What Joy, My Neighbor's Cow Has Died
February 22, 2014
The debate over ObamaCare's negative effect on employment is producing some very revealing discussion of the left's attitude toward work.
Paul Krugman, for example, recently reacted to Representative Paul Ryan's argument that, by encouraging people to withdraw from the workforce, ObamaCare would deprive them of "the dignity of work."
Krugman is having none of all this "dignity" talk.
"[T]ens of millions of Americans know from experience that hard work isn't enough to provide financial security or a decent education for their children, and many either couldn't get health insurance or were desperately afraid of losing jobs that came with insurance until the Affordable Care Act kicked in last month. In the face of that kind of everyday struggle, talk about the dignity of work rings hollow.
"So what would give working Americans more dignity in their lives, despite huge income disparities? How about assuring them that the essentials—health care, opportunity for their children, a minimal income—will be there even if their boss fires them or their jobs are shipped overseas?
"Think about it: Has anything done as much to enhance the dignity of American seniors, to rescue them from the penury and dependence that were once so common among the elderly, as Social Security and Medicare?"
Krugman seems to be endorsing the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, which has been gaining acceptance on the left, as if it were 1972 again.
What is interesting is how this relates to "dignity." I remember an old Canadian Socialist once inveighing on what he called "stomach socialism": "You talk about dignity, you talk about dignity, you talk about dignity. But you can't talk about dignity unless you're full in your stomach." In embracing this kind of stomach socialism, Krugman has decided that dignity is not really important, dismissing it as a luxury the majority of people cannot afford. Which strikes me as a rather condescending. In effect, he's telling those less well off than himself that the dignity of supporting oneself and being independent is impossible to them. So instead he tells them they should find dignity in being wards of the state.
There's a lot more to unpack in this peculiar concept of "dignity," and I'll save some of it for another time. But I want to start by pointing out that Krugman has another very definite idea about what "dignity" entails. Earlier on, he complains:
"It's all very well to talk in the abstract about the dignity of work, but to suggest that workers can have equal dignity despite huge inequality in pay is just silly. In 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers. Given that kind of disparity, can anyone really believe in the equal dignity of work?"
Notice that, in addressing Ryan's point, Krugman switched from "dignity" to "equal dignity," as if your sense of dignity is dependent on how other people are doing.
I don't think he understands what the word "dignity" means. Someone with dignity might disapprove of the unearned wealth of others (a few folks in Hollywood and the entertainment industry come to mind, not to mention a couple of New York Timescolumnists), but he does not view this as in any way a hindrance to his own sense of dignity. He gains a sense of dignity from knowing that, however much money he makes, he makes it honestly and by living up to his own standards.
Dignity is one's sense of self-respect, an estimate of one's own worth. I can't think of two things more antithetical to one's dignity than knowing that you are receiving something for nothing, which is what Krugman advocates above, or being obsessed, not with the value of your own work, but with envy of the greater wealth of others.
But Krugman is using the word "dignity" as cover for another term. Ask yourself: what is the state of mind in which you cannot be content with your situation or at peace with yourself if you know that other people have more than you. The term for this, obviously, is envy.
The Russians have a saying to sum up this attitude of poisonous envy: "What joy, my neighbor's cow has died." It's the attitude of someone who is more interesting in tearing other people down than in building himself up. Which may explain why, as the Sochi Olympics have demonstrated, Americans don't get along all that well with Russians.
But perhaps Paul Krugman would feel a little more kinship, because his undignified concept of "dignity" has him itching to slaughter more than a few of his neighbors' cows.
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Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.
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