Last month the Washington Post reported, “Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will announce a plan for the federal government to guarantee a job paying $15 an hour and health-care benefits to every American worker “who wants or needs one,”…” These jobs would be the product of hundreds of government projects initiated in, “…infrastructure, care giving, the environment, education and other goals.” The projects, their costs, and how they would be financed have yet to be disclosed. While there are many economic critiques of such schemes which should be considered (See Economics in One Lesson particularly the chapters ‘Public Works Mean Taxes’, ‘Taxes Discourage Production’, and ‘Spread-the-work Schemes’) the most fundamental critique is that jobs are not simply black boxes from which wages and benefits emerge but a form of service rendered to others.
We have a tendency to reduce complex phenomena to their effects. Playing basketball becomes merely scoring points, a healthy diet becomes merely the avoidance of carbohydrates, and religion becomes merely something we do in weekly worship. Such reductions are partially true: you can’t win a basketball game without points, an all pasta diet will make you fat, and worship obligations are indeed obligatory (See Exodus 20:8-11). But these reductions are also misleading: defense wins championships, vegetables are also carbohydrates, and prayer should be unceasing (See 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Economists are not free from making these sorts of misleading reductions. Economist Arnold Kling’s excellent book, Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics, was written in part to challenge economists who see the economy as nothing more than a GDP factory to be manipulated and prodded into growth for growth’s sake. For Kling the economy isn’t simply a matter of equations but changing patterns of specialization and trade, the patterns of certain kinds of human relationships.
On an individual level many of these relationships are jobs: patterns of work paid for by employers in the form of, among other things, wages and benefits. In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life Lester DeKoster states, “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” It is precisely because the worker is useful that he is worthy of his hire. A job is not merely a wage factory.
Workers need jobs, they should want them, they should be compensated for the value of their work, and that work must also render useful service to their employers. Jobs should not exist for their own sake. Senator Sanders is right in thinking jobs are important but they are more than wage factories; jobs must be meaningful to both employer and employee and animated by a spirit of service. Bringing employers and employees together in forms of meaningful and mutual service is something that we should all strive for but government make-work programs do not foster sustainable patterns of specialization and trade.