Popular writer and philosopher Alain de Botton tweeted (@alaindebotton):

All the attention goes on unemployment figures; we should spare a thought for a new concept: Misemployment:

Now, I confess. I stopped watching the video halfway through. Why? Moralistic prigs are tiresome bores. Even when they are sexy-voiced women with great accents.

You disapprove of cigarettes, so someone who works making cigarettes is “misemployed.” The fact that many people like smoking cigarettes and willingly part with portions of their incomes to purchase cigarettes means, apparently, nothing to those who employ the moralistically defined “misemployment.”

Similarly, I know other people who do the same sort of thing. You are misemployed if you make or sell condoms. It is wrong to facilitate cheap, promiscuous sex, and thereby attempt to avoid the natural consequences of wanton fornication. Married couples should produce babies. There is the source of true civilization, say these folks.

The two groups may interpenetrate. The video (up till when I stopped watching) also targeted gambling. Obviously, people helping people gamble are misemployed! Social conservatives can ally themselves with hip cosmopolitans to find a multitude of ways to denigrate those in the business of gambling.

The fact that many people like to gamble, and engage in contracts — voluntary agreements where title to goods and services are exchanged — to enable gambling to take place? Means nothing. Gambling is bad, you see, so those in the gambling industry are “misemployed.”

I can play this game, too. All rap artists are misemployed; their “music” being ’rap. Everyone involved in making bread is misemployed, since wheat products are a scourge upon the modern diet, along with potatoes, corn, peas, sugar, fake sugars, and the whole “low-fat” food industry — and purveyors of same. All philosophers touting overly moralistic definitions are misemployed.

Perhaps even Plato and Aristotle were misemployed. They, too, talked about “true needs.”

But then, so did, in his way, Epicurus. And somehow did not come off as a moralizing prig.

Why not load up our economic terms with enough morality that will further distract people from understanding how markets actually work? It is all the rage. People who know very little about economics love to do this. They have been doing it for a very long time. Thomas Carlyle did this when he coined the term “dismal science” because he was annoyed that good old-fashioned racism and authoritarianism were being denigrated by those who studied private property and market exchanges and saw the amazing resilience of voluntary exchanges over contrivances of governments.

I would prefer to employ the term in a non-smarmy, non-moralistic way. Sure there is “‎misemployment‬”: it is employment in a business that fails, that requires subsidies to keep going, etc. Unsustainable businesses that fail to meet their goals employ workers, until they go broke, arguably misemploying them up until they cease employing anyone.

The concept, the term, would then serve as the labor analog to ‪malinvestment‬.

It would revive the old, hoary topic — common amongst the classical economists — of “unproductive labor.” Truly unproductive labor fails on the marketplace. It saps capital from desired uses to dedicate it to uses that do not pan out.

The classic example? Digging holes to fill them up again. Make-work. You know, the favorite pet projects of modern-day low-brow Keynesians.

Is there anything to the moralistic use of the term? Well, it is obvious that many people would like to labor at something they can be proud of. It’s hard for some to be proud of selling pornography, or gambling, or abortions, or what-have-you. It is an obvious fact of life that the kind of labor that is most self-fulfilling is not the most socially desired, as expressed in markets or governments. If the most fulfilling work you can do would be to imitate spiderwebs with corn husk fibers, you are unlikely to find a place in society — any society — where that peculiar talent is rewarded as much as your ability to shovel horse manure, dog poop, or human bodily waste. Everyone wants to have the shit removed from our daily presences. Actually removing the scat? That is not so wonderful a task. So we often pay someone else.

In a market society, we can expect a labor market for shit shovelers. And the like. It’s not the most rewarding work, but it may be the most remunerative for some folks. Others may find something a tad more glorious (say, managing an outfit called Excreta Removers, or building a website for PoopRemovers.com). But much of what we do to get by is not glorious. Are we misemployed for our lack of glory?

This is not simply a feature of market economies. All economies have this problem. If who shovels what isn’t decided by bids and asks in the marketplace for services and labor, then they are usually decided by coercion. Or tradition.

Systems of little or no choice.

I prefer choice. That is, less compulsion. And the greater options one commonly finds in vibrant markets.

But we do get, here, to the nagging feeling behind much anti-market worry. I think of it as the Prostitution Problem. Most religions and most societies do not glorify whores and whoremongering. Traditionally, a woman marries and has babies, and that was her lot in life. Those who sell discrete acts of sexual favors tend to get looked down upon. A high-minded life choice, marriage and babies, was forsaken for a more transactions-based choice, prostitution. Hence we talk about artists “prostituting” their calling by catering to mass taste.

This metaphorical prostitution is not unimportant. It is something nearly everyone struggles with. While working for someone else, many would rather work as their own boss. But that is actually harder work. Often less secure pay. So one prostitutes oneself by choosing a career in law rather than as a Chautauqua speaker; one prostitutes oneself by writing for advertising instead of the Great American Novel (that too few will read); one prostitutes oneself by going into sales rather than serving the poor.

I doubt if I have met anyone who has not struggled with this. It is indeed a moral problem. And out of this concern is borne the moralistic coinages like misemployment.

But note how it was used in the video: some people’s choices are better than others because of . . . yuck. Their jobs are icky, dirty, or somehow disturbing.

And all the while the more fundamental problem is elided: individual responsibility to make the choices regarding how to employ one’s time, attention, and labor, and then the transactional methods of such employment. Are the transactions voluntary? If no, then no matter what good effects deserve to get some discount in our moral calculus. I may have a taste for great art. But if I obtain my great art by theft, my career path probably deserves something other than a “mis” prefix.

Further, if it turns out that I have hired myself out to a company that fails, and spent months and years devoted to a project that never sees the light of final sale, then I have helped waste capital in a quite literal sense. I would say that folks who only get hired by failing companies might best deserve the designator “misemployed.” The test of a business can be made in terms of profit and loss. We do not want to prop up businesses that cannot maintain profits. We want, instead, for businesses and laborers to try to make it on the market, serving customers each step of the way.

Markets are discovery systems. Through profit and loss, market participants learn what is desired on what terms, and figure out manageable ways to accommodate others’ desires. Demands. (Which are, after all, expressed not in packets of moral values but valued commodities, in terms of useful services, or commodities saved up, often in money.) Part of the whole system assumes that people must make their own decisions about how to employ their resources, which includes time and attention as well as savings; human capital as well as capital itself.

And as for moral choices about what to do with one’s labor. I probably prefer the attitude of St. Paul, who thought each person should work out his own salvation in “fear and trembling.” The fear and the trembling should be self-directed, when it comes to work choice, not shamed and assaulted by moralists who carry a lot of baggage from other disputes.

That is, beware of moralists misemploying “misemployment.”


OK, after writing the above I watched the whole video. The perpetrators of this oh-so-trendy concoction of censure and uplift reduce their argument to absurdity, near the end, when they credit governments with reducing unemployment by “stimulating demand,” calling it “technically effective.”Whole books have been devoted to how wrongheaded that notion is. Missing is the obvious point that demand management by the state is a cyclical countermeasure, not a long-term, secular policy. Further, governments that intervene in their economies most — especially in the labor markets, France being the grand example — have high levels of permanent unemployment. Very high levels. Which America, in this period of never-ending monetary and fiscal stimulus, is now emulating. All the major welfare states are supporting non-working classes. Who, I think it is safe to say, are wasting their own lives, and those of their spawn.


My final thoughts on this are simple, though: the moralizing element is always going on in society. We do, constantly, revise our desires and demand schedules (and therefore our supply schedules) to meet with moral concerns. And as people figure out what they would rather be doing, and find ways to switch to more otherwise-preferable occupations, personal progress on moral lines does occur.

But, as I indicated above, this process is by no means uncontroversial. Moral ideas vary. My aspiration is your animadversion. I know many vegetarians who want an end to the slaughter of animals, and all forms of animal cruelty, etc. I eat a primal diet and look upon vegetarians as deluded fools capable of gross crimes against humanity, all in the name of “caring.” For every feel-good sex-positive communitarian out there, others hold to a sexual purity ethos based on the ancient monotheisms. These are all very different. A sex-positive communitarian who hates smoking and gambling is very different from a puritanical Christian (or Muslim) who simply does not smoke, hates gambling, and loathes split families. How government could encourage “proper employment” in terms talked about in the video without siding with one religious or philosophical value set over others escapes me.

The most infamous case in my lifetime has been the amazing success of the anti-fat crusade, which got going heavily in the U.S. during the 1970s, and more than nudged a lot of people all-too-eager into buying “low fat” and “no fat” products. During this period, it just so happens, the American population got fatter, more corpulent. Obesity became the norm. All that moralizing about how awful fat and red meat was? Very successful. And somehow Americans got fatter! The truth was that the crusade was wrong from the start. It fed on moral and sub-moral premises. A new purity ethic evolved, and industry fed it, and government subsidized it. And it was perverse. Now we are learning that fat does not make you fat, that the real killer is refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, the removal of fats from many confections and lard from the production of French fries, and the pushing (often by government) of vegetable oils.

The most “successful” story of markets aligning to particular values, all with a moral tinge, is an example of utter disaster.

But governments could uphold a rule of law, instead, and get out of siding with one business and not another, one industry over others, one business plan or consumer set of goods to replace the competition. Governments could stick to discouraging actual, tangible non-value-laden transactions like theft, and fraud. That is something governments could do. And should do before we take up the moral cudgel.

But they will not, I am pretty sure, if people are worrying mostly about moralistic “misemployment.”

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