I have always found something a little bit paradoxical about the whole issue of unemployment. When unemployment is high, we often say there's no work available. This is a problem, of course, because without work, the unemployed cannot earn the money needed for food, shelter, clothing and so forth. Therein lies the paradox, because it seems to me that if there are people without adequate food, clothing and shelter, there's work to be done: people to feed, clothe and shelter.
So the problem isn't really unemployment itself; if there were really no work to be done, then we'd all have cause to celebrate, relax, engage in leisure activities and so forth. Rather, unemployment is a market problem; no one is willing or able to pay for the work that needs to be done. Or more generally, it's a distortion introduced by a market system that only measures value in certain ways.
Let me be clear: I'm not condemning free market capitalism here. Any economic system involving more than one participant will introduce some kind of market distortion, and the overall gains in productivity and general welfare that accrue from free markets usually outweigh the costs of the distortions, often by a huge margin. But it does seem obvious that we can make our system better in various ways, some of which I expect I'll talk about in future posts.
Talking about unemployment is further complicated, though, by some unconscious biases associated with the work ethic, which made perfect sense in a time when communities desperately needed every available hand to help out bringing in the harvest, threshing the grain, and with countless other tasks that needed to be done to ensure people wouldn't starve that winter. It was entirely appropriate to condemn idleness, when there was so much work to be done. And, to be sure, laziness is still properly considered a vice (of which I am dreadfully guilty).
This attitude, condemning idleness as a moral failing, is rather misplaced in our current economy, and I suspect it gets in the way somewhat when we try to think about solutions, because it attaches a stigma to unemployment that is inconsistent with the economic reality. We just don't need everyone to help out with the harvest anymore to ensure that no one starves this winter. And as the enormous growth in the labour-efficiency of agriculture spreads to manufacturing and other industries, it's actually possible in principle to support the entire population at a reasonably high standard of living on the labour of a relatively small number of people. So the historical reason for condemning idleness is now irrelevant.
That's not to say I believe a few people should support the rest of us, free of charge. That would be unfair to the few working, and bad for the freeloaders' psychological health as well. However, there's clearly something wrong when large numbers of people have only their labour to sell, and no one's buying.