Dennis Prager today writes an exceptional essay in which he accounts for the astonishing success of the English-speaking world by noting the use in our language of the word "earn”; as in "earn a living." Other languages do not have an exact translation. For example, if you want to speak of getting your wages in Spanish, you employ the verb "ganar" which means "to win." German uses a variation on the theme with "verdient" which means "to deserve,” and Hebrew draws on a verb that means "to profit." One needn’t reflect long on the moral implications suggested by these various conceptualizations of work and wages in order to consider how these different orientations might play out—not only with respect to economics but also with respect to morality and politics.
The moral outlook for a person who considers that he must “earn” a living, “earn” respect, “earn” love, and “earn” forgiveness is going to be considerably different from that of a person who judges that money, respect, love and forgiveness are his by dint of pure good fortune. Similarly, the person who strives for earning things is going to comport himself in ways that are vastly different from those of the soul who imagines that life’s riches should be his as a matter of entitlement or will (that is, if he can but cleverly manage the accounting).
Prager notes that America is in danger of forgetting this verbiage as well as the habits of mind and of heart that accompany it. We now talk freely (nay, proudly) of “unconditional love,” for example, and we demand it along with instant forgiveness for all of our faults. In school (and, sadly, very often at home) our children “earn” very little these days and are given a great deal more as a result. Trophies, accolades, admiration, affection—all these things are theirs for the mere price of breathing. And love? Well, we claim it as a birthright but—not being intellectual as well as moral idiots—we are very often disappointed in its quality. Perhaps there is little wonder in this. We bought our love from the clearance table after all.
A good friend of mine recently noted that Obama’s demand of his cabinet that they seek to trim the federal budget by $100 million will work for him as a conspicuous demonstration of republican virtue working to do him the Machiavellian service of covering up his otherwise imperial lavishness. I suppose he has a point. But I cannot help but take some comfort, anyway, in Obama’s feeling the necessity to use this particular fan for his obscene little dance. It’s fair to note his cynicism in it and to call it a cheap kind of stunt, but it’s also true that it does denote a kind of nascent republican virtue in the American soul. We still think—though we’ve done a poor job of demonstrating it in many respects—that people ought to “earn” a living. We still think that there is a mean between extravagance and stinginess. We still hold fast to the notion that it is wrong for a people to live beyond their means. And Obama still feels like he needs to (or at least he seems to need to pretend to) “earn” our forgiveness.
Critics will say that’s a thin reed to hang my hopes on. But I don’t yet think America is a nation of suckers and tyrants.