“The government,” wrote Frederic Bastiat, “is that great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.”
This incisive, tongue-in-cheek definition of the state, beloved by libertarians everywhere, is especially appropriate this week. Big COVID-era government, the data now demonstrate, has put millions of workers in a position in which their incentive is not to report to work and produce something of value in exchange for a wage, but rather to stay home and collect money from taxpayers for not working. In short, poor decisions by Democrats have created a larger-than-life version of what Bastiat described, at least for people at lower income levels.
On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released devastating employment numbers, showing dramatic underperformance for job creation in April. Although the ranks of the employed did increase by 266,000, that number was expected to increase by four times as much. And this disappointment comes immediately after robust economic growth during the first quarter.
How did the post-COVID bounce-back of the job market stall so quickly after Joe Biden took over as president? The answer is there in his so-called stimulus package, which is stimulating workers to avoid going back to work until the summer is over.
We warned at the very beginning of the pandemic that any coronavirus unemployment relief should come as a short-term measure. Government’s legitimate interest was in keeping people out of the workplace temporarily, so as to slow the spread of the virus. Thus, the sensible course was to provide a big boost in the short term in the form of larger payments. The wrong course of action was to extend the period for expanded benefits for months and months so that it became irrational for people to return to work once the threat had ebbed.
The goal, after all, was to tide people over, not to turn millions of people into long-term government dependents.
It is cold comfort to see we were correct. Thanks in large part to the unusually generous unemployment benefits that the spending package put in place until September, workers in lower income strata are being given a mathematical choice that is a no-brainer. Normally, in a market economy, the incentives to improve one’s own lot (by taking a job) align with incentives to improve society as a whole. But not today.
If they choose to go to work and get the economy moving again, it is an act of altruism. For depending on their income level, they can earn as much as or more than their usual wage by simply not working. And who can blame them for making a completely rational choice created by irrational government? As much as you might love your job, you probably would not do it for free, either. The choice between working and not working for the same pay is an easy one.
What’s even worse is that COVID makes unemployment more stable than work as well as more profitable. With blue-state governors and mayors ignoring science and arbitrarily reimposing lockdowns even now, it is outright risky to give up a steady unemployment check for a restaurant job that could disappear tomorrow. No wonder restaurants are being forced to offer massive bonuses just to get people to come in and wait tables.
Biden inherited an easy job in this regard. The fundamentals for reopening and restoring economic prosperity were all there for him when he took office. The economy was well on its way to recovery, and it has taken him only three months to throw everything into doubt.