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. Read more
During an economic malaise one of the endless reams of statistics to which pundits glue their eyes is the number of jobs that are either created or destroyed. The state makes “job creation” a central plank of its economic policy to put people back to work, and the impression that more people are being hired and fewer fired buoys their hubristic impression that we must be on the road to recovery.
In the first place, we might as well point out that, for as long as humans strive to create more wealth, there will never be a shortage of demand for productive work. Labour is the ultimate scarce commodity – however much machinery we have and whatever our state of technological progress there is no production process that does not require an input of labour (any such process which did not require labour would essentially be producing free goods). Thus, the phenomenon of involuntary unemployment is made possible only by the artificial costs and restrictions that the state places upon employers – such as minimum wages, health and safety laws, working time restrictions, taxes, compulsory national insurance contributions, etc. – which mean that employers and employees cannot work together on terms that are acceptable to them. This is on top of the distortions and upheavals of state-induced business cycles which create clusters of bankruptcies and redundancies in the first place.
That aside, however, the obsession with jobs is another example of the error of looking at an isolated aspect of economic achievement rather than at the entire picture – much like trying to boost consumption in order to further growth which we explored in myth #2. Read more