On a (not so) great change of heart

732px-Unemployed_men_queued_outside_a_depression_soup_kitchen_opened_in_Chicago_by_Al_Capone,_02-1931_-_NARA_-_541927

Via Wikipedia

Some folks are (probably) rightly praising uber-right-libertarian Bryan Caplan for taking free-market advocates to task for ignoring “The Grave Evil of Unemployment.” Caplan mostly ensconces his argument within the purview of economic “high-theory,” so expect it to be somewhat disconnected to those outside the field.

Yet if you needed affirmation that such new-found sentiments doesn’t actually change anything simply scroll down to his list of free-markety ways to approach this issue of grave moral importance (my emphasis):

Instead of downplaying the grave evil of unemployment, we free-market economists should urge governments to redouble their efforts to fight it.  How can we do so and remain free-market economists?  First and foremost, by emphasizing the obvious: Every government imposes a vast array of employment-destroying regulations.  Minimum wages.  Licensing laws.  Pro-union laws.  Mandated benefits – especially mandated health insurance.Anyone who appreciates the grave evil of unemployment should bitterly oppose these regulations – and vigorously reject the cavalier, callous view that a heavy-duty safety net is a good substitute for a job.  Government regulation is hardly the sole cause of nominal wage rigidity, but it definitely makes a bad situation worse.

This is Caplan simply turning the non-conservative perspective on the normative harm of mass unemployment on it’s head in order to confirm his a priori assumptions about what’s best for society. Fair enough. It’s not out of the ordinary to approach an issue in a way that satisfies your personal ideology. But to say we should look forward to a full-employment economy because it would give people the ability to “fairly dismiss many complaints about capitalism by harumphing, ‘Get a job!'” should tell you about how much this change of heart really matters to the political left.

As to the matter of policy being directed towards the desire to flip the bird to those nasty statists, it’s actually the compensation of employment that becomes a priority and thus where people are most dissatisfied when they do have a job:

JobSatisfaction112707Graph5EDIT(h/t Matt Bruenig)

More substantively, though, I think he’s just wrong to presume such actions would alleviate mass unemployment in the way he describes, mostly for the reasons Chris Dillow brings up. As he writes there is “a good reason why almost all major economies abandoned free market economics. It’s that such economies didn’t and couldn’t avoid mass unemployment.” Which is to say, mass unemployment is a feature of free-markets, not a bug. Advocating a return to a pre-New Deal work environment wouldn’t eliminate mass unemployment, just make it substantially worse in my estimation. Caplan imagines a better world where even the worst job is better than no job, but that would only necessarily be true if there was no public safety-net. No priorities have changed here. Considering unemployment a bad thing represents a rhetorical shift and nothing else.

I think people are sometimes overly eager to give proverbial gold stars to the (otherwise not) rare occurrence of showing concern about the average person in society. So Caplan and others have expanded their moral orientation to the problem of mass unemployment. Congratulations? I mean, this is fine so much as it goes, but I’m not sure how useful such an epiphany is to people outside (or even, arguably, within) that ideology. Adding a moral imperative to your advocacy efforts shouldn’t be news.

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