Here in Connecticut we are probably going to raise our minimum wage a tad. There are the usual screams that this would hurt business, that it shouldn’t be done in a down economy, and so forth; but our liberal legislature and governor are heading that way anyways. We’ll have to watch and see what happens.
Things like this always get me to thinking about the “working poor.” The working poor have always been with us, yet you’ll hear people say that the only reason to be poor is an unwillingness to work. Is that really true?
Once upon a time a man could provide for his family, at least at a subsistence level, with unskilled manual labor such as pushing a broom or being a night watchman. This is no longer possible. Even if the hourly wage were adequate, given a 40-hour week, employers don’t like to hire full time employees for jobs like that. Anything over 20 hours/week raises questions about benefits, and heaven forbid they get paid overtime. So people wind up patching together two or three part-time jobs, and doing without any “fringe” benefits, in order to survive. I’m sure you’ve all heard about, seen, or experienced this.
Even if we assume that some people are indeed poor because they are lazy, what about these working poor? Many of them put in 40 hours a week or more, running from one minimum wage job to another. Are they lazy? Stupid? What is their problem?
Well, their living conditions are far from the squalor they might have experienced 100+ years ago in cold-water or no-water flats. They probably have things such as cell phones and televisions that, if they had existed, would have been considered luxuries. (Note to those too young to remember: there was a time when families shared phones, or they all relied on a pay phone in the corner store. Only the well-to-do had their “own” home phones.) In general, our working (and our non-working) poor live better than they would have in Dickensian times.
But what does that mean? Does it mean that our working poor are living too high on the hog, that their proper station is to lie in the mud so that others can walk dry shod? Or should we, as a society, do what we can (such as maintaining a reasonable minimum wage) to elevate them to a more comfortable position?
There are apparently quite a few people in Congress (such as Paul Ryan and other Tea Party allies) who take inspiration from Ayn Rand. The philosophy she espoused, ethical egoism, is complicated not only in its essence but in the number of variations it has. Although Rand lived and wrote in the 20th century, the philosophical position dates back considerably further than that. (Thomas Jefferson, for example, commented on it.)
I’m certainly no expert in ethical egoism, and I suspect that there aren’t many in Congress who are either. The danger in knowing about, but not really understanding, a subject is that you will turn it into slogans, catch phrases, and sound bites; that a few of the more startling or daring bits will become emblematic of the whole. Imagine portraying the crucifixion as the whole of Christian doctrine, or circumcision as the only thing worth knowing about Judaism.
Rand’s philosophy, as useful in American politics, can easiy be summarized as a belief in rationalism; unbridled capitalism; unrestricted individual (including property) rights; and self-interest (not enlightened self-interest). She denounces altruism altogether, and considers charity to be at best ill-conceived and at worst destructive to the recipient.
Her conservative devotees ignore her pro-choice position and her belief that religion of any kind is stupid. What they fixate on is their interpretation that only the greedy are living properly, that the production of capital is the only worthy goal, and that the lumpenproletariat does not deserve, and should not get, a hand up. In other words, take a superficial understanding of Communism and turn it inside out and you get the superficial understanding of Rand’s politics.
This, then, is the dichotomy: do we help the working poor to be less poor? or do we show them, by example, how to become upper class?
I’m certainly not a member of the working poor: I’m currently unemployed, and I am not poor (yet). I can tell you, however, that I don’t take kindly to people telling me anyone can become successful, or even rich, if they set their minds to it. I’ve seen plenty of bright, hardworking people struggling for any of a number of reasons beyond their control. I find it particularly offensive when I get this lecture from someone is not bright and hardworking, but rather had ancestors who were.
I’m not the most charitable guy in the world, and I can be selfish and greedy; but I do try to help out from time to time. I support liberal causes, and it think the phrase “working poor” implies that our society has a long way to go. According ethical egoism, I’m just a fool.
It seems that Paul Ryan is rethinking his public position. Ever since the piling on he took from a crowd of Catholic theologians, he’s all about Aquinas. Google “paul ryan ayn rand” and you’ll see him backpedaling like a juggling unicyclist who wandered into the lions’ cage.