Can Marco Rubio help to break the partisan divide over the dignity of work?

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, is pictured in a Nov. 8, 2017, photo in Washington. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters) 

U.S. politicians love to talk about the dignity of work. And for good reason: Work is a major part of how Americans understand themselves. But politicians do not agree about what the dignity of work entails. The way Republicans and Democrats talk about this idea and the policies they justify through it differ widely.

So it is remarkable to see Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s recent essay on the dignity of work in the journal First Things. In it, Mr. Rubio, a Republican, uses the concept of work’s dignity in ways more commonly heard from Democratic senators like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Mr. Rubio writes of “the essential role of labor unions” and how the growing power of financial capital “has sapped our productive capacity and damaged our ability to provide dignified work.”

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It is also remarkable that Mr. Rubio draws these ideas from Catholic social teaching. “The dignity of work, the Church instructs us through documents like [Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical] Rerum Novarum, is not just the concern of individuals,” he writes. “It is the concern of communities and nations to provide productive labor to their people.”

The partisan divide over the dignity of work comes down to one question: Where does dignity come from? Do jobs give people dignity, or do people give jobs their dignity?

The labor-friendly ideals of Catholic social teaching are more often echoed by Democrats’ statements on the dignity of work than by Republicans. With this essay, Mr. Rubio is breaking intellectual ranks. If other Republicans follow him, he may show that Catholic social teaching points the way toward a pro-worker political consensus.

The partisan divide over the dignity of work comes down to one question: Where does dignity come from? Do jobs give people dignity, or do people give jobs their dignity?

Republicans typically say dignity is inherent in work itself. When you work, you earn not just wages but also the right to take pride in contributing to society. By this reasoning, minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws, as well as collective bargaining by labor unions, get in the way of people’s access to the dignity that work brings. As the former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said last year, in a statement justifying new work requirements for food stamps, “We want to help those in need move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity of work.” Without work, on this view, you lack dignity.

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Democrats, by contrast, talk about dignity as contingent on the quality of the job; work is only as dignified as the wages, protections and benefits workers get from it. That means dignity is not equally inherent in all work. “Dignity of work means hard work should pay off for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of work you do,” reads the website for Mr. Brown’s 2019 Dignity of Work Tour. “When work has dignity, everyone can afford health care and housing.... When work has dignity, our country has a strong middle class.” Dignity, then, is something to preserve, to organize around or, as Mr. Brown has said, to “fight for.”

Mr. Brown’s view, like the one Mr. Rubio espouses in his essay, aligns with much of what the popes say in the social encyclicals. Catholic social teaching emphasizes that the person has dignity before they ever work a day in their life—or if they never do. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical, “Laborem Exercens,” “the basis for determining the value of human work is...the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.” Work is only dignified because human beings, made in the image of God, already are.

 

The social encyclicals were written, in part, to combat socialism. Pope Leo spends much of “Rerum Novarum” defending the right to private property and calls Marxists “crafty agitators.” But his vision of labor is also radical by the standards of the United States in the 21st century. Leo sounds further left than Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist, when the pope deplores the inequality created by Industrial Age capitalism: “A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”

As for policy, Leo argues for a living wage—income high enough to support a frugal family—and for maximum hours based on the kind of work being done and “the health and strength of the worker.” He mentions miners as deserving “shorter hours in proportion as their labor is more severe and trying to health.” Throughout the encyclical, the pope appeals to natural law. Humane labor conditions are not just perks for the highly skilled; they are universal requirements of justice.

It will take more than one Republican senator’s essay to realize Catholic social teaching’s vision of the dignity of work. But workers’ natural rights become a little more secure with each legislator who begins to see dignity in Pope Leo’s terms.

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J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

So where was the Church when the world was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The answer, keeping 98% of its flock in these miserable conditions. Then something changed in a small part of non Catholic Europe, where religious wars amongst various Protestant sects led to human freedom. The modern world which we see is only here because this freedom was allowed to flourish and spread. And the Catholic Church fought this freedom. It is why Latin America lagged behind the rest of northern European countries and their colonies. Now, life in the non Christian world was also poor, nasty, brutish and short. Poverty was the natural state of mankind. The real question is what changed that?

J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

The author if he is going to write on these topics should read Thomas Sowell. http://bit.ly/2ZA605a

We have repeated disasters by trying to enforce certain levels of living standards. Yet we get do-gooders with all sorts of ideas on how to solve what they believe is unfairness that then result in actual worse conditions. Yet these do-gooders ignore what has produced incredible prosperity in a relatively short time in the history of the world.

J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

A new study from the public policy research group Just Facts corrects for this ignored income and finds that our poorest 20% consume as much as the average in many European and other developed countries. So all the nonsense about the poor is America is just that nonsense. Yes, there are some that are really struggling but why? From the study "In other words, if the U.S. "poor" were a nation, it would be one of the world's richest." http://bit.ly/2zCt48T

J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

But we will continue to see articles on the poor and racism about the least poor and one of the least racist countries in the world. Why? It is to get votes for a dysfunctional agenda when reason and evidence won't do it.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

When I make such comparisons I compare only with industrialized democracies. The original comparisons are never made with Bangladesh or Yemen. I compare with countries on the level of the US.

The complete lack of any sense in claiming anyone wants an agenda to lift a non-existant group is the far-right path.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

The poorest American households spend $20,000 per person? A family of 4 has an income of $80,000?

Sorry, their explanations don't make sense.

Consume as much? How they hell do they have less and consume more? Sorry, that sounds like more BS.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

I followed your link and read the commentary. Damn little applies to this subject.

What has produced incredible prosperity in a relatively short time in the history of the world is mechanization, and science, none of which justifies any claim or repeated disasters trying to enforce levels of living standards.

No where is there shown any basis that trying to resolve unfairness results in worse conditions.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

Addendum: Thomas Sowell is a fraud.

Michael Bindner
1 month 2 weeks ago

In a time of need, requiring fasting and noblesse obliged made sure all survived to the spring harvest. Critical thinking goes both ways.

J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

So are you justifying the keeping of nearly all the population near starvation much of the time and with just one or two changes of clothes for their life time part of Critical thinking.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

Your own sources claim that has been the natural state of humanity.

Your claim is totally unsupported.

Jeri Graham
1 month 2 weeks ago

Thank you for this article. We need more positive, encouraging, "good news."

FRAN ABBOTT
1 month 2 weeks ago

Thank you, Jonathan Malesic, for adding Pope Leo XIII, of whom I previously knew very little, to my list of heroes. Great article!

John Walton
1 month 2 weeks ago

Jonathan writes: "Democrats, by contrast, talk about dignity as contingent on the quality of the job". This is, perhaps, the reason that Democrats value academic jobs as highest quality and most enobling. My dad, who actually had many scores of folks working for him, most without ever having graduated grade school, always told me: "All honest labor is enobling".

FRAN ABBOTT
1 month 2 weeks ago

John, I truly do not believe that Democrats — of whom I am one — value academic jobs as most ennobling. How did you come to that conclusion? I think the distinction is that many Democrats believe that for work to be ennobling the worker must be compensated appropriately & valued in the organization. A workplace where workers are exploited cannot offer ennobling work.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

I worked in a factory where I did the computers and the automation. There were fork lift drivers who made more than I did.

I never complained, they worked longer hours.

Your dad was right, but I don't see where he said it should be well paid. Academic jobs tend not to be all that highly paid.

Jobs in finance produce nothing in tangible wealth, yet are high paid.

Your dad should have told you most did not graduate from high school.

A job that pays less than a living wage does not provide dignity. If your dad paid less than a living wage they there was nothing noble about the jobs he offered. If they paid well, as so many industrial jobs used to, then they are enobling.

Michael Bindner
1 month 2 weeks ago

One should not have to be frugal or work in an authoritarian environment. Capitalism is a revolution workers have list, although the cage is nicer, which prolongs it. Marx had no idea how to get to socialism. He thought that after the revolution, the workers would figure it out. Ready, Fire Aim. Oops! Cooperation and democracy at work, in selecting manager and deciding how and if to cooperatively consume things (make or buy) is hardly morally hazardous. It only hurts the reactionary rich, whether they are financial capitalists or Comissars. Indeed, private cooperatives can replace state social service with cooperative or Church provided services, as long as the Church adopts more cooperation and subsidiarity itself and abandons asexual idealism. That the latter is inevitable is why the hierarchism fears socialism and critical thinking. Examining all does not mean abandoning all.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 2 weeks ago

Michael
It seems you are running a Waring Blender: take about 3-5 disparate ideas .....toss into the blender....see what comes out.!
Hint: Turn off your computers “word complete program”.....and edit out the errors before you hit send

JOHN GRONDELSKI
1 month 2 weeks ago

There is very much a split in Republican ranks right now, between those (of us) who are tired to waiting for the social agenda while the economic agenda was tended to, versus the latter (laissez-faire capitalists). Oren Cass has contributed greatly to this discussion in his magnificent book, THE ONCE AND FUTURE WORKER.

Charles Erlinger
1 month 2 weeks ago

The question posed by the author as:

“The partisan divide over the dignity of work comes down to one question: Where does dignity come from? Do jobs give people dignity, or do people give jobs their dignity?”

is strangely constraining in terms of the range of possible points of view that can be brought to bear.

I began caddying during summer vacations as a junior high age kid during the first year of WWII, after the adult caddies had all been drafted. I knew something about golf but a lot of the protocols associated with the game as a politely competitive social activity were only dimly known. I was not alone in this state of inexperience. My teenage fellow workers and I were, I now know, paid less than the adult caddies whom we replaced, but we were treated with tolerance, and even kindness by some of the members. Most members took at least some time to instruct us about the manners and customs of the game, even under trying circumstances, such as when knee deep in the rough.

I’ve had countless similar work experiences both in extremely low level laboring jobs as a high school and college student, in military jobs in places I had never heard of which are remembered by me mostly for the mud, and a long and varied professional career that included many times “starting from scratch” in terms of inexperience. The work experience that I am referring to is the experience of being treated with dignity and respect by people who acted not from their positions of relative power but out of their own dignity.

So where does this experience fit into the dichotomous pattern posited by the author?

Vince Killoran
1 month 2 weeks ago

At the center of Catholic social teaching on work and the economy is support for labor unions. Does Marco Rubio champion the key role of unions where he can most affect it, i.e., in the legislature. Alas, his voting record is abysmal. (The AFL-CIO gave him a 0% rating!)

Ellen B
1 month 2 weeks ago

Yeah... too bad his voting record doesn't support that.

J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

But yet what he voted for made our poor the richest in the world and our country one of the least racist in the world. Maybe he knows something his critics don't. Catholic Social Teaching has been a disaster for the world. The world is getting less poor rapidly and Catholic policy had zero to do with it. You would think that would be an embarrassment for those advocating it.

Ellen B
1 month 1 week ago

No. What he voted for made the 1% rich richer and everyone else poorer. Made the gun manufacturers more money at the expense of gun victims. And what exactly did he vote for to make the country less racist?

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

You should read more because your spouting nonsense. The poorest 20% in the United States have higher life styles than most of Europe and Canada and certainly nearly all of the remaining world. The United States is one of the least racist of the developed countries in the world. Rubeo voted for the current economic policies of the Republican party which has led the poor of all ethnic background to an even higher economic lifestyle. Ever wonder why the rest of the rest of the world are trying to come here? Read what liberals bring the world https://dailysign.al/2ls6L2a

Vince Killoran
1 month 1 week ago

"have higher life styles than most of Europe and Canada": not according to the many "social wellness indices" out there. People in Europe and Canada live longer, are healthier, and happier than in the USA.. Hands down.

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

You should look at the data based on material consumption. http://bit.ly/2zCt48T

This does not say they are happier, making better life choices, live in better communities etc but their spending power is greater. If you want to argue spiritual and cultural poverty, I will take a different position. But on material poverty the information contradicts your feelings and everything in the articles published here on America.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

Your link does not lead to anything that clearly explains it's meaning. I downloaded much of the links, but it will take time and effort to interpret, and they do NOT have a clear explanation of what they are talking about.

Chuck Kotlarz
1 month 1 week ago

Vince, people in Cuba and China outlive people in Kentucky. Russia and North Korea will perhaps narrow the gap, if not surpass, after another Mitch McConnell term.

Ellen B
1 month 1 week ago

Nice comment. As resident "nonsense" spouter, maybe you should read the full comment before replying. My question to you was... what legislation did Rubio ever vote for that made the US the least racist country in the world... no the universe... no the multi-verse?

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

Not the universe, just the planet. And I told you one of them. The Trump economic program. It has lowered unemployment for black and Hispanics to record low levels.

If I peddle nonsense, let me know what it is. There is a difference between hyperbole and nonsense. People are accusing Rubeo of immoral behavior when what he is doing is better for people than what the people criticizing him want.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 1 week ago

Ellen
Even the NY Times had to reluctantly conclude that you are dead wrong....see NY Times, April 4,2019 , “ Face it You (probably) got a Tax Cut”

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

Ellen is a Canadian.

Chuck Kotlarz
1 month 1 week ago

Ellen, between 1980 and 2016, the percent of total income for most federal income tax filers had fallen from 80 to 65%. If income share had not changed, most 2016 tax filers would have over one trillion dollars additional income. One trillion instead went to the top 5% with perhaps the bulk of the trillion for the .01%.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 1 week ago

Chuck
Keep checking your statistics and you will find that the greatest jump in the disparity between the top 5% and the bottom 5% occurred during the Obama years.....amazing how those Progressive economic approaches forced trillions into the asset class and how Gov planning can screw up a business recovery . Trump’s economic success...real wages finally rising....and booming economy was mainly achieved by just repealing ridiculous regulations and rewarding business investment that creates jobs.
As for your Kentucky statistics...how about comparing total gunshot incidents in all of Kentucky to just the City of Chicago. It is a stupid and meaningless comparison just as your relentless comparisons of other so called “stats” in Kentucky to Cuba and Russia.

Chuck Kotlarz
1 month 1 week ago

Stuart, would you consider a higher minimum wage to narrow the gap from the top five to bottom five?

You’ve finally noticed real wages rising. The uptrend started in 2013. Guess what happened in 2013? The individual tax rate, the capital gains tax rate and the estate tax rate all went up.

A booming economy? Perhaps you should read more. A headline earlier this year noted, ”Farmers in the Midwest are filing for bankruptcy at record rates.” Trump’s quarterly GDP growth (currently trending down) has yet to match Obama’s best quarter. Of the top twenty years of GDP growth going back to 1933, only one had a federal income tax rate below 60%.

People in the lowest life expectancy congressional district in Illinois still outlive people in Kentucky. Trying to make McConnell look good is an uphill battle.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 1 week ago

Chuck
Astonishing that you keep cherry picking micro statistics which are not even exceptions to the macro statistics in as muc as they are included in the development of the macro stats. Even “the Economist” (which is a traditional leftist Keynesian believer) has reluctantly admitted that the economy is booming...see the The Economist ,” AMERICA’S STRONG GROWTH THIS YEAR SUPRISES ECONOMISTS “ , April 26, 2019.
Also take a look at FACT CHECK .ORG, TRUMPS NUMBERSJuly 19,2019.....their reluctant recitation of his first 2 1/2 years includes the lowest number of people on food stamps in the last 10 years: the creation of 5.6 Million new jobs; the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years; the increase in real wages over inflation is the best in the past 10 years; historic increases in stock market values over a period 2 years, etc etc
So while you urge others to read more, I suggest you read more wisely

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

Last I looked every good stat in the economy's performance recently has been a continuation of the economy under Obama.

If you have something else, please give a link to your stats.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

Give a source for your statistics.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

The richest poor people in the world?

People who die from lack of medical care or whose children are stunted by poor nutrition could tell you about that.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 2 weeks ago

Pope Leo advocated for a wage high enough to support “a frugal family”.
One wonders what Leo would think of the word “frugal” now requiring one to own colored television, a cell phone and an automobile. Perhaps the greatest encomium of free market capitalism is changing the very definition of what it means to be “poor” . It would seem that Pope Leo should be well pleased with what capitalism has wrought.
Missing from this essay is a recognition that from the very first pages of the Old Testament men and women tended and cultivated the Garden ....in short “work” had its own inherent dignity before The Fall which did not require any form of payment for its justification.The work of a volunteer in a soup kitchen exemplifies “dignity” ....and by definition it’s without payment for its validation

Vince Killoran
1 month 1 week ago

You have misquoted Pope Leo. He writes of the "frugal and well-behaved worker" (#45); he writes as well of the need for wages "sufficient to enable him [i.e., the worker] comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children." (#46). The Church teaches that everyone--both factory owner and machine tender should live "frugally" so this standard language. The following section with "comfortably" is the key language about what wages should deliver.

The free market canard about how today's poor--with cell phones and microwave ovens-- are actually affluent is an ahistorical reading of what constitutes poverty. Would you make the same claim about health care, i.e., that 19th century medical treatments are all anybody should expect?

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 1 week ago

Vince
You intentionally miss the point ...the word “poor” and frugal as used by Leo have been redefined by the success of capitalism. ...no one suggests that what lifted one out of poverty and constituted frugality in Leo’s time should be used as a yard stick currently .
Your use of such suggestion as a tar brush is fallaciously straight forward but given the redefinition of poverty brought about by the free market Leo’s comments are just inapposite. .
Your view seems to be that poverty is relative to and defined in part by what it means to be rich...therefore you must conclude that just the disparity of incomes just de facto means that if you are at the bottom end of a disparity scale you are de facto “poor”. The enormous success of the free market has rendered such a determination silly unless you redefine poverty as something quite other than what it meant in Leo’s time!

The Economist Magazine ....not a conservative publication but more Social Democrat.....has reluctantly admitted that in just the 20 years before 2013 free market capitalism had lifted well over 1billion people out of what was defined in 1990 as poverty. See The Economist, June 1 2013,” Towards the End Of Poverty”.

As for your challenge on “health care” ...free markets have fundamentally redefined what “health care” is comprised of. If you doubt that then just check out the wild success of the Orphan Drug Act which provided the incentive to the free market to invent therapies for diseases and afflictions which otherwise would have been ignored. It did this by withdrawing and modifying regulations that would have rendered those orphan diseases untreated. Again 19th century medicine is not a yard stick for what level of health care is due to anyone....the free market has redefined health care so significantly that your 19th century yardstick is utterly irrelevant.... except to overwhelming demonstrate the success of the free market.

Vince Killoran
1 month 1 week ago

As Rose-Ellen points out, poverty is experienced in 2019 in ways not imagined in the late 19th century. But surely you don't mean that P. Leo meant that the definition of poverty was a static one, i.e., exactly what it meant in the 1890s? My mention of health care is to point out that we don't maintain these other important social and economic rights (and expectations) in the same way.

BTW, "free market" health care exist in the USA, not everywhere. And thank God for that!

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 1 week ago

Vince
Neither of us has any idea what Pope Leo would make of this new definition of Poverty.....I suspect he would shake his head in wonderment....and I suspect he would have great admiration for the forces which brought about this change in definition because it reflects a concrete uplifting of the status of billions of people.

Vince Killoran
1 month 1 week ago

Just to be clear: Not a single Pope, beginning w/P. Leo endorsed free marker capitalism.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 1 week ago

Vince
When the Popes decide that they are qualified to express opinions on the qualities of competing economic systems when they have no specialized education, then let them have the courage to mount the Chair of St Peter and say so.
Quoting papal authority “for” or “against “ a specific economic policy adds nothing to the discussion.

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

The political policies of the Catholic Church have never had positive results for people. In fact their policies have led to the enslavement of Catholics, serfdom. So why would anyone want to listen to them on politics or economics?

They fought freedom and free market capitalism is an outcome of the freedom they fought. Free market capitalism is what led to the modern world. Nothing else.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

Other than the fact that there is no Free Market Capitalism anywhere, you can go to the value of Competitive Market Capitalism, which is real.

Robert Klahn
1 month 1 week ago

The parents of children who die because they cannot pay for health care do not thank God for that.

The adults who die because they cannot afford free market health care can talk to God about it directly.

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