Government policies have created a culture of laziness in recent years — mostly in ways you’d expect, but some you wouldn’t.
First the COVID-19 pandemic opened up the spigot of government aid. Initially that aid went to families that, in many cases, genuinely needed it because of government-mandated business closures that prevented people from working. Yet as those lockdowns loosened, the benefits provided to people who stayed home remained intact. The government never turned off the tap.
Notably, this public policy was supported not only by most Democrats, but also by prominent Republican legislators like Senator Josh Hawley and President Trump, who refused to sign an aid package into law unless it contained a higher threshold ($2,000 vs. $1,600) of government aid to families. This may have been a populist policy to aid his reelection bid, but in any case it’s notable that Trump, Hawley, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris were all on the same side of this issue. It’s part of the age-old promise of bread and circuses: it’s legal to bribe citizens to reelect you as long as you do it with government money. Of course, you’re ultimately bribing them with their own money, and diluting its value through inflation too.
This cornucopia of free money has contributed to a culture of laziness that has resulted in the greatest labor shortage in the United States in over a generation. People simply became accustomed to not working — and quite liked it. White-collar employees enjoyed “working” from home with a measurable downtick in how much they were actually completing work, in my experience. So far, we’re still early in the process of formally studying it, and the existing evidence is mixed.
A recent analysis in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the US’s more generous unemployment benefits than other countries’ contributed both to its lower labor-force participation rate and, because of fewer workers to help meet demand, higher inflation. You would predict that people start going back to work when the unemployment benefits stop. But we’re not seeing that happen — at least not yet. Why? Because people got accustomed to the idea of not working and enjoyed it enough to stop working for longer than they could afford.
Nowhere was the new laziness movement better epitomized than the subreddit
r/antiwork, which became the place for supporters of the Great Resignation to unite. Its user population exploded during the pandemic, going from 180,000 in October 2020 to more than 1.6 million by January 2022. As The Post summed it up, the forum is a place where “People post epic text and email screenshots of quitting their jobs, but the real heroes are so-called ‘idlers’ — those who stay in jobs doing the absolute minimum to get by while still collecting a paycheck.”
Examples include a user who bragged about getting paid $80,000 a year to answer one or two phone calls and an IT professional who created a simple script to perform their entire job and received $90,000 per year. The Post interviewed the subreddit’s moderator, Doreen Ford, a 30-year old part-time dog walker who said the antiwork movement’s goal “is to reduce the coercive element of labor as much as possible by subverting capitalism.” A noble sentiment.
This pro-laziness movement launched by the pandemic dovetailed nicely with a growing clamor for the government to forgive student loan debt. Repaying debts is hard work, after all.
Once again, the federal government began by offering a moratorium on student loan repayments under President Trump, and once again, people expected that temporary aid to become permanent. The moratorium was repeatedly extended under President Biden, and on Wednesday he announced that the administration will forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt to borrowers who received Pell Grants for their education and make less than $125,000, along with up to $10,000 in debt for non-Pell Grant recipients — wiping the financial slate clean for 20 million Americans.
One think tank has warned the move could cost the average taxpayer more than $2,000. This, after the pause on student debt repayment already cost taxpayers more than $100 billion, losing another $4-5 billion in interest payments each month until the moratorium is lifted, according to government estimates. Yet somehow, American culture now maintains that it is right and good for students to purchase expensive educations and require others to foot the bill. The notion of paying back money you borrowed is now considered outdated, perhaps even systemically racist. An analysis from the Brookings Institute, for instance, argued that the existence of a racial wealth divide necessitates the full cancellation of student debt.
Note that even when antiwork superstars like Doreen Ford explicitly defend laziness as a virtue, they have to justify it by saying indolence is an appropriate response to capitalism’s exploitation. Stealing from your employers can’t be just laziness or greed — it has to be part of a grand fight for justice led by the little people downtrodden by the system.
A good victimhood narrative dresses up naked self-interest until it looks like nobility. It also allows you to pretend to fight for others as you fight for nothing but yourself.
Vivek Ramaswamy is the founder and executive chairman of Strive Asset Management. This essay is adapted from his book “Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence,” to be published by Hachette Book Group in September.