal left.
Meanwhile, those who work in the lower-paying parts of the service sector, far from being accorded dignity, are mocked and scorned. Their jobs are “s—ty,” their replacement with automation is cheered by cynics who use #FightFor15 ironically while putting up pictures of automated kiosks putting them out of a job. One populist essay even sneeringly refers to them as “servants” of the rich and upper class, practically serfs who are disposable and useless.
A Betrayal of Working Americans
I believe this to be a betrayal of conservative thought, a political misfire, and an insult to our fellow Americans. Reaganite conservatism did sometimes go too far in lauding corporate leaders and nearly worshipping CEOs. There was clearly a course correction needed here, and a more clear-eyed understanding of the ethical problems involved in that part of the economy and its practitioners.
But the present populism overcorrects too much in the other direction. People who work in banks and finance still provide vital resources for everyday Americans for everything from cars to college to homes to businesses. Few of the jobs existing today would be there without the “evil” and “useless” “paper pushers” who move around the needed funds to pay for salaries, benefits, and keeping the lights on. Some may be better or more caring than others, but they are far from being anti-societal parasites.
The same is true of people in the lower-paying service sector. Jobs such as fast food work and supermarket cashiers are an easy way for people with a high school graduation or “some college” to get a foot up the employment ladder. They face the same pressures of automation and layoffs (as well as unique issues like wage abuses) people in manufacturing did and do, and they are no less “working class” in education and attitude than the folks who miss US Steel.
Nor are they mere servants of a foppish American aristocracy. The people they serve every day are ordinary Americans, often people at or even below their socioeconomic level. Cashiers at Walmart and fast food workers at McDonalds are not serving Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg very often. They’re serving you and me and everyone else.
Moreover, “services” are not restricted to the oft-mocked food service industry. They include small businesses run by parents of children. They include low-paid lawyers defending the indigent or lower classes. They include the health care workers, many of them low paid, who take care of elderly Americans in their final and often their most difficult years, among many other often-unappreciated tasks.
The Actual Value of Work
Which brings us to the core problem of the populists’ error: The idea that there is some concept of “real” work that exclusively inheres in physical labor, while any form of “serving” people is demeaning. Both originally socialist concepts and now part of the right’s discourse, they reverse important issues.
In the end, every producer of a good or service of any kind “serves” his customers by providing them with something they consider valuable. A worker can sit and produce a widget with his fellow workers in a factory, and it can be the best widget you ever saw. But if fellow Americans or global customers have no use for it, then it is worthless. Value is as “real” as people paying for it want it to be. A manual worker is thus a “servant” in this sense no less than those who work in the service industries.
But in this realization comes the answer: The dignity of work lies in providing value for our fellow man and woman, in providing them with something they either want or need. It lies in being needed and appreciated by others in some way, not in striving for some sort of absolute independence from society. Conservatism, with its emphasis on the importance of voluntary ties between people and duties towards each other, should understand this most of all.
A truly conservative approach, based on a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the free market than raw utilitarian calculation, respects and sees all such work as work worthy of dignity and respect. Before any principled discussion of policy or its nitty-gritty details, we need to change our attitude on the subject. And since the great majority of Americans who work do so in the services, this much broader and I believe more genuine view of work will go a lot farther in appealing to all Americans to listen to what conservatives have to say.