Monday, February 18, 2008

Employment Blues Revisited

Tibor R. Machan

Even though making lots of money is often derided by politicians, they do routinely champion employment security. Exactly why it is fine to want the latter but not the former is quite unclear to me. There are some theories about this, though.

Some believe that making lots of money suggests that it is important to be able to live well, while a job merely allows you to survive rather than making very much of this life, trying to enjoy it fully, to be happy and prosperous until it is over. Being rich, then, is thought to be crass, lowly, while barely surviving, near poverty, is deemed more noble because it's more modest. Others figure that rich bashing stems from having a misguided zero-sum view of economics: if I get rich, someone must get poor. So, profit-making always involves making some poor bloke worse off than before. As the French poet Charles Baudelair said, "Commerce is vile because it is the worse kind of egoism," which to him meant getting ahead at other people's expense.

The first of these ideas can only be dealt with by way of ethics: it is there that we consider whether flourishing in life is to be regarded as an honorable objective and, once accomplished, something to be proud of. The second is both a philosophical and an economic issue: does wealth creation involve making others worse off than they otherwise would be? One philosophical issue is whether creating wealth is even possible, or are we stuck with just taking from here and putting it there, the famous zero sum game. The economic question is how has it happened that as the population of the world increased, the greater portion of people have been living better, at least economically. The stuff we need and want has not been reduced by way of entrepreneurship and mass production--that is, by the increase of the free flow of commerce, of enrichment. Instead commerce has managed to improve everyone's economic well being, even if not at the same speed.

Unfortunately, since government is so heavily involved in economic matters, there can be little calm in the discussion of these topics. Politicians have too much of a stake in scaring us to death about our future so that we will vote them into office where they will then pretend to turn things the way they ought to be. A Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader cannot produce a sensible, reasonable discussion of the matter. Neither can a Hillary Clinton, a John McCain, or even a Barack Obama. And the news organizations also benefit most from disseminating "news" that create panic in our hearts. Even in scholarly circles these days there is too much partisanship, ever since Marx has convinced many in that community that everything is political, it's all related to power.

To make a living requires work but if one believes that to have a job means for someone else to lose one, this can only lead to bad blood between people. Oddly enough, it is in business that such a view is not usually shared, whereas those who focus on governmental affairs tend to view matters more akin to combat. This is why from politicians the refrain doesn't focus on productivity but on fairness, sharing prosperity, as Mrs. Clinton says, not on making it.

In business the idea is that commerce enhances everyone's well being, with losses coming only to those who misjudge the marketplace. Since forcing people to share is going to discourage them from working hard, it is better not to stress sharing and fairness but wealth and profit. Not only does everyone have a basic right to seek riches but this actually tends to produce more wealth for everyone who will but make the effort to work for it.
Unfortunately, we are now at a point where too many folks really think that they are owed a job, especially job security, never mind that this logically entails forcing customers to keep purchasing what one produces whether or not they want it. It would be encouraging to see some prominent commentators on C-SPAN or CNN making the point and for a few articulate politicians to affirm the plain truth: what would give us the greatest shot at job security isn't taking from the rich and spreading it around but making more wealth, training ourselves to anticipate future market changes, not expecting people to be forced to patronize our goods and services whether they want what they are being provided.

Job security comes from sustained, unimpeded productivity, not from trying to guarantee employment on the backs of some mythical job-manufacturers forced into service by the government.

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