IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What Obamacare's critics mean by 'dignity of work'

The latest line of attack on Obamacare is that being able to work less doesn't build character.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Feb. 5, 2014 in Washington, DC.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Feb. 5, 2014 in Washington, DC.

No, the Affordable Care Act isn't going to force 2 million people out of a job. When Congressional Budget Office (CBO) researchers determined earlier this week that health care reform would cause the labor participation rate to decline, they meant that millions of Americans would choose to work less, not that they would be laid off.

When various media outlets—including msnbc—started to correct the record on the CBO report, Republicans lost what seemed like a promising anti-Obamacare talking point. So they began to refine their position. Instead of claiming that health care reform will "push" people out of the labor market, as the National Republican Congressional Committee put it, many conservative intellectuals and politicians are now railing against the very idea of making it easier to work fewer hours.

Now the line of attack on Obamacare is that being able to work less doesn't build character. Or, in the words of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the Affordable Care Act makes it too easy for Americans to choose "not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class."

Ryan isn't alone. In a Wednesday piece called "Obamacare's Attack on the Work Ethic," the National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke sang an ode to the ennobling qualities of hard labor.

"Work is a virtue that should be reflexively encouraged. It is the means by which standards of living are grown, human potential is reached, individual lives are focused, positive and negative instincts are channeled, resources are utilized most efficiently, and, above all, by which dignity remains intact," he said. "It is the best antidote to personal and national ossification and sclerosis, and the primary means by which our present material comfort was achieved. [...] Whatever the ideal role of government in contriving work or wages for those who are without them, we should all presumably be able to agree that if we are going to have an intrusive state, it should be doing precisely the opposite of encouraging people to limit their involvement in work."

Cooke is surely right in suggesting that work can be personally fulfilling, but even he would probably admit that isn't true of all types of labor. It might be better to be unemployed than to be a con artist, for example. On the other hand, a violinist may find practicing her craft to be so joyful and deep with meaning that she's willing to do it without the expectation of either pay or health care. The question isn't whether or not work is good, but what kinds of work are good.

Obamacare is unlikely to prevent anyone from playing the violin. All the CBO report shows is that health care reform will allow some people to work fewer hours and continue to receive coverage. If those workers find their jobs to be rewarding, then of course they have the option of staying on the job. But some of them may have a different kind of work that they would rather do instead: Taking care of their own children, for example, or trying to start up a new business. Maybe some of them would like more time to volunteer in the local community, go back to school, or pick up an instrument.

Anyone who has attempted any of the above activities can testify to the fact that they are all a kind of work. They just don't happen to be minimum wage labor, the type of work which Obamacare most directly disicentivizes. According to the CBO, "the largest declines in labor supply will probably occur among lower-wage workers."

When Cooke, Ryan and others bemoan the work-killing properties of Obamacare, they're really saying that low-wage workers should be compelled to stay in these jobs or risk losing basic health coverage. That's how important it is to keep people behind the counter at McDonald's, even if it means those same people have less time to spend rearing their children or engaging in other forms of personally enriching, socially beneficial work.

So while the Obamacare critics may be right when they say work can be dignifying, they seem to have misdiagnosed the problem entirely. Maybe the threat of losing health care coverage only helps to encourage the wrong kind of work. If Cooke is serious about encouraging the sort of labor which develops human potential and moves society forward, he could come out in favor of schemes like the feminist "Wages for Housework" movement, which demanded compensation in exchange for necessary yet currently unpaid labor such as childcare, cooking and cleaning. If a wages for housework plan were to be implemented, millions of low-wage workers would suddenly have the option of making a living while doing the labor which sustains their families and allows their children to flourish.

Surely, that's exactly what Obamacare's critics always wanted in the first place. Unless, of course, all of this talk about "dignity of work" is just thinly veiled political opportunism.