What Is A Job? 2

Lots of government "jobs" really aren't.

America and Americans desperately need "jobs, jobs, jobs."  The Left wants to solve this problem by simply creating as many government jobs as needed regardless of cost; those stone-hearted Scrooges on the Right oppose these efforts tooth and nail, preferring to let people languish in unemployment.  How is this possible?

As we saw in the first article in this series, just because you're working hard doesn't mean you have an economically productive job, and just because you don't have a boss doesn't mean you aren't being economically productive.  Today, there are all too many "jobs" that look like jobs, act like jobs, and which people think of as jobs - but aren't.

Is Government "Jobs"?

The first and most obvious place to look for non-job jobs is, of course, in government.  By definition, government has no money of its own because it doesn't earn a profit; all the money government spends is taken from citizens by force, either in taxes extracted or by more subtle means like inflation.

That doesn't mean that all government jobs are bogus.  Government can and does create value by doing things that only government can do effectively.  Developing national-level infrastructure is merely the best known: America as a nation is far wealthier for having the Interstate Highway System, paid for by government using your tax dollars.  Alas, most of the economically-profitable infrastructure has already been built.  All that's left to sweeten the construction unions is Bridges to Nowhere.

We are also all benefited by having taxpayer-funded police, fire, judges, and the army.  You never know when you might need their services, which is why it's fair for everyone to pay for them collectively, but they cost less than the cost of not having them.  This is easily proved by a glance at countries that don't have functioning core services, like Somalia: Somalians don't have anybody to pay taxes to, but they're somewhat worse off than we are as a result.

A great many scholarly studies have demonstrated that an efficient, predictable, honest rule of law is essential for economic growth.  If there is no governmental authority willing to enforce contracts, businessmen can only work with people they personally know and trust, thus limiting growth possibilities.  Also, businesses suffer under expensive protection overhead in needing to hire their own guards or even private military forces.  A law-abiding society enforced by honest police and courts makes all economic activity more efficient and profitable.

Here in the United States, we've enjoyed the rule of law for so long we've almost forgotten what it's like to do without it.  Unfortunately, in recent years our court system has become ever slower, ever less just, and ever more unpredictable.  Today, many European companies find the justice systems of Russian and China to be better than ours, even as we're spending more on it.

What a condemnation!  It may be difficult to point to specific people in our court system whose jobs are not worthwhile - but there are certainly loads of them.  The only way to solve the problem would be to slash budgets and let the officials in charge make the tough decisions; until that happens, the more money we throw at the problem the worse the results will be.

There is a category of government "jobs" who are not merely worthless, but positively counterproductive: the regulators.  A recent scholarly study tabulated an astounding statistic:

On average, eliminating the job of a single regulator grows the American economy by $6.2 million and 98 private sector jobs annually.

As with the court system, not all regulations are counterproductive. A century ago, thousands of people died from corrupted food.  There's a cost to that; the first round of food safety regulations saved a lot of lives and were worth the cost of enforcement.

That was a long time ago, though, and we've layered on millions of pages of regulations since then.  No government at all certainly leads to a place none of us wants to be, but that doesn't mean that we wouldn't be better off with some major cuts to what we have today.

In conclusion: yes, many government jobs really are economically productive and benefit the economy more than they cost the taxpayers.  It's no coincidence that the vast majority of these "profitable" government jobs are found in areas that the Founders would have recognized as being in the proper purview of government.

Even in the newer governmental fields of regulation, some government jobs can be profitable - but we've gone far beyond that point.  By putting government bureaucrats on the dole, we'd take 98 times as many people off of it.

Is government the only place where non-job jobs can be found?  No; and in the next article in this series we'll examine some.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments

While paring down the number of government jobs the silly notion of having a job for life needs to go out the window. To think that a government employee can't be held accountable and let go is absurd. In the private sector there is a measuring stick. The person is expected to do a job at a certain level and possibly more if technology improves. There should be no distinction between a private and public employee.

March 21, 2012 10:32 AM

I spent many years working for a federal regulatory agency trying to ensure the safety of foods and drugs that were produced in or entering the country. I considered it useful most of the time, but some silly regulations or the failure to enforce necessary regulations were aggravating. There were some employees in the organization who should have been sent down the road for abject laziness or total incompetence, but in the time I was there only one person was forced to resign and only two others fired. Several more could have seen the door easily, except that it would have required too much "work" for management.

March 21, 2012 2:42 PM
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