- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

Labor Day is crossed with transition — from summer to fall; from the boys of summer to the warriors of the gridiron; from indolent days and long lunches to laborious school hours. Congress comes back to town from its annual recess, and so do many of the Beltway’s bureaucrats who were enjoying vacations of their own.

After all, Labor Day is one of the few American holidays with a name that is both a noun and a verb. As such, it should be a day to celebrate not only the individuals who make up the labor force, but also the force of labor itself. Coupled as it has been with free-market forces, labor has transformed the American landscape, creating profound prosperity and enriching the freedoms of all.

The first Labor Day was celebrated with a picnic and a parade in New York City on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882. It was the idea of either Matthew Maguire, a machinist who served as a secretary of New York’s Central Labor Union, or Peter Maguire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. The idea caught on quickly — Oregon was the first state to make it a holiday in 1887, followed quickly by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. In 1894, Congress passed legislation officially establishing Labor Day on the first Monday of each September.

Labor Day still features parades by laborers and remarks by prominent union leaders. We have had disagreements with the policies advocated by these organizations, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. However, we agree with them about the fundamental value of the nation’s working men and women. Regardless of whether or not they were affiliated with unions, American laborers have transformed this land from a wilderness-covered backwater into “a shining city on a hill.”

Those changes have been beset by the same abuses that mark the nation’s history, whether the slave labor that horrified the readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or the stockyards of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Labor played a critical role in driving America through those failings. Laborers marched with Sherman to Savannah and drove Patton’s tanks to victory in Europe. They used their swords as effectively as their plowshares, too. While some were building the Arsenal of Democracy and the arms of deterrence, others were laying down railroad lines, cementing highways and constructing the high-speed Internet lines that continue to connect and transform America.

That America is a superpower of production and innovation is due in large part to the values that American workers share — the ingenuity and industry displayed by Yankee manufacturers in the 1700s can be seen in today’s biotech laboratories and computer chip manufacturing plants. Productivity and parsimony have been an essential part of the American character since its founding — most Americans would still agree with Benjamin Franklin’s comment in his book, “The Way to Wealth,” that “Laziness, by bringing on disease, actually shortens life. Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright.” A century later, Horatio Alger Jr. wrote a stream of bestsellers based on the idea that no matter how impoverished his or her circumstances, any American could succeed if he worked hard enough and kept the right moral values.

That Puritan work ethic also continues to be the key to America’s prosperity and power. In a 2003 commentary, George Will observed that on average, Americans take a paltry amount of vacation time — just 16 days each year — compared to 28 paid vacation days taken each year by the British and 37 taken by the French. As a result of their love of labor, Americans have much higher per-capita incomes and a much stronger means for their common defense.

Moreover, most European nations discourage effort and innovation with heavy taxation. While few Americans think they are too lightly taxed, at least they can still expect to keep a large part of the wealth that they hope to earn, in stark contrast with their counterparts across the Atlantic.

A political system that allows effort, initiative and innovation to be appropriately rewarded has ensured that the efforts of individual Americans benefit the whole society. As Michael Novak said, “No better weapon against poverty, disease, illiteracy and tyranny has yet been found than capitalism. The techniques, human skills and changes of cultural habit necessary to expand the productive capacity of the earth has been pioneered by democratic capitalism.”

Today, we salute the invisible hand of democratic capitalism, and the force of labor and the free men and women who produce so prodigally because of it.

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