Friday, May 15, 2015

Unintended Consequences

As I have an essay in To My Countrymen called by this name, I had thought to name it something else, like "Be Careful What You Wish For…”

But here we are with this stale but tried and true, title.

Imagine that you are an extreme libertarian and do not believe in any government-sponsored safety nets, like welfare, food stamps, CHIP programs, etc.  They don’t exist.  “If you want to eat, you work!” is your motto.

Well, unless you have not been paying attention or just woke up out of a long slumber, Rip Van Winkle-like, we are not living in a full-employment economy, where there is a job for everyone and a worker for every job, especially low-skilled jobs.  And not just because jobs are vanishing overseas to countries with lower wages, but because technology has gotten so good that businesses just do not have that much need of workers, especially low-skilled workers.  So, just imagine that the prospect of starvation motivates many (but not all) to find work, no matter how low paid the work is.  Still, there will be some – in addition to lazy bums – who will not be able to find work, no matter what.  And with no income and no savings they will, eventually, starve to death, eventually.

But not all of this sorry group will go silently to their eternal rest; some will fight back, some will rob and steal rather than go hungry, rather than see their family go hungry and perish.  Some will break the law and get food one way or another.  So, in exchange for the end of the social safety net, society will experience a rise in “unrest,” a rise in crime.  This will of course impose an extra load on the police, and if some get caught, it will impose an extra load on … prisons.

They tell us that each prisoner costs the state annually some $30,000 to much much more to provide room and board, etc.  And there is no pay back, YOU dear reader pay for it.  So, the consequences of no social safety nets are: a rise in mortality, a rise in hunger and starvation, a rise in crime, a rise in police, and a rise in the cost of maintaining our penal system, prisons.  So, some die, some procure food one way or another, often forcibly, and some go to prison.  Those who complete their terms in prison go back to the original cycle and end up in prison again, because who is hiring someone who was not hirable before and now has a prison record?

The money that pays for indefinite incarceration might have been spent on welfare or education.  Even so, not all of those who learn new skills will be employable in this economy, an economy that increasingly is losing its need for human workers.  Or it may be spent on re-building our tattered physical infrastructure.  Maybe not all government spending is a waste.

Are you sure that you want to give up the social safety nets that keep some from starving or having to commit to a life of petty crime and imprisonment?  And at what point does THAT world stop being sustainable?  This is the question, and we had better start asking it.
Nota Bene: I am NOT arguing for welfare or any Social Safety Net whatever, I am arguing that there are unintended, but certainly predictable, consequences to doing without it.  We had best come together and figure out just what to do in a world economy that is increasingly losing its need for human labor.