Why Unemployment is a Pseudoproblem
This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism. This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:
The study of economics, especially in its neoclassical and Austrian forms, developed as a theoretical elaboration of capitalism and industrialism as they came to maturity in Europe in the 18th century and afterwards. Most often economic thought has not only assumed capitalism, but has been a mouthpiece for capitalism, in fact, a sophisticated attempt to provide a justification for the disparity in incomes and for the social dislocations that are such notable characteristics of the capitalist world. In face of this complex structure of thought, it can be helpful to return to the basics of human behavior upon which economic life is based in order to discover a different and more accurate way of conceptualizing mankind’s economic activity.
Let us first look at the three different types of economic unemployment as these are enumerated and acknowledged by economists. First, and of little importance for our discussion, there is voluntary or otherwise short-term unemployment of people between jobs, between school and a job, and so on. This is sometimes referred to by economists as frictional unemployment. If the other two types of unemployment are eliminated or reduced, this type will be of little concern.
Then there is what economists call structural unemployment, which Paul Samuelson describes as
a mismatch between the supply of and the demand for workers. Mismatches can occur because the demand for one kind of labor is rising while the demand for another kind is falling, and supplies do not quickly adjust…. [For example], the demand for coal miners has been depressed for decades because of the lack of geographical mobility of labor and capital: unemployment rates in coal-mining communities remain high today.
Thirdly, there is cyclical unemployment, which Samuelson explains as occurring “when the overall demand for labor is low. As total spending and output fall, unemployment rises virtually everywhere.”
These latter two types of unemployment require separate discussion. First let us look at the question of structural unemployment. It arises chiefly because of new technology or on account of some external cause, such as, in the case of coal miners, heightened concern about air pollution. The former cause, new technology, is the more common occurrence. In an economy dominated by capitalists, people who own the means of production, new technology presents an opportunity for higher profits achieved via lower costs. A new or improved device makes a certain number of workers unnecessary. Since labor is a cost item in a capitalist’s balance sheet, there is rarely any conflict in the capitalist’s mind about what to do: if he can save money by eliminating workers and buying machines he will do so. But in a distributist economy this would not be such an open and shut decision. When workers themselves control the enterprises in which they work, either individually or cooperatively, there are other considerations besides merely increased profits. New technology can and will be adopted, but its adoption will be balanced against other equally important economic and social needs, job and family security, social stability, and the like.
Moreover, we should recognize that technology can develop in many ways, and that replacing men by machines is not the only way to secure improved production. In any case, if we remember that the economy is an important but subordinate part of human social life, we will not regard technological improvements as the summum bonum. Right now, with capitalists mostly calling the shots in the economy, their view usually prevails, and what we like to call economic efficiency wins against any of the human concerns and needs that an economy is supposedly subservient to. If an economy could do without workers altogether and produce more cheaply and quickly solely by means of robots, would this really be a benefit to mankind? Would not the fact that the now unemployed workers could no longer afford to buy any of the robot-produced goods signify that such an economy had entirely inverted means and ends?
What if technological advances across the board make it possible for our consumption needs to be supplied by merely a portion of the labor force? The obvious answer to that is, if it is no longer necessary for everyone to work eight hours to supply mankind’s needs, let everyone work a little or a lot less, enough so that mankind’s needs are taken care of. If this can be done with everyone working six hours instead of eight, well and good. Here, though, we run into one of the shibboleths of neoclassical economics, the so-called “lump of labor fallacy.” Samuelson explains this notion as follows:
Whenever unemployment is high, people often think that the solution lies in spreading existing work more evenly among the labor force. For example, Europe in the 1990s suffered extremely high unemployment, and many labor leaders and politicians suggested that the solution was to reduce the workweek so that the same number of hours would be worked by all the workers. This view – that the amount of work to be done is fixed – is called the lump of labor fallacy.
What is wrong with this idea, according to Samuelson?
[T]he lump of labor argument implies that there is only so much remunerative work to be done…. A careful examination of economic history…shows that an increase in labor supply can be accommodated by higher employment, although that increase may require lower real wages.
What is one to make of this argument? If we examine it, Samuelson appears to mean that if workers are willing to work for lower wages, some capitalist will employ them to produce something that he thinks he can sell, and thus absorb the unemployed workers. This is no doubt often true, but this says nothing about the relationship between the total amount of goods being produced at a certain point in time, the total number of workers existing at that time, and how that work is to be apportioned among them. At the point when the unemployment in question arose, why was it not a reasonable policy to distribute the work more evenly? If the economy hitherto has been producing a sufficient amount of goods to supply consumption needs, and then unemployment increases due to technological changes and a reduced need for human labor, clearly the total quantity of potential workforce effort is now greater than is needed. Thus reducing everyone’s hours seems like an entirely reasonable response. Society possesses the productive capacity to satisfy consumer needs but no longer requires the same amount of labor. Thus both the amount of work, as well as the product of work, can be distributed among the total labor force, taking into account the new technology.
The fact that Samuelson thinks that only by employing workers at lowered wages can this problem be addressed, shows that he is assuming as a fact of nature the position of dominance by capitalists and the corresponding subordinate position of workers. Of course, capitalists are not likely to pay workers the same wage they previously received if they now work fewer hours. But both the productive capacities of the workers remain the same, society’s need for goods and services remains the same (in the short run), and the economy’s capacity to produce has increased. Any mismatch is in the connection between the worker and the means of production. A response that has regard both for the purpose of an economy and its connection with the social fabric as a whole would see reduced work hours as a logical response to the situation.
But this does not mean that every individual, firm, sector, or factor of production will benefit from trade…. Recent studies indicate that unskilled workers in high-income countries have suffered reductions in real wages in the last three decades because of the increased imports of goods from low-wage developing countries….
The theory of comparative advantage shows that other sectors will gain more than the injured sectors will lose. Moreover, over long periods of time, those displaced from low-wage sectors eventually gravitate to higher-wage jobs…. Nations that disregard comparative advantage pay a heavy price in terms of their living standards and economic growth.
It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward “having” rather than “being,” which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. (no. 36)
1: Note that I am dealing with unemployment as an economic question only. It is arguable that there exists what might be called cultural unemployment, but this is outside of the scope of this article.
2: Quotations from Paul Samuelson, Macroeconomics, 16th ed., 1998, p. 259.
3: Paul Samuelson, Microeconomics, 17th ed., 2001, pp. 257-58.