Creating jobs vs. creating wealth

Government policies are commonly evaluated in terms of how many jobs they create. Restricting imports is seen as a way to protect and create domestic jobs. Tax preferences and loopholes are commonly justified as ways of increasing employment in the favored activity. Presidents point with pride to the number of jobs created in the economy during their administrations. Supposedly the more jobs created the more successful the administration. There probably has never been a government spending program whose advocates failed to mention that it creates jobs. Even wars are seen as coming with the silver lining of job creation.

Now there is nothing wrong with job creation. Working in jobs is an important way people create wealth. So the emphasis on job creation is an understandable one. But it is easy for people to forget that creating more wealth is what we really want to accomplish, and jobs are merely a means to that end. When that elementary fact is forgotten, people are easily duped by arguments that elevate creation of jobs to an end in itself. While these arguments may sound plausible, they are used to support policies that destroy wealth rather than create it. I shall consider a few of the depressingly many examples in this column and the next.

Creating jobs is not the problem
The purpose of all economic activity is to produce as much value as possible with the scarce resources (including human effort) available. But no matter how far we push back the limits of scarcity, those limits are never vanquished. Scarcity will forever prevent us from securing all the things we desire. There will always be jobs to do – far more than can ever be done. So creating jobs is not the problem. The problem is creating jobs in which people produce the most value. This is the point of the apocryphal story of an engineer who, while visiting China, came across a large crew of men building a dam with picks and shovels. When the engineer pointed out to the supervisor that the job could be completed in a few days, rather than many months, if the men were given motorized earth moving equipment, the supervisor said that such equipment would destroy many jobs. “Oh,” the engineer responded, “I thought you were interested in building a dam. If it’s more jobs you want, why don’t you have your men use spoons instead of shovels?”

Extracted from The Liberal Tide, edited by Jim Peron
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