An Honest Opinion, Honestly Arrived At
by Gabriel Conroy
“The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.”
–T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”
When it comes to hours and labor regulations, I favor the policy that creates more jobs, but bad ones, over the policy that leads to fewer jobs, but good ones. There are good reasons for my preference. But it has its limitations.
The first reason is that unemployment sucks. It’s dispiriting and demoralizing. When someone suggests that unemployment means leisure, then I ask “what’s the quality of that ‘leisure?'” Perhaps the healthiest response on a personal level to unemployment is to use that situation to gain new skills or enjoy life or volunteer. But from experience, that’s hard for people of a certain mindset, like mine.
The second reason for my jobs first preference is that employment is empowering. I’m hopeful that more bad jobs will lead to more good jobs and that more jobs will make bad jobs more bearable. The more jobs there are, the more choices workers will have and the more employers will have to do to attract and keep workers. It’s one thing to have a horrible job that you can’t quit because you’re unlikely to find another one. It’s another thing to have a horrible job that you can quit because you’re likely to find another. In the latter case, the worker enjoys a little more respect, a little more protection, and perhaps even a higher wage and somewhat greater security.
More jobs can also be a boon to union organizing. I have complex and mixed feelings about unions. But if unions are your thing, they’re much easier to form if the soldiers in the capitalist’s “reserve army of labor” are otherwise occupied.
I’m talking primarily about hours and wages regulations. Safety regulations and regulations against “negative externalities” are a different concern. And while I believe that those regulations’ effect on jobs should be taken into account, I’m much more willing to endorse them even if they cost jobs. Sometimes an hours or wages regulation might have effects on safety or externalities, and if such effects are demonstrable and direct, I’ll see that as an argument in its favor.
My preference has limitations, of course. I have articulated no limiting mechanism. If carried too far, my preference can apply to almost any regulation that might conceivably have some effect, no matter how distant or hypothetical, on jobs creation. Sometimes the effect of any given regulation is debatable anyway. Some economists argue, for example, that raising the minimum wage might help create jobs. (I have a lot of problems with that Mother Jones article I link to (hat tip: Saul Degraw). But I’ll point out that the magazine, or at least the author, sees the potential downside at least as something that needs to be addressed.)
People don’t live on jobs alone. Some employers, even in a tight labor market, are tyrants. A job that doesn’t pay enough to live on might be just as dispiriting as no job at all. Even a good- or decent-paying job might be so unrelentingly awful that an outside remedy would be attractive even to the most independent-minded worker. I’ll say further that the tradeoff neo-liberals like me say we prefer–a stronger social safety net instead of, for example, a higher minimum wage–is usually not on the table and even if it were, it would have problems of its own.
I’m not unmindful that appeals to “job creators” are one of the main shibboleths of American conservatism. That’s why I try to stress “job creation” over “job creators,” although perhaps that distinction is too subtle. I guess you’ll have to take me on faith when I say I don’t like “job creators” as a class. They’re not evil, mind. In some cases they’re generous, kind, and hardworking. And most important, they’re people who respond to incentives. But I don’t worship at their altar the way some conservatives do.
I have heard the argument that if society is presented with a problem, it’s better to do something to resolve that problem, even at the risk of failing. There’s a lot to admire about that position, and if it’s neglected altogether, we live in a Panglossian world of self-serving “economic laws.” But that view must be balanced with a “first do no harm” principle. I believe that in general wages and hours regulations do harm, and that harm must be somehow accounted for, acknowledged, and considered whenever those regulations are under consideration. Perhaps my scrutiny is too strict, but some scrutiny is necessary.