Unemployment, well-being and capitalism
The call for “joined up government” is an old one. It should apply - but doesn’t - to the coalition’s attitude to the unemployed.
Cameron has said: “I do believe government has the power to improve wellbeing.” If this is so, then you’d expect a big part of public policy to focus upon how to improve the well-being of the unemployed. This is because these are, on average, significantly unhappier than other people - even the divorced - and it is probably easier to make the unhappy averagely content than it is to make the happy ecstatic.
But the coalition is not obviously solicitous towards the well-being of the unemployed. It prioritizes placating ratings agencies over creating jobs; its lackeys insult those who have suffered unemployment; it harasses the unemployed into workfare even though such schemes are of questionable efficacy; and it does little to combat a mindset that sees the poor, rather than poverty, as disgusting.
This inconsistency between a concern for well-being and a lack of concern for the unemployed is not, however, simply an intellectual failing. It reflects the fact that capitalism* requires that there be not just unemployment but that the unemployed be unhappy. I say so for three reasons:
1. Capitalism requires an excess supply of labour in order to bid down wage growth and industrial militancy. When Norman Lamont said unemployment was a “price well worth paying” to get wage inflation down, he was just blurting out the truth seen by Kalecki 50 years earlier - that “unemployment is an integral part of the 'normal' capitalist system.”
2. Capitalism needs the unemployed to look for work - to be an effective supply of labour. This requires that they be “incentivized” to seek jobs by meagre unemployment benefits and by being stigmatized. In other words, the unemployed must be made unhappy.
3. Blaming the unemployed for their plight serves a two-fold function in legitimating capitalism. It distracts attention from the fact that unemployment is caused by structural failings in capitalism, sometimes magnified by policy error. And in promoting the cognitive bias which says that individuals are the makers of their own fate, it invites the inference that, just as the poor deserve their poverty, so the rich deserve their wealth.
In short, in terms of attitudes and policies towards the unemployed, there is an ineliminable tension between capitalism and the promotion of well-being.
* Note to right-libertarians. By “capitalism” I do NOT mean “free market economy” but rather a system in which large companies are run for profit by hierarchical structures for the benefit of a minority of people (which only sometimes includes shareholders).