Why we have unemployment

We have unemployment because our agricultural surplus is such that we don’t need for everyone to be “working”.  More important issues are who decides how to use the surplus and how is it distributed.

This post was prompted by a question on Reddit asking why we have unemployment.  It’s an important  question because unemployment can be devastating.

The agricultural surplus is the food produced by workers which exceeds their own needs.   This surplus means some/many people can do things other than produce food.  In our society we have used this surplus to produce a wide range of goods and services which have themselves become a part of the surplus.  Unemployment is an indicator of how rich we are.

Think of a small group of hunters/fishers and gathers on a small island where the living is so easy food and shelter requires only and hour or two a day.  By our terms these people would have a high unemployment rate.  Distribution of food would probably not be a problem as they would probably share their produce but they would have to decide what to do with all the spare time.

This model could get  complicated if they had lots of children and increased their population to the limits of the available food.  It would still take only an hour or two a day to harvest the food even though there wasn’t enough for everybody.

In such a small society distribution of food would be by sharing.  I know an anthropologist who did his field work in such a society and he said you could not buy food there.  Whatever one needed was shared.  What to do with the “free” time would probably be up to individuals with collective activities partly by consensus.

Modern technology, especially that applied to agriculture, gives us the same magnitude of surplus.  We too could be approaching the limits of our ability to produce food.

We too have to decide how to share the produce and what to do with the time. So far these decisions have been influenced by our commitment to the work ethic.  Everyone should spend most of their time working and their share of the surplus should come in the form of wages.

As our exchange of goods and services is facilitated by money the decision-making goes with the money.  To the extent that a person has money one can decide how the surplus will be used.  So the more equally money is distributed the more decision-making will equal. The ancient Egyptians did not use money and it appears the pharaohs decided the surplus would be used to build burial chambers.

In the industrial economies we do not need full employment but we do need a more equitable way of distributing the surplus.  With the ups and downs of the economy full employment may not be a realistic goal.  There are lots of things people could do that would be satisfying but which do not contribute to gross national product.

I believe a universal income scheme would give us a more equitable distribution  of the agricultural surplus.  If we are approaching the limit of our ability to produce food, it might provide a more equitable way of dealing with shortages.   It would also spread the decision-making among more people.

Unemployment can be financially and psychologically  devastating for the people who experience it.   But it is not the real problem.  The urgent problems are an equitable distribution of the agricultural surplus and how it is to be used.


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The complexities and limitations of freedom

We value “freedom”  so much that people have lost their “freedom” by fighting to death for it.  But it is a complex concept with lots of limitations.

This post was inspired by an article on economic freedom with a nice graph showing we now have more economic freedom than we have ever had..  I was too lazy to try to figure it out but it did get me thinking.

Definitions are sometimes fuzzy. For for this post there are two aspects to freedom.  There is the freedom to make decisions and to act accordingly and there is the freedom from having to do what others tell us.

The main factor affecting our freedom is the agricultural surplus because that relieves us of the drudgery of producing or gathering or hunting for food.  The less time we use for food the more time we have with which to do what we want or which other people want us to do.  If the agricultural surplus per person were to decrease we may find ourselves with less freedom.

Freedom varies in different parts of our lives.  In British Columbia we have freedom of religion and can attend any church of our choosing – or mostly not.  However, we are required by law to educate our children.  The options are home schooling, a few expensive  private schools (mostly religious) or public schools (in effect a monopoly) over which we have very little say.  So we have freedom of religion but very little freedom as to how we educate our children.

Here are some of the things which limit our ability to make and act on decisions.

Our own values, morals and religion.  If your religion tells you salvation comes from work, then that limits your right to goof off.  The work ethic is part of many people’s belief system but it is also very much in the interests of people who want others to work for them.

The values, morals and religion of other people.  The most evil of all people are those who try to force their values, morals and religion upon others.  Unfortunately my belief in this evil does not stop others from trying and often succeeding.  The greatest evil comes when these people get into government.

Politicians and their bureaucrats sometimes like to tell the rest of us how to live and our commitment to the “rule of law” gives them means to do so.  Try to sell unpasteurized milk in Canada and you will probably have a rule of law learning experience.

At least in the industrial countries many people worry, and probably rightly so, about their pensions and their well-being in retirement.  This could be a natural need for security or it could be a result of marketing by the financial industry.  In any case it limits our freedom to do things that do not contribute to a pension plan such as extended travel or going to live in the forest.  The problem is that our well-being in retirement will depend up on the quantity of goods and services the economy is capable of producing at that time.  Pensions and savings are vulnerable to inflation or bankruptcy.

Economics is about relationships and relationships can  be both supportive of freedom or restrictive.  I believe relationships are most satisfactory when there is a more or less equal exchange but there is no law which states that relationships have to be satisfactory.  Relationships are as complex as the personalities of the participants.  The key to happiness may be in finding a partner whose personality compliments our own.

I have long believed that little girls should not be allowed to play with dolls because they learn that they can have relationships in which they have total control over actions and thoughts.  When they grow up this tends to limit the freedom of their husbands.  Us guys have to learn to be assertive.

It may be that some people can’t cope with a lot of freedom and seek out life situations where their right to make their own decisions is limited.  Erich Fromm was concerned about populations giving up political freedom to dictators and wrote a book in 1941 called Escape From Freedom.

There are people who feel they have the right to tell others how to live their lives and these people limit the freedom of others.  There may have been times and places where these people could use force but at least is some places today force is not easy.  It is much less messy to use psychological tactics.  For example the work ethic,  fears about future security or psychological marketing can be used to encourage people to do what somebody else wants them to do.

It may be the great industrial societies in which some of us live and which we associate with freedom were in fact created because most people have given up a some of the freedom of the agricultural surplus.  Sometimes I think we have overdone the technological development and work for the sake of work although there is a lot I would not want to give up.

Freedom appears to be a complex concept which varies by individual and by the different aspects of our lives. Those of us who value the right to make our own decisions should fare reasonable well and those with a submissive personality should find it easy to meet their needs.


If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

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