Ever since the phrase began reappearing like a motto cross-stitched over the times, I have been trying to figure out how the new work ethic works, ethically speaking.
I know what the phrase used to mean: that work was at the center of a moral life. I also know that it comes from the Reformation days when Calvin and others tried to exhort people out of their medieval slump by convincing them that the way to heaven was by working hard on Earth.
This was more sophisticated than St. Paul's economics. Paul had said simply, If you don't work, you don't eat. The Protestants went beyond the basics, to insist that work was good and leisure evil. It was this belief, along with the notion that hard work produced success, that made the ideal so powerful.
But now when I hear about the work ethic, about how Americans have lost it and don't know where to find it, we seem most worried about two classes of people: the rich and poor. In fact, we seem to be perfecting a two-track philosophy.
According to the politics of the new fiscal year, the rich have lost their willingness to work hard because the government has taken too much money away from them.
The poor, on the other hand, have lost their willingness to work hard because the government has given too much money to them. In response to this grave situation, as of Oct. 1, we have cut the taxes of the rich most lavishly, giving them more money and more incentive to work. We have cut aid to the poor, giving them less money and therefore more incentive to work.
Now no one has explained to me exactly why the rich need money to make them labor while the poor need desperation. No one has explained to me why we choose to entice rich people to work in jobs that are presumably decent and choose to force poor people to work in jobs that are often boring or menial.
Perhaps it goes back to the charming words of the 17th century English employer Andrew Young, who said: "Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious."
But let us go to the 20th century, and a perfect example of the two-track philosophy.
Last Thursday, the government issued assorted new guidelines for welfare programs. Under the old guidelines, a parent who worked at low-paying jobs could still receive some benefits, such as Medicaid. This was an economic incentive to work. The workers ended up better off than under welfare.
Under the new guidelines, most of these working parents are ineligible for any welfare benefits. They are no longer any better off if they work than if they don't. So, it's estimated that one-third of the parents will quit work and go back on welfare.
Once they are on welfare, however, the government will want them to work. In fact, the same guidelines are encouraging state programs that will make welfare parents work for their benefits at minimum wages.
Believe it or not, both of these contradictory moves--one that may result in more working families on welfare, the other that may force welfare families to work--are justified under the label of the work ethic.
Martin Anderson, Reagan's chief domestic policy adviser, wrote some years ago that it was wrong to offer incentives for people to go to work because we shouldn't "persuade people to do something they should be required to do." But it's okay to require people to go to work because, as an Oregon state official told a reporter, "What we are trying to start here is the beginning of a work ethic."
It all begins to sound quite mad. But by casting the whole argument in a moral light, it's awfully easy to replace incentives--from day care to supplemental benefits--with moral accusations.
We entice the rich into working and terrify the poor into working. This isn't the new work ethic. It's the old workhouse ethic.