America's traditional commitment to the so-called work “ethic" strongly and negatively affects our political culture, and is a major barrier to achieving real democracy and a healthy, egalitarian economy and society. It is perhaps the fundamental driver of our stingy, cruel politics: it creates a reflexive aversion to the set of government programs denigrated as "welfare" and vilification of anybody who turns to them is deeply rooted in the work ethic. This leads to much suffering among the poor and diminished lives for nearly everyone else. Comparing the quality of life in European social democracies with that of the United States, where we rank low on every measure of well-being, gives empirical support to that case.
The work ethic is a set of norms that posits that that working hard leads to success in the practical world of markets and business, but it also lays out hard work as a value in its own right, something not merely instrumental. It not only has practical implications, but also moral entailments: someone who works hard, according to this outlook, will be self-reliant, and a hard working person is valued as a morally good person worthy of respect. Thrift and moderation of consumption were also historically a part of the work ethic, although those features have dissipated over time as capitalism developed a consumerist culture based on easy credit.
Both these claims are specious: many wealthy people in our society did not win success through hard work, but through inheritance, connections, or luck; think Ann Romney or Paris Hilton. (Some rich people do of course work hard at various projects, but they don’t have to if they don’t want to). And there are millions more people who work incredibly hard and never see much material success. And claims about self-reliance neglect the fact that human beings are fundamentally socially interdependent, and that the immense productivity of our modern, technological, specialist-based economy is based on the effective social organization of people working together. The work ethic’s emphasis on individual responsibility is merely a part of the “rugged individualist” myth of cowboys and pioneers, appropriate for a bygone age but outworn and useless now.
The work ethic is deeply socialized and ingrained into American culture (and to a lesser degree in other capitalist societies), such that it makes people voluntarily drive themselves to constantly labor to excess and often to unhealthy and even destructive levels of overwork. (I am as guilty as anyone — indeed probably more than most. I'm writing this essay on the train to my normal day job, rather than, say, relaxing with a book or video game). For some people, the work ethic is a key part of their identity: you may have observed some people, especially blue-collar white men, competing to work harder and longer than their companions, and being proud to do it, even when their is no additional compensation or other benefit.
The work ethic is, obviously, a convenient set of ideas for capitalism to propagate: it is useful for capitalists to induce the working class to voluntarily submit to intensive labor, for relying on the willing submission of the work force reduces supervision costs and makes coercive enforcement of the wage system, which can be violent and disruptive, less necessary. Furthermore, the work ethic makes working people averse to the economically rational and perfectly legitimate structural government programs necessary to sustain a middle class: such programs are seen not as merited because of one’s contribution to social labor, or as legitimately need-based, or even as earned benefits when they are in fact that; increasingly, all government programs, from aid to the poor to Social Security to public education, are seen as handouts for people who are lazy. Thus the state is distorted as an instrument to benefit the upper class disproportionately over the middle and lowers classes: in the most recent economic crisis, failed mortgage banks receive trillions in bailouts while virtually nothing was done to assist underwater homeowners.
Working hard can be useful when one is driven to express one’s creative energies or devoted to a cause or to some group of other people, such as one’s family. Human beings do best when faced with moderately difficult challenges and a moderate work load; not to much to be overwhelmed, not too little to become bored. Any deviation from that mean is unhealthy, including a deviation on the side of too much work. Overwork and ennui can both be equally debilitating. Our society is afflicted with all sorts of stress-related ailments, including hypertension, insomnia, neurosis, and heart disease — about one in three people die of heart attacks. Overwork is undoubtedly a contributor to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and divorce.
Aside from these personal problems, the work ethic creates social ills as well: it is much harder to have a vibrant civil society when people do not have time to volunteer for associations and charities, and much harder to have a healthy democracy when people don't have time to stay informed about the issues, to volunteer for a political party, or even go to the polls to vote. Conservatives talk about the social ills of laziness and dependency, but never about the social ills of overwork: no time or energy for family, community, citizenship, self-development, learning, creativity. The work ethic isn't very ethical.
There are other values in life than work, industry, and commerce, and a healthy society is one that recognizes there are many sources of value rather than allowing a hegemony of market values. A society that does so will have a real diversity of professions and occupations, and not channel the bulk of financial rewards to the sociopathic financiers and banksters that are held up as the exemplars of economic rationality. In an economically diverse society, people would be able to do work that they enjoy doing and that fits their talents and inclinations, such that work would not be seen as a dreadful toil that one must force oneself to do through an oppressive work "ethic." Dedication to a cause, art, science, or community can motivate people to do amazing things. Self-ownership gives people a stake in the results of their own efforts: democratic socialism, in which workers own and control their economic enterprises, would democratize conservatives' much-vaunted principle of "entrepreneurship" and extend it down to the level of the workshop and office floor, encouraging greater effort, care, attention, and innovation in economic enterprise than anything else could. There are many reasons why people exert creative effort, and we would be better off if we took advantage of them. This would be unacceptable to the powers that be, however, since it wouldn't allow them to skim most of the profits from everybody's labor. So they resort to techniques like installing the work ethic to get people to work instead.
Given our level of technology and knowledge of how to productively arrange work, there is no good reason that people should still be working 40, 50, 60, or more hours a week; if we weren't working ourselves to death, driven by a work "ethic" to make lots of money for rich people, we could cut the workweek by half or more and spend more of our time on the important things in life: family, friendship, art, music, learning, philosophy, science, community, politics. It's important to remember that we ought to work to live, not live to work.