Economic Myths #15 – Unemployment
By Duncan Whitmore
One of the key indicators of the economic “performance” of any given country is its rate of unemployment. Low rates of unemployment are understood as a sign of prosperity while high rates are taken as a sign of recession and stagnation. Indeed, during the Great Depression, unemployment reached as high as 25% in the United States.
Politicians are particularly keen to monitor the rate of unemployment as low unemployment lends credence to the economic policies of those in power while high unemployment stocks the arsenal of those in the opposition. Given also that entire economic dogmas such as the so-called trade-off between full employment and inflation, not to mention the generation-long post-war Keynesian consensus are, at least, part rooted in the concept of unemployment, one would expect unemployment to be a unique and important category in economic theory.
This short essay will not explore in detail the state induced causes or aggravations of unemployment such as the minimum wage and excessive regulations heaped upon the shoulders of employers. Such topics have been examined countless times over by many economists, “Austrian” or otherwise. Rather, what we wish to concentrate on here is the validity of the very term “unemployment” itself and to determine whether it is really a useful concept in shaping so-called “economic policy” or whether it is really redundant and meaningless.
In the first place, as “Austrians” we must be highly suspicious of any concept that is an aggregation and is not explicitly linked to any notion of individual human action. All voluntary actions are, as we know, the result of the best choice of ends available with scarce means. A man who has several million pounds stashed in his bank account may be content to spend all of his time in leisure and would be “unemployed”. Yet, aside from any moral wrangling over the worth of such a lifestyle, we would hardly view this as a problem. But what about those lesser privileged folk – the ones who are not working but nevertheless have the outward appearance of needing an income from some kind of employment? Shouldn’t we classify these people as “unemployed” and doesn’t this state of unemployment indicate an egregious case of market failure?
The question turns on whether employment at the terms of the available opportunities is worthwhile for the individual person. If there are jobs available yet he refuses to accept them then it indicates that he is not satisfied with the terms of those opportunities. Perhaps it is the wrong industry, the office or factory is in wrong the place, or – most likely – the wage offered isn’t high enough for him. He therefore chooses to abstain and holds out for a better opportunity to appear in the future. From the point of view of individual satisfaction with the scarce means available, the outcome of seeming “unemployment” is therefore optimal.
Indeed, a person’s labour, like anything else, is a resource that is available for an individual to use. Not all resources are deployed 100% of the time. Everyone, for example, owns possessions that are not being used at the current moment – food in the fridge, clothes in the wardrobe, books and DVDs on the shelf, etc. Clearly it would be wasteful – nay, ridiculous – to try and use all of these “unemployed” resources at once. They are more valuable being kept in abeyance ready for utilisation when an opportune moment appears, i.e. when the person believes that use of them would yield more benefit than leaving them idle.
More widely, there are always buildings to let, oil in the ground, trees that are left standing, water in lakes and reservoirs, and so on. All of these resources remain idle because an opportunity valuable enough for deploying them has not yet arisen. Indeed, consistent requirement for all resources to be utilised would mean that shops should be empty of all goods as they have already been purchased and consumed, and ultimately everything in the world should be consumed right now. Similarly, a person actively searching for the right job is not, in his mind, unemployed in the sense of carrying out a wasteful activity.
The inability to see labour as a resource that is deployed at the choosing of the individual labourer leads to many related fallacies and reveals the dangers of looking only at surface phenomena and appearance. An individual does not view employment as an end itself – work for work’s sake. Rather, all employment is action aimed at diverting scarce means available to their most highly valued ends. Employment per se is not a goal or achievement. No one would dig a hole in the ground and fill it up again unless the act of doing so led to a valuable end. States and people succumb to the illusion of economic activity brought about by “employment” and the apparent lack of it by “unemployment”, with any focus on providing “full employment” never stopping to ask whether the activity in which employment will be created is either worthwhile or pointless.
The most grievous example of this is, of course, the forced lowering of interest rates to provoke an artificial investment boom. There will be lots of employment, everyone will be engaged in lots of activity and wages will be rising rapidly. But it is clear that everyone’s endeavours are ultimately wasteful and lie on a doomed path. So-called full employment policies are therefore nothing more than a surface coating to prevent social unrest, to make people feel as though they are doing something worthwhile and to put money into their hands that they can spend. To the extent that these actions create no new wealth, however, they should properly be regarded as welfare and not as employment. The wheels may be turning but the carriage goes nowhere and it is simply expending fuel on motionless activity. Far more difficult would be for governments to concentrate on policies that promote full production instead of full employment as this would, of course, require a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of state power and interference.
We submit, therefore, that unemployment is a meaningless concept, at least when applied to the unfettered free market. It may have some relevance in economies where states impede the ability of the supply of labour to meet demand through minimum wages and the like. Apart from shutting out a good number of low-productive persons from the labour market entirely, such interferences ultimately distort people’s views as to which terms of employment are achievable – they hold out for high wages because there is the illusion that such wages represent the worth of their labour. They do not realise, however, that supply is unwilling to meet demand at that inflated level and hence their search for employment is in vain. All of this, however, is simply a particular application of price theory. If the price of any good is fixed too high it will remain unemployed. There is, therefore, no special concept of unemployment applying only to labour that attracts a different body of theory.
Furthermore, the whole question of “nominal rigidity” or so-called “sticky wages” is beside the point when it comes to economic theory. If the demand for a particular good – in this case, labour – should drop it is entirely open for the particular labourers to express incredulity at this fact and to stubbornly hold out for wages that will never meet a willing demand. This is not, however, evidence of the market’s “failure to clear”. It means simply that the supply curve remains stuck to the left.
There is a wider misconception that the market is “efficient” because it “values” everything correctly – a doctrine that underpins so-called “efficient market hypothesis”. But the “efficiency” of the market – the nexus of voluntary exchanges between individual people – comes from its superior ability to channel goods to where they are most highly valued; it has nothing to do with whether a good should be valued or whether any particular valuation is correct. A good could be utterly useless but if a significant enough people chase a small supply it will command a relatively high price. The market will place this ware in the hands of those who value it the most, but the source of that value is the human mind and this valuation can be, and often is, erroneous. If, therefore, people remain unemployed, holding out for unrealistically high wages, the fault lies in their incorrect assessment of the value of their labour, not in any market failure.
Needless to say, of course, the causes of these erroneous valuations are usually state interferences. It is because the state creates such macroeconomic calamity that price bubbles and collapses occur, and so-called “sticky prices” are a phenomenon associated with post-boom deflations. Having become accustomed to high wages, it is natural for workers to become frustrated and resistant when supply for these wages suddenly dries up, and they not only have to face the prospect of lower wages but also a mass shift out of the capital goods industries – where they may have developed significant, specialist skills in the meantime – to consumer goods industries. In a genuine free market it is highly unlikely that workers would be faced with these problems.
However, none of this really has much to do with economic theory, the purpose of which is to expound the formal characteristics of human action rather than the substance of those actions. Rather, sticky wages is more a topic for psychology, the field of human action that studies why people make the valuations that they do.
We conclude, therefore, by emphasising that there is no special category of “unemployment” as it applies solely to labour. Any “unemployment” of labour is explained either as the willing choice of the individual worker to withhold his labour from the market (and thus, to him, the best possible outcome), or as the result of government price fixing which is merely a particular instance of the economic effects of that wider category of interference.
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This concludes the series on economic myths. Hopefully readers have found the information useful in rebutting some of the most popular and persistent economic untruths.