Job Insurance – Part 8 (What Is The Right to A Job?)

In Economic Planning, Economics, European Politics, Full Employment, History and Politics, New Deal, Political Ideology, Politics of Policy, Poverty, Public Policy, Public Works, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Uncategorized, Welfare State, WPA on September 27, 2009 at 4:58 pm


In this series about Job Insurance, I have discussed both the technical and intellectual means of a Job Insurance system. But it’s also important to explain what the ultimate purpose of a Job Insurance system is – namely, the establishment in enforceable legislation of the right to a job.

And no term has been so abused – witness the capture of the term “the right to work” – or so contested as the right to a job. So we must begin within explaining what this idea means, and where it came from?

History of an Idea:

Well before the advent of capitalism, human societies frequently established the idea of a basic right to subsistence. The ancient Romans distributed subsidized grain to the common People of Rome to provide even the poorest with enough to survive on; in the Middle Ages, the village commons were established and maintained to ensure that even the lowliest cropper would have a patch of earth to graze an animal or grow some crops. The right to work emerged very early on, more or less as soon the Industrial Revolution in Europe created a substantial population of people whose survival hinged upon finding steady work.

While it is little remembered in the histories of the French Revolution, one of the acts of the revolutionary government was to declare that democratic governments had an obligation to provide work for the unemployed, and establish a series of public workshops or ateliers across France. In these workshops, the unemployed poor would be given a living wage as a right of citizenship; along with the Rights of Man and Citizen, the leaders of the Revolution argued that “chaque homme ayant droit à la subsistance.” Work ranged from public works (roads and bridges were priorities in rural areas where poor transportation systems were a great hardship for peasant farmers; the expansion of harbors and canals were vital to the well-being of port cities), to the production of market goods like spun wool and rope (important for areas that depended on seasonal industries such as wine-growing or silk production), as well as charitable schemes for workers with disabilities. And in the public factories of Paris, the link between the right to a job and the ideology of revolutionary republicanism was made most clear –  the sans-culottes of Paris would put 750 muskets a day into the hands of the revolutionary armies sent out to fight the forces of monarchy in the name of “liberté, egalité, fraternité.”

Thereafter, the right to work became a recurrent theme across the 19th century Atlantic world. In the 1848 Revolution, the call to establish a right to work through national workshops found itself realized in France, and a common element of workers’ organizations’ platforms throughout Europe. In the United States, the demand for the right to work emerged after the Civil War and the rapid expansion of industrial labor, especially in the North. Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879) noted that “The ideas that there is … that it is the duty of the government to furnish capital or to furnish work, are rapidly making way among the great body of the people who keenly feel a hurt and are sharply conscious of a wrong.” His proposed single tax on the value of land rent would provide the finances for the provision of “full employment.”  Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards in essence predicted a future in which government workshops would completely replace private corporations, and thus ensure lifetime full employment by right (with retirement at age 45!). Coxey’s Army – the very first March on Washington, in 1894 – proclaimed that:

“It is the crime of the Nineteenth century that three millions of our fellow citizens are in involuntary idleness, thus causing an irretrievable loss of millions of dollars daily, hence we demand that whenever any state, territory, township, municipality or incorporated town or village deem it necessary to make public improvements they shall be permitted to so as to furnish employment for all surplus or unemployed citizens in beautifying and improving the country when there is a surplus production or no demand for labor in production at living wages.”

And yet, each successive wave of economic revolt broke against the bulwarks of Victorian liberal orthodoxy – the gold standard, the balanced budget, and the free exchange of currency – the right to a job remained unfulfilled, living in the imaginations of social reformers, industrial workers, and street-corner revolutionaries. Even at the height of the Progressive movement in 1912, the right to a job was seen as too expensive, too vulnerable to patronage, too socialistic. Not until the Great Depression demolished those three pillars and through necessity expanded the realm of political possibility to include the provision of public employment through the WPA could the right to a job begin to be included within the bounds of practical politics. By 1945, Swedish Social Democrats had been perfecting their jobs programs for over a decade, in Britain, William Beveridge looked to Keynesian economic planning to establish Full Employment in a Free Society, and in the U.S Franklin Roosevelt gave the right to a job pride of place in his Second Bill of Rights.

And, at least in the United States, that’s as close as we got.

Meaning of an Idea:

Part of the problem is that the right to a job belongs to that most contested of intellectual categories, social rights. While in most countries, the concept is (mostly) uncontroversial, in the U.S the idea that social rights exist has been in intellectual disrepute for over thirty years. When we talk of the New Deal order, what we often mean are a series of social rights – the right to Social Security is the best known, but you can also think of the FDIC-guaranteed right to security of bank deposits, the GI Bill of Rights’ commitment to veterans, and so on. The Great Society, while ultimately less successful, still succeeded in establishing a limited social right in health care (at least for seniors and the poor). In the 1970s, the Supreme Court came within a hairsbreadth of establishing a right to welfare. And yet since then, the idea of social rights has been essentially excised from the political discourse as too radical, too 60ish, and hostile to the overriding logic of the market.

However, the right to a job is different from other social rights in two key ways. First of all, the right to a job is closer to the right to Social Security in that it stems, not from the rights of citizenship or humanity, but from the status of a worker. Historically, this has been a problematic issue. “Economic citizenship” or “employment-based entitlements,” given the limitations of New Deal policy in regards to race and gender, tended to be limited to white men in industrial jobs. However, the privileged status of workers also meant that work-based rights were also politically secure, especially in comparison to citizenship-based access to programs like Medicaid and AFDC.  In this regard, the right to work seeks to leverage what is otherwise a politically conservative trend on behalf of the currently and future unemployed, a group that has held virtually no political power save in periods of extreme economic crisis.

Second, the right to a job is an earned right, as is the case with contributory social insurance programs. In a job insurance system, of course, the claimant can point to their status as a premium-payer as a source of benefit by right. However, in any jobs program (regardless of the mechanism of financing), the worker receives wages in exchange for their labor. Although it’s rarely acknowledged these days that labor is a source of value (that would raise too many questions as to whether workers are being paid fair value for their labor), the goods and services that American workers can be valued just as easily in public employment as they can in private employment. (More on this in future installments.) While it is difficult for most taxpayers to draw a line between their taxes and the public services they receive in return, the return to taxpayers from jobs program is visible all around them:

In this sense, the right to a job creates a horizontal social compact between employed citizens and unemployed citizens, (as opposed to a vertical social compact between citizens and the state), where the state acts merely as an intermediary manager. (Note: in representative governments, all social compacts are ultimately horizontal, but more on that later.) And this kind of social compact has a name – solidarity. It is not an accident that Sweden’s jobs program was historically contemporary with the expansion of the Swedish labor unions to about 80% of the workforce and a near-half century of Social Democratic Party political dominance – the three phenomena all fed into the other. If a job insurance program were to be enacted in the United States, it is my strong belief that we would see a similarly change in social attitudes, as the employed and unemployed benefit from the same social and economic programs, and as the unemployed shift from “a drain on my taxes” to “the people who built my kid’s school.”


That last thought points to something that progressives often ignore when it comes to social and economic policy – the success or failure of a program is as much an artifact of public opinion as they are a question of policy design. There is a technocratic tendency within progressivism, in part inspired by progressive attachment to scientific inquiry and a belief in technological progress, that policy should really be a scientific question, in which getting the details right leads to success.

But the most successful progressives, like FDR, always understood that changing people’s minds was critical to policy success. When it comes to jobs policy, we are ultimately engaged in a conflict with the intellectual instincts of people who’ve been taught to blame themselves for losing their jobs rather than blame the economy, who’ve been told that individual striving is more important than social protection, and who have been taught that the poor and the unemployed are a dangerous, dislikable “other.”

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  1. […] working majority to function; in the second place, social insurance creates a politically potent “earned” right to a job that would cement the program as part of the permanent welfare […]

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