It is perhaps not a bad time to devote a few thoughts to the dignity of work. Work is not always seen in a wholly positive light. Many of us don’t like going to work, and the rigors of labor are reflect in Adam’s curse, when after the fall he is told that he shall eat only by the sweat of his brow, struggling to win sustenance from an unfriendly soil.
Yet we also recognize that that is an essential dignity to labor. Through labor we meet the essential needs of life, and labor is frequently a service: Husbands and wives labor for each others’ sake, parents labor to support children, we share the fruits of our labor with our churches, with the less fortunate, with our friends and family. We rightly take great pleasure and pride in serving others this way. As a father, even the most tiresome or repetitive task can be a source of satisfaction to me when I know that by this means I am providing for the needs and pleasures of my wife and children.
It seems to me that human relationships are not merely fueled by affection, but also by this sense of being provided for. Children know their parents work to care for them. Parents love their children in part because they care for them. It is the action of providing for others and being provided for which gives strength to these relationships.
It is placing value on work, and on the web of relationships between those who provide for each other in some sense, that provides much of my conservative skepticism of social welfare programs. On the one hand, it is clearly in keeping with the common good to make sure that members of society are not without basic necessities. On the other, it concerns me when the providing of basic needs is systematically done through an impersonal means. In small societies, such as are arguably most natural to the human person, these kinds of assistance are easily provided without resorting to impersonal means. Some closed communities such as the Amish successfully continue this approach today — with each community of Amish maintaining an emergency assistance fund to which all contribute according to their means, and members of the community providing direct assistance when needed for smaller needs. But such approaches become much more difficult in a mass, urban society — and I fear that systems working along the lines of “All households making less than X may fill out form Y to apply for subsidy Z” end up sapping both the natural sense of responsibility the comes from providing for others, and any sense of community cohesion.
Clearly, compromises along these lines need to be made somewhere. It is essential that the most basic needs of members of society be met somehow, though hopefully in a way that preserves both dignity and work ethic. But the ideal most certainly is that through our work we provide for both our own families and for those nearest to us who are in need. Without work being tied directly to providing for those we love, it becomes drudgery of the most pointless sort. And without the sense of purpose that comes from providing for others, we too quickly become mere pleasure seekers.