December 10, 2018

What is a Job?

The usual chatter has begun following President Obama’s Sept. 8 call for a $417 billion government spending package designed to stimulate economic growth, create jobs, and improve the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. As always, the commentary, both pro and con, focuses on speculation about the potential results of the program.

Will this latest stimulus money actually reach “shovel-ready projects,” or will it again disappear down the black hole of state subsidies for Medicaid and education? How many jobs will the program actually create and what happens to those jobs when the program is over?
There is never any clear winner in debates like this. While the future is still unknown, Republicans will predict failure while Democrats will predict success. Once the program is over, Republicans will pronounce failure while Democrats will declare victory. The retrospective debate about the results of the program will go on until the media moves on to something else, only to be resurrected again at election time when Republicans will characterize the program as another “bridge to nowhere” while the Democrats will claim that it saved the economy.

There is rarely a definitive answer to questions about the results of government action, even after the fact. This may be one reason why most government programs never really end. The answers are much less ambiguous and elusive when the discussion is shifted from results to rights. To do that, we must answer a previous question.

What is a job?

One might assume everyone knows the answer to this apparently simple question, but I doubt it. In fact, judging by what politicians, media, and even friends and neighbors have to say about jobs and unemployment, I’m convinced almost no one in America today understands what a job really is.
As I’ve said before, a job is a transaction between a buyer and a seller. The employer is the buyer and the employee the seller, selling his services to the employer for a mutually agreed upon price. This is a voluntary transaction for both parties, just like the buying and selling of lawn mowers or breakfast cereal. The buyer offers to purchase services at the price he can afford. The seller decides whether to accept those terms or not. Both parties are free to decide not to go through with the sale at any time. Unless a specific term of employment has been agreed to, both parties are also free to cease doing business at any time. The employee can quit the job (refuse to continue selling the service) and the employer can terminate employment (refuse to continue purchasing the service).

There is only one way in which a purchaser of services can continue to employ people on an ongoing basis. The services provided by the sellers must produce products that make a profit. If the firm loses money, then the employer must increase his sales or lower his operating costs. The latter solution most often means purchasing fewer services (layoffs).

The voluntary association between buyer and seller of services (the employment contract) depends upon another voluntary association between the firm and its customers. The firm’s customers must choose to pay more for the firms products than the cost of producing them, including labor, material, rent, administration, and all other costs of production. It is that choice by customers that creates a market value for the products, for the market value is merely the amount of money the highest bidder will voluntarily pay. If no one was willing to buy the firm’s products at any price, then those products would have a market value of zero.

When the opportunity exists to sell products at a higher price than the cost of producing them, it typically attracts more than one firm, and those firms compete with each other for the customers willing to buy their products. Thus, employment opportunities become abundant in that particular industry, as more and more firms enter the market to take advantage of the opportunity.

Before the first product of any of these firms is produced, the owners must purchase the labor, materials, production facilities, equipment, and other capital goods necessary to make those first and all subsequent products. The owners purchase these capital goods and labor with savings – which are the result of consuming less than they produced over a period of time in the past. The only reason they choose to invest these savings into the venture is the opportunity for profits. Without that opportunity, they would consume their savings in the present or hold them for security against future misfortune instead of risking losing them by starting the new firm.

As long as there are customers willing to buy the products the firm produces, the model is self-sustaining and productive. From a societal view, both the owners and employees of the firm and the customers are adding more goods and services to society. Remember, the customers are only able to buy the firm’s products because of the products they’ve produced and sold to their customers, including employers. Just like the firm, they must produce products other people are willing to buy voluntarily. This is what gives them their purchasing power.

There is one word that sums up the entire process of economic growth and job creation: choice. The market price of products, the wage levels that can be sustained in the production of those products, the number of people that can be employed, and the quantity of products that can be produced all depend upon the ability for economic agents to make rational choices in their own self-interest. Without freedom of choice, there can be no market, no division of labor, no prices, and ultimately no jobs. It is the degree to which all economic agents are free to make the best choices they can that determines how productive, efficient, and prosperous an economy will be.

All of this goes out the window the minute one begins talking about the government “creating jobs.” By definition, nothing the government does allows any individual freedom of choice. This is where most people get confused, because they imagine the government to be a wealthy benefactor with money of its own. This misconception is reinforced when President Obama (and neither he nor the Democrats are by any means alone on this) refer to government spending programs as “investment.” It all sounds very prudent and morally sound until one considers what is really going on.

Whenever the government “invests” in a particular industry, whether it is producing “green” cars, bridges, buildings or roads, it is overriding the choices made by customers in the past. What customers and what choices? The choice by taxpayers not to purchase that car, bridge, building or road. As we’ve seen, when there are people willing to buy products at a price higher than the cost of producing them, there are entrepreneurs ready to take advantage of that opportunity and the products get produced. They do not choose to do this in order to help society, but to help themselves. Nevertheless, they do help society by producing the needed or wanted products and employing the people necessary for that production.


Not only are taxpayers forced to purchase products they have previously chosen not to buy, but the entire nature of the employment contract is fundamentally changed. No longer does an employer purchase services from an employee for the sole purpose of realizing a return on his capital investment. Now, the taxpayer is forced to purchase the services of the employee, with no hope of a return. The best he can hope for is somewhere a bridge, building or road he had previously chosen not to purchase gets built. Meanwhile, the employer is able to make profits that would otherwise be unavailable to him, because the government has forced taxpayers to pay at least part of his operating costs.

While society does get a new car, bridge, building or road, the value of those products is lower than the cost of producing them. This is why government-created jobs end as soon as the government stimulus money is removed. If the products produced and the jobs related to producing them were economically viable, entrepreneurs would already be creating them. Therefore, government-created jobs actually make society poorer, because they result in products worth less than the cost of producing them. Ironically, politicians will often boast that they created more jobs than their opponents, which actually means they created more poverty than their opponents.

By definition, all government spending comes from savings, because it is wealth produced by economic agents but not consumed. Therefore, government-created jobs actually destroy capital, as no self-sustaining production or profits result from that capital investment. Not only is that capital wasted and destroyed on the unproductive temporary jobs, but it is no longer available to create other jobs producing products people would voluntarily buy. In terms of the economic harm caused by government stimulus, this is only the tip of the iceberg. For more, read Peter Schiff’s testimony to Congress on this subject as well as one of his primary sources, Bastiat’s That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen.

Once you understand what a job really is, a lot of what you hear about jobs from politicians and the media sounds completely outlandish. You may hear it stated that everyone has a right to a job, but that can’t be true. How can anyone have a right to force other people to buy their products? If such a right existed, then no company would ever go bankrupt. Whenever it began losing money, it would simply appeal to the government to protect its right to force people to buy from it.

More often you will hear that everyone has a right to “a living wage,” but this makes no more sense. The price of any product in a free society is the result of mutual agreement between the buyer and the seller. Either party has the right not to make an exchange if they are not satisfied with the price. Government interventions like minimum wages interfere with this right. In fact, it is the seller of services (employee) whose rights are more infringed by minimum wages laws, which prevent him from selling his services below a certain price even if he wishes to. That anyone believes the government has a legitimate authority to set an arbitrary price level and then forcibly prohibit people from selling their services at a lower price speaks volumes about how little we value freedom in the land of the free.

No, the supposed right to a job or the right to forcibly fix the price of a job are not real rights. They both involve initiating the use of force against other people and no one has a right to do that. In fact, the true rights at issue with this program are the rights of the unwilling buyers of these services, the taxpayers. They have a right not to be forced to buy goods or services against their will. Yet violating this right is the only way any government can ever create a single job. That the only debate between either major party is over how the government can create jobs, rather than whether the government should attempt to create jobs, reinforces that liberty is not even a consideration in the formulation of federal government policy.

Yet, it is its own colossal trampling of liberty in a thousand other ways that has created the economic malaise the government is attempting to respond to right now. If we ever want to see those unemployed people get back to work, we have to understand what a job is and how and why jobs are created. Then, the government’s part in the solution becomes clear: start securing our rights instead of violating them and stop wasting our money in the misguided attempt to create jobs.

The Government Can’t Create Jobs (And It Shouldn’t Try To)

As the November elections approach, politicians are doing what politicians do best: making promises. President Obama’s anti-business image, justified or not, will not score points with voters this year as unemployment continues to court 10% on the government’s math and 20% in the real world. With these figures virtually unchanged since he took office, the president has been unable to sell the idea that his economic policies have created any jobs. So, he is doing the best he can with the hand that he has dealt himself and trumpeting the millions of jobs his policies have “created or saved.” In addition, he has rolled out yet another boondoggle from the Keynsian toolbox in the form of a $50 billion infrastructure package designed to stimulate the economy and finally create some actual jobs.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are gearing up for what should amount to shooting fish in a barrel in the coming mid-term elections, getting incredible traction on criticizing Obama policies which largely mirror those of George W. Bush, for which he and the Republicans were tossed out of office just two years ago. They correctly point out that Obama’s policies haven’t created a single job. Americans must put them back into office or face economic Armageddon. Polls show that Americans are largely buying what the Republicans are selling, having apparently forgotten the “jobless recovery” of the early part of the last decade, which occurred while the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

The truth is that neither the Republicans’ “supply-side economics” nor the Democrats “demand-side economics” have ever really created any jobs. Certainly, the housing boom successfully put some people to work in the homebuilding industry for a few years. However, when that bubble popped there was nowhere for those people to go. The Democrats’ success seems to have been limited to the 600,000 or so people that took jobs with the census bureau. Unfortunately, the demand for people counting won’t sustain a census-driven recovery. Obama’s latest act of political desperation isn’t getting much traction with anyone – even liberal talking heads are finding it hard to get behind another supposed “infrastructure” program, especially one that pales in comparison (in terms of dollars) to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was long on investment and short on recovery.

So, if neither supply-side nor demand-side economics work, if neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a program that will actually create jobs that will outlast the average car loan, where else can we look for an answer?

Perhaps we should reconsider exactly what it is that we are asking the government to do. People of all political persuasions talk about “creating jobs” as if there were no question that the government should be trying to create them, the only question being what program will create the most jobs, the highest paying jobs, or the longest lasting jobs. This is just another in an endless series of false dichotomies that accompany every election year, when voters are served up a “debate” that is framed to include two undesirable alternatives, with no acknowledgment that there may be a third. On job creation, that third alternative is this: the government can’t create jobs, regardless of whether conservatives or liberals are at the controls, and moreoever, it shouldn’t try to create jobs.

Amidst the noise surrounding an election year, it is easy to forget the obvious. Before deciding what to do about unemployment, let’s answer a few fundamental questions. The first one is, “What is a job?”

A job is an agreement between a buyer and a seller that involves an exchange of private property. The buyer is the employer, the seller, the employee. The two parties reach an agreement wherein the buyer will purchase a specific service from the seller at a mutually agreed upon price. This simple fact does not change whether the employee is selling his services as a brain surgeon or a custodian. In each case, the buyer has a need for the seller’s services and the seller is willing to sell those services to the buyer if the buyer is offering the market price or better. The most important aspect of this transaction is that it occurs with the mutual, voluntary consent of both buyer and seller. This is the only way in which a job can be created.

When people are perfectly free to dispose of their labor as they see fit, including their unconsumed labor in the past (their savings or capital), there is a natural coordination in the labor and capital markets that results in people and resources being used most efficiently to meet the demand of consumers. People are not employed to produce products that consumers don’t want or can’t afford because employers are risking their own money and livelihoods and therefore must invest their capital (savings) in projects that will be profitable. Neither do most employers prefer to invest in temporary projects that will end in six months or a few years, because they would then have to take the risk of starting a whole new business. Neither employers nor employees are ever 100% correct, but for the most part they make the right choices because they stand to gain or lose personally based upon those choices. These natural market forces regulate the market, based entirely upon the voluntary choices of employers, employees, and the consumers who buy their products.

However, when the government attempts to create a job, all of these natural forces are removed. The market has produced no demand for the government-created job. In other words, no buyer has voluntarily agreed to purchase those services, because to do so under current market conditions would be unprofitable. Were it profitable to hire someone to do the government-created job, an employer would have done so voluntarily. So, the government steps in and forces the taxpayer to purchase those services against his will. In additional to violating the taxpayer’s rights, the entire coordination that existed between employer, employee, and consumer is disrupted.

A typical response to this argument from the left would probably revolve around how the profit motive and the greed of employers is what kept the person unemployed. However, this argument begs the question: Why were these greedy employers unable to make a profit from employing this person?

The answer is that the services of the employee were not demanded by employers because the products that would be produced as a result were not demanded by consumers. If consumers were willing and able to buy the products that the employer and employee would have produced together related to this job, then there would be no need for the government to create it. By overriding the choices of consumers and forcing them to purchase those services for the employer, the government not only engages in a theft, but causes vast resources to be devoted to producing products that no one will eventually buy. Thus, when the government “investment” in the job is spent, the job no longer exists. It generates no revenue on its own to allow it continue to exist.

To use one of the favorite buzz words of the progressive left, government-created jobs are unsustainable. They are all doomed to fail by their very nature because they attempt to set aside economic laws that cannot be set aside. Commerce cannot exist without voluntary choice. Government job programs attempt to override the choices of capitalists on what to invest in and the choices of consumers on what to consume. This is what produces millions of empty homes, food shortages born of miracle energy programs, and mass amounts of people unemployed. Worst of all, these programs destroy the capital that otherwise would have created real jobs that were demanded by the market. This is not because private investors are more noble creatures than government bureaucrats, but because their own livelihoods depend upon investing that capital wisely and profitably.

While it is easy to see how this argument applies to the government spending programs that are presently more associated with the Democrats, one should not forget that the Republicans’ ideas are no less wealth redistribution and no less destructive to the economy. Most arguments made by the Republicans involve targeted tax cuts that will either stimulate specific areas of the economy or merely leave more money in the hands of private investors in general. While this sounds like the exact opposite of what the Democrats are proposing, it is really just the same strategy dressed up in “free market clothes.”

In the present paradigm, where the supposedly free market is already distorted by a thousand government interventions and taxes are sky-high for everyone, decreasing taxes for a particular class of people is merely a back-door way to try to override the free choices of investors and consumers. If the cuts are targeted at specific industries, such as the oil industry, then more oil will be produced regardless of the true demand for oil by consumers. If the cuts are general in nature, then whatever that capital is invested in will be investment not by private decision but by government central planning.

One might ask, “How can this be?” Aren’t the investors spending their own money? Not really. The Republican plan never involves a reduction in spending to go along with reductions in taxes for the investor class. In fact, every Republican administration in the past forty years has increased government spending while cutting taxes, leading to large deficits that are funded by debt or inflation. This merely transfers the tax burden of that government spending to other taxpayers.  In other words, the jobs “created” through supply-side economics are really funded by taxpayers – by present taxpayers through the loss of their purchasing power due to inflation or future taxpayers through government debt. This explains why the artificial booms accompanying Republican administrations never last either.

The only real answer to the economic malaise is to stop asking the government to create jobs in the first place. Real jobs can only be created by individuals agreeing to exchange their labor and capital by mutual, voluntary consent. The use of force cannot create a job any more than it can create freedom, either here or anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, it represents violation of the very rights that government exists to protect. Instead of voting for candidates that claim that they can create jobs, Americans should demand that government get completely out of the job-creating business in particular and central planning of the economy in general. Only a massive decrease in government spending, leaving capital in the hands of the people who earned it and allowing employers, employees, and consumers to make their own choices can stimulate true job creation. Anything else is just another government program that is destined to fail.

Check out Tom Mullen’s new book, A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. Right Here!

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© Thomas Mullen 2010