Dogma Premise 2
Social Safety Nets reduce productivity by making unemployment less onerous, thereby limiting the amount of discipline that owners can impose on workers to achieve maximum productivity.
A social “safety net” provides a minimal living to those unable to support themselves.
There are many unchallenged reasons to provide food and shelter for displaced workers. For example, economic conditions may reduce the amount of paid work without reducing the number of workers. Or some skills may become obsolete faster than the new skills are required or can be developed. In either case, structural unemployment results through no fault of the workers. Providing for their needs during the period of economic dislocation makes all kinds of moral and practical sense, and is a primary purpose of the social safety net.
Opposition to the social safety net primarily stems from the worry that payments will go to people who could work, but choose not to because they would prefer to meet their basic needs without additional labor.
This concern is curious in two respects. First, it does not seem inevitable that work be so odious that a strong degree of compulsion would be necessary to ensure participation (SEE DOGMA PREMISE X). Second, although modern society is ruled by social obligations -- laws govern nearly everything we do -- no other obligation besides employment is compelled by the threat of starvation or homelessness.
As for the method of compulsion, why do we not treat employment like the rest of our social contract? For example, we do not require that people drive motor vehicles, but if they do so they must obey the driving laws, obtain insurance, and pay a vehicle registration fee.
Could we not say equally that one need not participate in our society, but if one wishes to live here -- which means to enjoy the benefits of parks, roads, libraries, fire service, environmental protection, easy availability of fresh produce, and more -- then one must work each day to make possible all the good and services our economy creates -- or else be imprisoned or banished.
Imprisonment for indolence is an alien notion to one conditioned to accept the work-or-starve dilemma that most Americans face, but we are not unfamiliar with it. For example, in times of war the United States has imposed upon its citizens a “draft,” and made them work in the most hazardous of military jobs upon penalty of imprisonment.
This is not to advocate for the draft, but simply to note that such a system of required labor is entirely workable, and has been used in the past when there were important but difficult jobs that could not be filled voluntarily. Indeed, the United States uses the draft system in the present as well -- we see National Guard and military “reserves” repeatedly compelled to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan in support of a long-term military occupation, with no concern about the quality or quantity of their work.
A legal requirement to work sounds more restrictive of personal freedom than does the private employment and wage system. But if the risk of unemployment is starvation and homelessness, then the level of compulsion in both systems is equal, at least for those without means.
And so we see the main difference between the two systems: forced labor affects everyone equally, whereas the private employment system is most coercive to the poor, and not at all coercive to the very wealthy, who can reliably enjoy all of life’s necessities and many luxuries as well, even if they do no work at all.
It is important to note that even though the wealthy do not have to work, they mostly in fact do have jobs, careers, or public or philanthropic endeavors to which they devote much time and energy. We will return to this curious fact in DOGMA PREMISE X.
If the presence of the social safety net has no effect on the wealthy, the converse is that the social safety net mostly benefits the poor, by slightly reducing the degree of compulsion to work. Instead of starving to death, an unemployed person may at least count on a way to survive.
Landing in the social safety net, however, is not the same as landing in the lap of luxury. Today’s subsidy in the U.S. barely provides for subsistence, and covers only the lowest quality of food, clothing, and housing, with little or no privilege for entertainment, travel, education, or luxuries.
So much do people covet improvements in food, clothing, lodging, and the right to own a few nice things that no one would probably choose such an austere lifestyle unless the labor option were truly odious or if they were unable to work at all. Indeed, most people manage to find something they can do that will earn them more than enough to survive.
Properly understood, then, the social safety net is part of a regressive system that coerces labor from the poor, but not from the wealthy, and does so with harsh penalties only a step above starvation and destitution. Attacks on the social safety net from the right constitute an attempt to further increase the penalties of unemployment.
If the worst employment opportunities include grueling hours, mind-numbing work, harsh conditions, no autonomy, and minimal compensation, then perhaps workers would agree to participate only if their lives were at stake. In that case, removing the social safety net could increase worker participation in employment.
However, this suggests that the presence of the social safety net is not a general drag on economic productivity, but only reduces worker productivity in the most extremely coercive situations. Similarly its absence would not increase worker productivity generally, but would serve only to expand the opportunity for employers to impose upon labor extremely coercive conditions.
Therefore, it would seem that the theory of the social safety net impairing productivity is entirely backward. The problem to be solved isn’t how to mitigate the negative effects of the social safety net upon labor, but instead how to eliminate the onerous labor conditions that make the social safety net attractive to anyone.
And this brings us back to the first point: most wealthy people are relatively industrious, and involved themselves deeply in business, political, social, or philanthropic causes in roles that typically command a salary. This is because people are naturally inclined to apply their talents to meaningful work, as Abraham Maslow famously described.
The false assumption that people are intrinsically lazy (see Dogma Premise #1), then, is also implicit in the logic of Dogma Premise #2, that people will not work unless coerced. A proper understanding of human nature will find that the key to increased productivity is not to impose upon the workers ever more onerous dilemmas between terrifying options, but to make work more meaningful and better managed.
There are many ways to achieve this -- one of which would be to make it a priority to minimize the very worst work through automation, and then share around the remainder broadly so that nobody suffered much.
Capitalism routinely achieves the opposite result, by empowering the wealthy to first exempt themselves from coerced labor, and then to impose the worst jobs on those with the fewest options. The bias toward this harsh and unnecessary outcome -- which is neither morally fair nor economically efficient -- is betrayed by the suggestion in Dogma Premise #2 that removing the social safety net will make workers more productive. The details of a social safety net involve levels of coercion, not productivity. There are other, better ways to ensure productivity, and the connection between coercion and productivity is dubious at best, except when the job is sufficiently simple and odious that only coercion can get it done.
In that event, the proper remedy is not coercion of the poor by the wealthy, but a collective decision in the national interest, such as a draft.