I suppose I agree with Will Wilkinson about the importance of “an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility” though I have no real idea why he thinks most progressives are against such an ethos. It strikes me that cultivating such an ethos is sort of integral to making a progressive agenda work. I think back sometimes to the time when I stumbled into a Stockholm Metro station and got the person working the booth to explain what I needed to do to use the city’s bikeshare system. This wasn’t really her job, and the conversation wasn’t in her native language, and obviously no practical harm would have come to her if she’d blown me off but I take it that she took pride in working for Stockholm Metro and had a self-conception as someone who’s a helpful public servant. Any effective public agency from the United States Marine Corps on down is built in pretty profound ways on an ethos of duty and hard work in an even more profound way than things in the for-profit business sector. People who believe in public sector work and public services must believe in the idea of a strong work-ethic.
But if I look at America today, what I see undermining any meaningful notion of work ethic is a kind of run-amok ethic of moneymaking. The old Calvinist idea about money, as I understood it, was that hard work, discipline, and prudence were moral virtues. They were also things that are more likely than not to lead to personal prosperity. So prosperity shouldn’t be stigmatized as ignoble, it should be rather seen as something likely to flow from virtuous behavior. But this equation assumes that morally speaking what matters is the hard work, the discipline, and the prudence. Cutting corners, lying, cheating, or stealing to make a quick buck doesn’t fit the bill. Earning a multi-million dollar salary to deliver below-average performance as the CEO of a firm and then take a multi-million dollar golden parachute when you get sacked doesn’t fit the bill. Spending your days and nights dreaming up smart regulatory arbitrage schemes doesn’t fit the bill. In terms of what it says about your personal virtue, if you’re going to earn your keep identifying and exploiting previously unknown loopholes in the legal framework, you may as well just go out and break the law.
There’s no particular honor and dignity in owning the copyright to Mickey Mouse or Batman, and then spending money lobbying congress for retroactive copyright extensions. A businessman who takes the ideas of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility seriously would forget all about that nonsense. But the idea is aloft that business executives actually have a moral obligation to spend their days finding ways to engage in profit-maximizing rent-seeking and loophole exploiting. This kind of “you should make as much money as possible through any legal means necessary” spirit is toxic to the kind of ethos that’s made the various forms of modern industrial capitalism successful. Whether or not a person who gets in a car wreck gets free surgery (as in Canada) or merely surgery implicitly subsidized through the tax code (as in the USA) is neither here nor there. A well-designed welfare state is an excellent thing to have, but to have a culture that valorizes hard work you need to actually valorize hard work not just money-making.