Down with work! A pro-freedom agenda liberals should embrace

Why the left should cheer the CBO report on the Affordable Care Act's labor force effects

Published February 7, 2014 1:35PM (EST)

Protesters gather outside a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Store for a peaceful demonstration Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Chicago.                                   (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Protesters gather outside a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Store for a peaceful demonstration Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Chicago. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Much of this week's political debate centered around that most exciting of topics: a Congressional Budget Office report. The report in question concerned the effects of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans initially argued that the report said the ACA would "destroy" millions of jobs. That was a misinterpretation: It said that many Americans would voluntarily work less as a result of healthcare reform. So that became the problem: The ACA will encourage sloth and dependence! This line has resonated among certain political pundits, but I don't expect it to win many elections. When even Ron Fournier can grasp that it's a good thing that Americans will eventually be less dependent on employment for health insurance, there's no excuse for any other pundit, no matter how brain-dead, to fall for Republican spin.

(It's also ridiculous to imagine that many able-bodied, working-age Americans will outright quit working altogether thanks to this slight improvement on our meager welfare state. Man cannot live on subsidized health insurance alone.)

It's not surprising that Republicans, the party that was recently shocked to learn that most Americans are not and do not aspire to become small business owners, would decry any program that allows people a bit of freedom from tedious, unrewarding labor. It's a bit annoying that liberals are scared to openly defend the philosophy that people deserve freedom from tedious, unrewarding labor. If liberals want a "freedom" and "liberty" agenda of their own, this ought to be it: If you hate your job, you can quit it. Freedom from menial work should be a rallying cry, not a cudgel to be used against the left. How much liberty is there in having to do something you hate in order to survive?

In our political culture, for some reason (capitalism), dependence on government is considered sinful while dependence on an employer is virtuous. (One small irony of the conservative fetishization of work for work's sake is that work requirements for welfare literally force mothers to take jobs outside their "traditional" roles as mothers and homemakers.) I suppose this is because when you are depending on an employer, you are "doing something" for the money. But what are we asking people unable to find work in lucrative, "high-skill" industries to do these days, exactly? We are mostly asking them to place ingredients in Dorito powder-dusted hard taco shells, or get trampled by mobs of their fellow low-wage workers at Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving.

People should be free from shitty jobs. The freer they are from shitty jobs, the more incentive there will be to make jobs less shitty. This is why we need a comprehensive national healthcare system and a guaranteed basic income. (And why not a job guarantee too, if working is in itself so virtuous!) It's easy for the thought-leader and executive classes to embrace a "do what you love and love what you do" philosophy when they are wealthy enough to work hard only voluntarily, and when their jobs grant them status. But this is a truth most Americans know in their bones: Most work sucks and people don't like doing it. The song "Take This Job and Shove It" spent 18 weeks on the country charts in 1977. 1970s country music fans had a clearer understanding of the ennui of wage-slavery than modern elites.

Not that I expect the Democratic Party to run on a platform of taking that job and shoving it any time soon. And it is partly understandable, especially with America's appalling history with race and social welfare, that certain liberals are terrified of defending the welfare state loudly enough for middle-class whites to hear them. There's plenty of resentment of "lazy" people "on the dole" even in countries where social welfare programs are much more robust than ours. But decades of history have taught us that benefits that are universal and considered "earned" are inevitably hugely popular. Only a small rich fringe hates Social Security for disincentivizing 80-year-olds from seeking full-time employment. (Though I'm sure that just the thought of a bunch of lazy 80-year-olds sitting around playing canasta and watching Turner Classic Movies when they could be out working for a living infuriates Pete Peterson.)

Universal income and healthcare won't create a Marxist (or even Keynesian) utopia of leisure. No one is seriously proposing a guaranteed income that would allow people to live in anything approaching luxury. But it'd give people the ability to spend more time with their families, to enrich themselves, to get educated, and even to just fuck around a little more. I think that would probably sound more appealing than disgraceful to most Americans.

If the rich want Americans to work so damn much they should be forced to make Americans a better offer than not working.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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