Rarely one finds two motors that wire up identically, and just as rare a technician might stumble upon perfect access into the heat box where he can hoist the 50-pound mechanical assembly seamlessly down a ladder to its final destination. Once the motor is removed from its habitat and in a place where I can work, the fun only begins. This process can easily take the better part of a workday; it leads to painstaking sweat and sore muscles, and an interior monologue of second guesses that accompanies any kind of electrical work. Despite the exhaustive labor that accompanies these kinds of jobs, from start to finish, the process has always been quite fulfilling.
The Importance of Work
I mention all of this as a captivating discussion has unfolded at National Review that was inspired by Marco Rubio’s recent speech at Catholic University of America on his conception of a “Common Good Capitalism.” Kevin Williamson called it yet another variation of jack-booted fascism. David Harsanyi quipped that “neither the market nor the state, I am afraid, can make you a better man.” Harsanyi’s contribution to the conversation touched a nerve with Declan Leary, who kindly rebutted with the suggestion that Capitalism merely solved a plethora of problems that it itself created. He goes on to suggest that manual tilling of industrial farms in the early twentieth century might have been more fulfilling than the robotics guided version of today. Indignantly, Kevin Williamson asked Declan if he has ever actually asked a farmer how he would define dignified work.
It has since become turtles all the way down, but the conversation does hit upon some themes I often ask myself as a participant in the kind of industries that these writers like to accuse each other of knowing nothing about. What does dignified labor really look like? And are Rubio’s proposals up to addressing the malaise that pervades the working class? From a worm’s eye view, despite Williamson’s familial experience, I think Declan’s point is fair. The amount of manual labor required to accomplish a job is not in itself an impediment to the experience of dignified labor, and it can actually be part of the equation of worker dignity.
John Paul II, highlighting the economical thinking of the suddenly controversial Leo XIII, in Laborem Exercens wrote that “Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth.” This point places itself front and center of the social and economic thought behind the modern popes, and thus implies a manual work element to the Catholic conception of dignity. However, the tools that make the job easier should be appreciated lest we find ourselves, in the apocryphal Milton Friedman scenario, of using spoons instead of shovels to dig trenches. But the evolution of the tool and how it relates to industrial work is not in any way part of the equation of dignity.
At the end of the day, what helps us understand the leonine concept of dignity of labor relates to its capacity to help secure for workers the permanent goods of this life. At the top of this pyramid is marriage and family; further down are property ownership, and finally the realization of workers as positive contributors to their respective communities. As Charles Cooke, and by extension most of the economic libertarian commentariat, quickly point out—the federal government has historically been ineffective in directing particular individuals towards these universal goods. Faith, family, and community are necessarily goods that are secured from the bottom up.
On Embracing the Dignity of Work
This does not mean there are no possible tweaks towards a common good capitalism, in the vision of Marco Rubio, which can be made from the top. As Oren Cass considered in his book, The Once and Future Worker, trade deals that challenges China’s reining supremacy in manufacturing and various tax incentives for corporations can help address the economic dimension of this problem. More recently, Tucker Carlson took aim “Vulture Capitalists” whose habits of gaming the financial sector has been known to decimate entire middle-American communities for personal enrichment. Using federal levers of power to disincentivize such behavior, or even motivating corporations to move their manufacturing state-side can lead to better jobs for the American working-class and further secure longstanding industries in those often-forgotten areas between the coasts. From there you are one step closer to answering the conundrum of dignified labor for everyday Americans.
Effectually, in my opinion, the most important element of Marco Rubio’s speech is that it happened. Reflecting a regime change on the conservative intellectual thinking on markets, from Sohrab Ahmari to Tucker Carlson, it directs the attention of the political and journalistic elite towards Middle America and the attendant problems that are consuming it. In its own way, a Federal Senator waxing poetic about the common goods of life—goods that make living meaningful—can ripple out into the widespread culture. The act of an American leader asserting the centrality of family and work in a functional society is pedagogical in its own right, and—for too long—has simply been neglected by fusionists and progressives alike.
Cultural renewal must begin with American leadership engaging the nation in the conversation on the common good in our public life. Goods that participate in the web of human dignity, and helps elucidate the social thought of modern Popes on the dignity of work. That Rubio is willing to have that conversation matters and that monarchists, libertarians, integralists, post-liberals, and other social conservatives are willing to fight over the terms of this debate at least signals that the fusionist death-grip on conservative discourse has come to an end. This point alone is worthy of celebration.