Thursday, March 19, 2015

How Would Corporations Become the Employers of the Poor?

It's all very well to say that corporations should act like the noble lords of the year 1000 and take the heads of the poor in their hands and make them into their bondsmen. And then train them in the culture of work and service.

But how? In the first place we don't give corporations the right to compel people the way that governments do. That's part of the modern Greater Separation of Powers of which we've heard tell. These days we try to separate the political and its force from the economic and its prices from the cultural and its social and moral pressure.

So it was easy for the lord of the year 1000 to combine all three and take the responsibility of feeding the poor by taking them into bondage, where they got fed in return for that bill-hook and whatever work the lord's overseer could extract from his new bondsman. But today it isn't so simple.

Using Eric Hoffer's analysis of work, we would also say that work in the year 1000 was regarded as a curse, a mark of bondage. The submission of the hungry man to the dominion of his lord obviously fits comfortably into that culture.

In that old system, says Hoffer, the lord told you what to do and when to do it. But now things are different. Now "the chief problem is not to induce people to work but how to find enough jobs for people who want to work." Now work is not a mark of bondage but "a mark of uprightness and manly worth." We talk about people that go to work, obey the law, follow the rules as the very salt of the earth.  This situation, writes Hoffer, "is not only unparalleled in history but remains more or less incomprehensible to many people outside the Occident."

Well, that was back in the Sixties. Now China and India have abandoned the failed idea of the totalitarian state and the collapse of the three sectors, political, economic, and cultural into the single all-powerful party government. And the Soviet Union is no more. Now everyone is getting the work bug, now every peasant is turning up in the city and learning to deal with the modern paradigm. It's not the lord's job to put you to work. It's your problem.

Suppose we collapse the current welfare system, as an evil and corrupt system that effectively enlists the poor as a kind of state militia, housing in their public housing barracks, paying them as though they were soldiers, and leaving them to fester in their barracks as soldiers in the standing armies of the absolute monarchs first used to do five hundred years ago.

How would we get there from here? There is the whole paraphernalia of labor market regulations that create the modern underclass. It starts with the prohibition on child labor, the collapse of apprenticeship, the swingeing taxation on labor through "social insurance" programs that rack the cost of labor into the stratosphere. And then there is the minimum wage, which keeps young and inexperienced workers out of the labor force where they might compete with older workers.

For me, this whole superstructure of the left's political faith is a massive human disaster. It chops up the high road to prosperity with monstrous barriers and tolls and opportunities for the dominion of political power over the radical equality of the market and the constant urge of its price system.

In my ideal society, with limited government and radically reduced taxes, people would naturally seek employment, and the least skilled and least desirable bringing up the rear.

Why would corporations employ the scum of the employment market? Why would they pay enough for a "living wage?" Why would they bother to provide a genuine path upwards for the least among us?

Suppose we give corporations subsidies to employ the poor? Yes, but then we are opening the doors to crony capitalism and political chicanery. We would encourage fly-by-night operations taking the subsidies and delivering nothing in return. And of course the left would pounce on every minor problem and glitch and use it to smear the entire private sector and the whole idea of a market economy just as they do today.

Suppose we order the corporations to employ the poor? Yes, but then they are going to demand quid-pro-quos, and then we are back into the whole lobbyist special interest game that ends up benefiting the powerful and hurting the people.

The point is pretty simple for me. Ever since the "useless" feudal retainers were first "hurled" upon the labor market five hundred years ago, government has tried various forms of force and compulsion to deal with the poverty problem. Government has tried compulsion every which way from Sunday, from incarceration to housing to money to food.

But there is another idea, that hasn't been tried in over a century. It's the system that was used by charities towards the end of the 19th century and described by Marvin Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion. It's as simple as A-B-C-D-E-F-G. It starts with A for Affiliation. Who is affiliated with this person down on their luck and could be persuaded to step up and help? It goes on to D for Discrimination. That's about separating the sheep from the goats. You want to help people who really need help and would benefit from help and are not just working the system like that fine old proletarian Alfred P. Doolittle. The process culminates ends with Employment, Freedom, God.

Employment is where the corporations come in. But would they step up to the plate?  I think they would.

The point is that corporations follow the zeitgeist. They do what is expected of them. And we need to change the culture from the current Poor Law mentality in which we don't expect anything from the poor except to have the government give them money, courtesy of the parish beadle or the government social worker, and hope they don't cause any trouble. We don't expect anything of ourselves except to pay our taxes.

We need to change the culture.  We need to make the poor everybody's business, from the householder to the small retailer to the construction company to the big corporation. So everybody pitches in to help, not because they must, because they are compelled, but because the culture tells them what to do and they do it.

But can we change the culture?

Our liberal friends have done a bang-up job pushing their cultural agenda, from environmentalism to the sexual revolution to gay marriage. That's what it would take to change the culture on welfare. The problem is not the corporations. They will do the right thing, because corporations always need the good opinion of the public. The solution doesn't belong to corporations. It belongs to us: imagining the possibilities and then making the possibilities happen.

So if we want the corporations to give work to the poor, we have the change the culture so that it is the most natural thing in the world for a corporation to hire, train, and bring the poor into the modern work culture, where the poor get to believe like the rest of us that work is "a mark of uprightness and manly worth."

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