Monday, July 21, 2008

Work is freedom?

Daily Telegraph: Jobless to be made to pick up litter under welfare plans

The government is proposing that those who have been on unemployment benefits for two years should be required to work full time in the community.

This is the kind of no-nonsense proposal that is sure to appeal to a lot of people. It seems a very moral notion; it is hardly seems right for people to be getting something for nothing.

Strangely it is often people who generally support free-market economics that advocate ideas like this. Yet in doing so they must abandon sound principles.

Either the work that is done will be useful work or not. If it is useless work, it will simply create bureaucratic activity ensuring it is carried out with no productive benefits gained.

On the other hand, if the work is useful work, it could be carried out by private enterprises that would do so efficently. Perhaps it might be work that is already being carried out by government employees, in which case we can expect that local government would make savings by firing those who are already doing the work. Thus, some government employees might find themselves out of the job and then doing the same job again for less. This might save the government money, but inevitably the work done would be of a lesser quality.

The assumption behind this proposal is that making unemployed people do work would deter them from living off benefits. However, is this really the case? It is unlikely that the work would be more demanding than that carried out by unskilled, low-paid workers. Why should people choose to take on a low-paid, unskilled job when they could be living off benefits and just doing some community service overseen by some goverment employee who does not care at all how many cigarette breaks they take? I am sure this scheme would actually cost more money than just paying the unemployed people benefits. I do not think this scheme does anything at all to remove the poverty trap of social security that discentivizes people from seeking employment.

I think the idea would also create a problem with regard to criminal justice. Community service is a useful punishment for minor offenders. But how would community service be a punishment if the offenders were already being made to do community service as a condition of receiving benefits?

I think the government would do better to radically re-think social security and introduce an Individual Basic Income.

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