So the jobs report came out last week and rattled the market a bit. But there is a different perspective to this whole thing that I think is far more important. It also fingers a much more sinister trend afoot.
First, the conventional view: The unemployment rate fell to a new four-year low of 7.6%. Everybody knew that was bogus. It fell because half a million Americans left the job market. The unemployment figure the government publishes is a fiction anyway. It’s a government-manufactured number. I never really pay any attention to it, except to make fun of it, like I am now.
A somewhat less conventional view is to focus on job participation. This number is harder to fudge than the unemployment figure. It just shows you how many people are working or seeking work as a percentage of the civilian population (minus some adjustments for kids under 16, people in prisons, etc.).
Some people like this better and cite this chart as troubling:
I still don’t like this number.
The reason is that both figures are based on implicit assumptions that I find repulsive and evil. The idea is that the government should manage the economy to maximize employment. The idea is that higher is better. I don’t think any of these ideas are good ideas.
Employment should be a residual, the end result of a free people making their own choices about how much or how little they want to work. Counting jobs misses the point entirely. It’s like people who say the economy needs to “grow faster.” Why? The growth rate should be a residual, the end result of many choices consumers make. It should not be something managed to hit a target.
People forget that the economy does not exist to create numbers for economists and taxes for governments. It exists as a result of people cooperating with each other and making trades to satisfy needs and wants.
The problem is that we live in a society riddled with government intervention at every level. What these interventions do is discourage people from working. Most commentators focus on the number of Americans on some kind of federal assistance. That’s only part of it.
The other part of it is that government regulations (created in partnership with big business) keep a lot of people from creating their own work. You can’t open a restaurant in your own kitchen, for instance, without a lot of hassle — if you can do so at all. In fact, you could get in big trouble if you started serving meals to the public out of your house or back porch on a commercial basis. The government would shut you down and fine you at a minimum. It would do so under the guise of guarding the public’s health. (As if your incentive were to poison your neighbors.) And if you believe that, you are a fool. What it is really doing is protecting the establishment.
This is just one tiny example, but I could on for pages about how government discourages people from making their own living.
I’ve always liked this passage from professor Roderick Long, from a piece back in 2008:
“In the absence of licensure, zoning and other regulations, how many people would start a restaurant today if all they needed was their living room and their kitchen? How many people would start a beauty salon today if all they needed was a chair and some scissors, combs, gels and so on? How many people would start a taxi service today if all they needed was a car and a cellphone? How many people would start a day care service today if a bunch of working parents could simply get together and pool their resources to pay a few of their number to take care of the children of the rest? These are not the sorts of small businesses that receive SBIR awards; they are the sorts of small businesses that get hammered down by the full strength of the state whenever they dare to make an appearance without threading the lengthy and costly maze of the state’s permission process. The assistance that small firms receive comes largely at the expense, not of larger firms, but of still smaller firms — or of those who would start such smaller firms if they could.”
But the government is opposed to such anarchic job creation. It always has been. The work of professor James C. Scott is a particularly valuable aid in seeing why this is so. Scott is no scholar stuck in his ivory tower. He lives in an 1826 Connecticut farmhouse. The 76-year-old raises chickens, shears sheep and keeps bees. He lived for two years in a Malaysian village and hiked all over the hills of northern Burma (Myanmar). He also writes terrific books. I highly recommend his Two Cheers for Anarchism.
Anyway, his work makes plain that the state from the beginning wants people organized in ways that make them easier to tax, keep track of and subdue. You can’t have a free people running unlicensed businesses out of their homes!
What the government wants is for people to take jobs with big companies. The government wants cows to milk. And it’s easier to milk them when they all hang out in the same spots. Federal assistance programs are there to quell rebellion and create dependency. Too many unemployed people means a lot of time for meeting in coffeehouses plotting revolution. Better to give the sops something to keep them quiet, government thinks, while we dream up ways to create more tax-paying jobs that we approve of.
I recall a classic and much quoted passage from the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865):
“To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right, nor the knowledge, nor the virtue… To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.”
Government will always fail in its efforts to make society into some kind of abstract image, to fit it into some preconceived plan of what it should look like. That’s why the economy reels from one crisis to the next. And that’s why there is so much unhappiness and angst in the employment market today.