I’m not the first to say what I’m about to say here, but I think it has to be said over and over and over again, to at least attempt to counter the nonsense that’s been spouted over and over and over and over again. What nonsense is that? The nonsense about the unemployment problem. Am I saying that there is no unemployment? No. what I’m saying is that it’s not a problem. What I’m saying is that, if anything it’s something to be celebrated.
Look. It’s been several generations, at least here in the West, since we needed as many hands as possible to work the field. Now one man, plus the contents of his Quonset, can feed a small city. What’s in his Quonset has freed the rest of us up to work on other things that enhance the quality of our lives, but also to do nothing at all but consume those things that enhance the quality of our lives. So unemployment isn’t a scourge. It’s a boon. Why, then, would anyone be complaining that the government isn’t creating enough jobs?
If you enjoy pulling a plow, then, say I, knock yourself out. No one’s going to stop you. But why would you expect to be paid for it?
“Because,” you answer, “without a job I don’t get paid. And without money I can’t buy those things that enhance the quality of my life.”
To which I respond: And isn’t this precisely what we mean by featherbedding? We’re not asking you to produce anything. At least not in the sense that but for your producing it it wouldn’t get produced. We’re just making it a condition of being paid that you turn up to where we don’t need you to work. And we’re doing that because if we didn’t then no one would turn up to work, and so nothing would get produced, and so no one’s quality of life would be enhanced.
I get that. And I also get why there’s a limit to what we can do about this silliness, like welfarism and job-sharing and earlier retirement. All that I’m saying is that unemployment is serving, in our language, as a metonym for not having money. And it’s a metonym which, like using crime as a metonym for harm, is doing us considerable disservice. We could cut the crime rate in half by legalizing marijuana, and I personally think we should. But in so doing we wouldn’t have reduced social harm by one iota, except the social harm of incarcerating young people for preferring a joint over a beer.
Similarly, then, we could eliminate unemployment overnight by featherbedding everyone, but that wouldn’t make the aggregate any the richer. It would just redistribute the wealth. But if we think we need to redistribute the aggregate wealth – and as the child of a socialist father and a Bolshevik grandmother I’m all in favour of doing so – surely with a little rejigging of our attitudes we can do so without the moral absurdity of workfare.