A Conservative Defense of a Jobs Guarantee Program

Published on naked capitalism (first on New Economic Perspectives), by John Henry, Professor of Economics at UMKC, August 25, 2012.

… Now, it is clear that any large property holdings — giant farms, the modern corporation, etc, – violate the spoilage constraint. Locke himself was aware that there was a problem in his formulation in that, if adhered to, the capitalist accumulation process could not proceed. (He tried to wiggle out of his self-imposed dilemma by arguing that the accumulation of money—gold for him—was morally permissible as it didn’t violate either the prejudice or the spoilage constraints; anyone could accumulate money, and money (gold) didn’t spoil. 

For a critical evaluation of Locke’s proposed solution, see Bell, Henry, and Wray 2004.) The main issue addressed here is whether unemployment violates the prejudice constraint, thus calling the continued adherence to a private property regime into question. If so, from a purely Lockean standard, then government must undertake a program to guarantee full employment in the interests of society as a whole—and this is a moral obligation.

It must be noted that Locke was arguing from what is now a politically conservative position. In his day, Locke was considered something of a radical, but with the passage of time, private property has become ingrained in our institutions and our habits of thought that it might be said to have become sanctified as a necessary condition for our very existence—the essence of “freedom.” So, from a modern conservative position, what follows should be seen as consistent with Locke’s defense of property, and, again, Locke continues to be called on as a seminal reference point in current debates.

It is clear that in a modern capitalist society, most of the non-propertied segment of society—overwhelmingly the majority of the population—is dependent on the private (propertied) sector for employment, thus income, thus well-being. There is, however, nothing in the arrangements of a modern economy to guarantee that the private sector will offer enough jobs to satisfy the needs of the non-propertied for work. (Nor, for that matter, that the wages offered will satisfy the needs associated with well-being.) Indeed, the normal case is that there is always some amount of unemployment; “full” employment (however determined) is exceptional and conventionally attendant to large-scale wars—when a goodly part of the labor force is sent out to kill and be killed.  As the non-propertied (workers) are dependent on the propertied to provide them with employment, and if that employment is not forthcoming, then workers are “prejudiced” by the existence of private property: the “social contract” between the propertied and non-propertied has been violated; not all are advantaged by the arrangement.

This also calls into question the issues surrounding the spoilage constraint. Should some acquire property that is more than they can use in exerting their own labor, if he “. . . took more than his share, and robb’d others” (Locke, p. 318), others were denied the use of the spoiled output resulting from privatization and were thus “prejudiced.” Spoilage offends “. . . the common Law of nature,” and the property owner “was liable to be punished” for “he had no Right, farther than his Use called for . . .” (Ibid, 313; emphasis in original). Locke, if consistent, would oppose large-scale holdings. A Lockean solution to this issue would be the imposition of a Jeffersonian-style democracy where all would be independent small farmers, artisans, etc. But this is not capitalism, in which a class of property owners hires a class of non-propertied workers. (Indeed, we seem to be moving in a direction quite the opposite of that which Locke would find legitimate. Recent rulings which permit private oil and gas companies to use eminent domain in their own interests and cause great “prejudice” to be heaped on the non-propertied as well as those with small property holdings—the environmental, health, and other forms of damage inflicted by “fracking,” the construction of pipelines, etc.—represent an abrogation of the moral responsibility of government. See reader supported news rsn) … //

… Would John Locke approve? If one takes him at his word, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” When unemployment is seen as a “prejudice” resulting from the normal behavior of a propertied regime, government has the moral  obligation to rectify the problem. And this is a politically conservative position.
(full text and references).

Links:

Embracing the Wind, Part 1: Denmark’s Recipe for a Model Democracy, on Spiegel Online International, by Manfred Ertel and Gerald Traufetter, August 24, 2012 (and Photo-Gallery);
Part 2: A Miracle of Modern Politics;
Part 3: Prioritizing Consensus;

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