As reported by Business Insider on Saturday, the Labor Department’s newly-released statistics reveal that “the number of discouraged workers … hit a record high (since 1994, the earliest year the data is available) of just over 1.3 million … .” The numbers show that, contrary to the myth of the unmotivated unemployed living off of the public dole, people without jobs want to work but are hopelessly unsuccessful in their attempts to locate gainful employment among the fabled “new jobs” created by the state.
The data, whether we fully give credence to their accuracy or not, expose a condition of earnest competition among workers for comparatively very few job opportunities. The inexorable result of these conditions is a low cost for high quality labor, with the employers in the game able to take their pick among droves of applicants. But if all of these Americans really want to work, then why can’t they? Why are there so miserably few outlets for their skills and why is their potential being wasted?
In his new study, The Great Domain of Cost-Plus: The Waste Production Economy, Kevin Carson answers those questions, showing that “the propertied and employing classes have resorted to all sorts of artificial property rights and artificial scarcities to control producers’ access to land and capital.” In doing so, the powerful winners in the state’s patronage economy are allowed to steal the wealth created by the producers and prevent them from living and working on their own terms.
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four similarly recognized this “problem of what to do with the surplus of consumption goods [that] has been latent in industrial society,” a “problem” that — of course — isn’t one at all. As both Carson and Orwell understand, leisure and self-direction for the worker are only problems for those who want to use what Orwell calls “artificial processes of destruction” to force some people to go to work to make other people rich. And that’s the state’s game, making sure that free society never realizes the plentiful tapestry of options that would mean an end to the disconnect between work and wealth.
What the state has essentially done is limit the number (and thereby the “supply”) of employers, creating a Big Business-dominated economy and controlling access to a given market to such a degree as to shackle the choices of labor within certain mandated parameters. Rothbard identified this process, the preclusion of wide open competition, as “confer[ring] a monopolistic privilege, and therefore a restrictionist price.”
Libertarians have traditionally understood and devoted particular attention to the effects of this kind of monopolization on the services customarily provided by governments. Notwithstanding that attention, though, the pervasiveness of “restrictionist” pricing in the broader economic system — particularly on labor — has been if not completely ignored then largely under-appreciated.
When workers have only the “choice” of working for Acme Corp. or MegaCo, LLC, and can’t (due to the regulatory environment) go to work for themselves or for a small co-op, their leverage is functionally removed from the bargaining process. Inasmuch as walking away from negotiations means starvation, what they’re left with is whatever scrap capital wants to toss their way, which in practice means a manufactured devaluation of work.
This operation is “the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others” that Franz Oppenheimer “called the ‘political means,’” and it’s a feature of corporate capitalism, though not of the free market’s approach of voluntary trade. Since there’s no real recourse from the unnecessarily-limited employment possibilities, the state and its advantaged friends have the rest of us over a barrel.
Fortunately, because of technology and its “network culture,” there are all sorts of new and constantly-developing ways for people who want to trade to link up and circumvent the state’s repression. If you’re looking for someone to blame for the present condition of the U.S. economy, look no further than the state and the corporate First Class. As the financial meltdown hopefully demonstrated, it’s time to stop assigning the elite’s mistakes to the luckless poor who pay their costs in sweat.