Ever since Ronald Reagan ran for office and won, the idea that the Republican Party lives to rain pain on the unfortunate has been part of the liberal canon. It is thus no surprise that a modest Republican proposal that healthy and functioning people on Medicaid give some hours a month to work, school, or service should be construed as slave labor itself.
"Dollars, Cents, and Republican Sadism," said the New York Times and Paul Krugman. More ridiculously, Jonathan Chait perceived in this a Republican concern that the "privilege" of healthcare "is being extended to the wrong kind of people." Chait put this down to a warped ideology, but it’s the same principle that animated the Homestead Act, the G.I. Bill of Rights, and most New Deal innovations: The idea that things work better when people do things to earn their own benefits, that government dependency is harmful to the able-bodied and work-capable, and that something-for-nothing is seldom a bargain.
As a result, most federal aid programs through the mid-1960s had a buy-in of sorts that required commitment. Reciprocity was built into all of these systems, in which effort and aid were intertwined. The Homestead Act gave land to the people, but they had to work it; Social Security was built on a mixture of government funding and personal input; and the G.I. Bill required service to one's country. As George Will explains it, such programs made people "more able to fend for themselves." Until the mid-'60s, Will writes, federal aid for the able-bodied was a transactional matter, in which the state helped people rise, who then would give back when they paid more in taxes and improved the community.
Then came the era of love in the mid-1960s, and the idea you "gave back" disappeared. Unlike the New Deal, "much of the Great Society’s liberalism sought to demoralize policies, deeming repressive those policies that promoted moral behavior." Criticism of the poor for self-destructive behavior was considered insulting, so there was no more of it. There were no penalties for fatherless households, so there were more of them; no penalties for refusing jobs when they were offered, so there was more of that, too. What there was less of, along with results, was respect for the government, which collapsed along with it, falling from 80 percent in 1964 to 20 percent today. This has left liberals puzzled. Aren’t they doing what President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted, they ask us?
Well, no. Where we are now would not surprise Roosevelt, who detested the "dole," and all that smacked of it, and knew all too well where it led. "We have here a human as well as an economic problem," he said in his State of the Union in 1935. "Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole our relief … is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. … Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers. ... We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution, but also their self-respect, their self-reliance, and courage and determination. … The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief."
Roosevelt, who could have stopped work himself when he lost the use of his legs at age 39, chose to keep working, saving himself and the world in the process.
Work isn’t slavery, nor is it a crime. It’s a human requirement. And this modest proposal is a good place to start.
Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."