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Rand Paul praises the dignity of work, but hates the big government policies that encourage it

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Rand Paul launched his presidential campaign with a speech that included a stirring paean to the value of work.

"Work is not punishment," he argued. "Work is the reward" — an idea that harks back to some very old themes in American Protestantism.

But he linked that with a new and more politicized idea that people need a hand up, not a handout. "Self-esteem can't be given," Paul said, "it must be earned" — so rather than "trillion-dollar government stimulus packages," he has "a vision for America where everyone who wants to work will have a job."

And yet if you look at international data, it turns out that big government and a generous welfare state lead to more work — at least for 25- to 54-year-olds in the prime of life.

Big government is good for work

Here's the picture for women:

And here it is for men:

In the case of women, the relationship between big government and more work is pretty well-known (among those who bother to care) and well-understood. The issue is that in most capitalist societies, a large number of women are out of the labor force at any given time because they are taking care of children. In societies that temper the free market with subsidized child care and mandatory paid leave policies, mothers find it easier to remain connected to the workforce and to combine parenting with work.

America's failure to adopt such policies explains why our female labor force participation rate has stalled even as other countries' rates surge.

The question of men is more ambiguous and less well-researched so far. But we can see that the existence of things like universal health care and strong labor unions don't preclude prime-age men from working at substantially higher rates than you see in the United States.

Is it important to make students and the elderly work?

That said, the dice are loaded here somewhat by restricting our attention to prime-age workers. If you focus on the labor force participation rate of people in their early 20s or late 50s, you'll see that the small government model prevailing in the United States really does encourage more people to work. The price of attending college is higher here, so people generally try to dual-track and study while also holding a job. And our retirement policies are relatively stingy, so people need to work later in life to make ends meet.

The question is whether this sort of work promotion really meets Rand's criteria.

Obviously some people have jobs as US senators or political pundits that they are unlikely to want to give up at the age of 59. But many jobs are considerably more physically taxing and less socially prestigious than the ones Rand and I have. Is there a large "dignity of work" value in a 63-year-old with bad knees doing shifts as a security guard? Does it promote the bourgeois virtues for 20-year-olds to be pulling shifts at Taco Bell between classes? Conversely, it turns out that conservatives don't actually like it when liberals propose tax policies that would encourage married mothers to do paid work outside the house.

There's a case to be made on those points. But the point is that these are the margins on which policy really works — students, mothers, and the elderly — with the welfare state generally encouraging mothers to work while dissuading students and the elderly from doing so. The idea of the idle poor twiddling their thumbs rather than going out to get a job doesn't really have much to do with anything.