Republicans to America: 'Work, Moochers!'

Conservatives are attacking the Affordable Care Act by defining "work" as wage labor, and condemning anyone who chooses to step away from the market.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Republicans are entering this week with a clear set of talking points: Obamacare is discouraging work, and setting up Americans for government dependency.

“Anything that discourages work—and that’s essentially what the CBO found, that this discourages some people from working, not a good thing at a time when the economy’s still struggling,” said Rep. Tom Cole on ABC’s “This Week” about the Affordable Care Act.

He was echoed by Roy Blunt of Missouri, who said on Fox News that “any law you pass that discourages people from working can’t be a good idea.”

The problem, as I noted last week, is that Obamacare doesn’t discourage people from working. Rather, by providing for the purchase of health insurance, it gives people the option to retire early, move to part-time work, or quit jobs to pursue other options. Now, under the Affordable Care Act, you can leave your corporate office to take care of your kids, secure in the knowledge that you could still afford health insurance for you and your family.

In the pre-Obama era, Conservatives might have praised this as a family friendly reform. Now, however, they see it as an attack on the “dignity of work,” and an unjust form of “redistribution.”

Last week, for instance, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan called the Affordable Care Act a “poverty trap” that would discourage lower-income Americans from working more:

“I guess I understand ‘better off’ in the context of healthcare. But ‘better off’ in inducing a person not to work who is on the low-income scale, not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising their income, joining the middle class, this means fewer people will do that."

And the Washington Post quotes Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, who frets about the justice of subsidizing a person’s ability to leave a job they don’t like. “What the White House wants you to think is, if a person chooses to make less income, they must be doing something that makes them better off,” he said, “What conservatives would have you ask is, is it an appropriate use of someone else’s money to put you in that position to choose?”

These quotes are absolutely striking, in that they give a clear glimpse into the ideological commitments of the Republican Party. From Sen. Blunt and Rep. Cole, we get the revelation that—for conservatives—the only “work” worth acknowledging is wage labor. To myself, and many others, someone who retires early to volunteer—or leaves a job to care for their children—is still working, they’re just outside the formal labor market. And indeed, their labor is still valuable—it just isn’t compensated with cash.

By contrast, conservatives—both thoughtful and otherwise—have defined “work” as equivalent to “wage labor,” which—in a real way—devalues the countless forms of work that allow society to function, from childrearing to community involvement. If we borrow Paul Ryan’s formulation, then wage labor is the only work that comes with “dignity,” where dignity is being forced to work a job for health insurance, with the knowledge that—if you don’t—you could face destitution, or worse.

As an aside, it should be said that, as far as the “dignity of work” goes, it only applies to low-income Americans. Republicans aren’t as worried as the idle rich, who—I suppose—have earned the right to avoid a life of endless toil. Otherwise—if Republicans really wanted everyone to work as much as possible—they’d support confiscatory tax rates. After all, nothing will drive an investment banker back to the office like the threat of losing 70 percent of her income to Uncle Sam.

In any case, from Douglas Holtz-Eakin, we get the related view that there’s something morally suspect about the Affordable Care Act and other laws that use government to end this kind of coercion. Writing at Salon, Elias Isquith walks through the implications of this view. If it’s wrong to use government to free individuals from the threat of poverty or ruinous disease, then—in practical terms—the only “free” people are the wealthy, who don’t have to work to survive, and who can act and take risks without worry.

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If this sounds like an unfair description of Republican views, then consider it in the context of their recent actions, from blocking emergency unemployment insurance to cutting food stamps and refusing a minimum wage increase. At each turn, when offered the choice between improving life for low-wage workers or forcing them into a state of dependence—where they’re at the whims of employers, or out of the labor force altogether—Republicans choose the latter.

Work carries an inherent dignity, but just in case that isn’t enough, the GOP seems to be saying, let’s make joblessness as painful as possible, and let’s lock people into jobs so that they can’t leave them—even if they want to.