Fred Clark, of Slacktivist fame, quotes some passages from John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Affluent Society” that are apparently dated, but which ring very true.
Galbraith discusses the Puritan origins of a moral imperative to work. Goods were vitally necessary; the loss of available labor to produce those goods was extremely detrimental to society; and, therefore, the penalty – deprivation of all or most of an individual’s income – was appropriate. The penalty was so justified that there was no moral obligation to help someone who wasn’t helping themselves by working.
Now, in a world awash with goods, the loss of an individual’s productive capacity is incidental but the penalty remains almost equally severe – even where the failure to work isn’t through sloth but through lack of obvious opportunities. And, yet, the quest continues for a moral justification to allow the affluent to settle into a comfortable disregard for those not sharing in society’s affluence.
More influential is the argument that stresses the inefficiency of government and sees its costs and taxes (those for defense apart) as a threat to liberty. From this comes the philosophical basis for resistance to government help to the poor. … Such doctrine, once again, allows the affluent to relax not with the ostentatious cruelty of Social Darwinism, but nonetheless in the contented belief that no ameliorative action is possible or socially wise.