Imagine an economy with virtually full unemployment— nearly 100%, say, during the worst depression imaginable. The then incumbent president goes on air to rally the will and stir the hopes of the American people and says, “We have nothing to fear but fear of the unemployed.”
Deliciously ambiguous, that remark seems to precisely and accurately encapsulate and address 1. The current attitude of many companies exasperatingly leery of hiring the unemployed; 2. the swelling and swirling angst of the unemployed themselves; and 3. broad concerns about exactly how the embittered, desperate and angry unemployed are going to react to their apparently unremitting plight, if being unemployed becomes synonymous with being unemployable.
Putting America Back to Work or Putting Americans’ Backs to the Wall?
To these hopeless jobless, abandoning the hope that has abandoned them, the peppy mantra “Put America back to work!” is going to sound absurd, deceitful and hollow. Who, if not the unemployed, are to be “put back to work”? Or is this “put back” to be interpreted as a demoralizing variant of being put back one grade in school, put at the back of the job or food-stamps queue, or put with your back to the wall?
To more honestly reflect the recently all-too-prevalent corporate policy that “the unemployed need not apply”, perhaps the slogan should be “Put American backs into work!”—but only the backs that already have work.
Choosing and Chosen Beggars
More to the jobless workers’ point, “beggars can’t be choosers”, which once upon a time was the prime exhortation to the unemployed—an exhortation to take whatever job is offered, has been displaced by the utterly dispiriting “beggars can’t be chosen”.
On the ugly face of it, the “unemployed need not apply” policy seems as surreal and absurd as a “food stamps for grocers” program would be (“Those without food need not apply!”)—until the grocers’ food runs out too. What is its underlying logic? Given that the policy clearly, in the eyes of many—including many who have jobs, ultimately fails moral and long-term corporate self-interest tests, what about logical tests? Is there any logical argument for it that, as tight as a steel vise, makes the case for rejecting the unemployed glisten like a polished steel-jacket dumdum bullet?
Lion Logic and the Unemployed
Playing devil’s advocate, let’s allow the exclusionary policy to take its best shots at self-justification:
- “Putting the unemployed at the back of the line, or banishing them altogether, is just a variant of ‘survival of the fittest’, which is itself a good thing.” This position is merely a corollary to the central doctrines of laissez-faire capitalism and social Darwinism, the idea being that competition for economic and literal survival is good, improves the breed and invisibly, but measurably facilitates the production and distribution of services, goods and good genes with optimal efficiency. In this instance, allowing the cream to rise, the argument suggests, prevents the milk from souring.
Analysis: This “weed-and-breed” argument is as risky as and not unlike any argument that denies that bad things ever happen to good people. A major flaw in this argument is that, to the extent that it depends on the model of Darwinian natural selection, it overlooks a key difference between weeding out crippled lions on their African savannah and shutting out the unemployed.
The lame lion may be a handicap to the lion pride, in virtue of being unable to contribute as much or more than it calorically consumes as a failed hunter. However, in the case of unemployed humans, the situation is very different: The unemployed are being deliberately and with prejudice excluded from the workforce, rather than in fact unable to produce more than they consume: They are merely not allowed to—which makes their alleged disqualification more a matter of a self-fulfilling paranoid policy of rejection than of any actual inability to produce and contribute as much, if not more, than anyone else.
Unfortunately, regarding and treating the unemployed as though they do not deserve to survive in the job market is a big step toward ensuring that they indeed don’t survive there. Lions are much fairer: They, in effect, allow the natural interplay of the lame lion’s solo hunting skills (or lack thereof) and prey to decide its fate, rather than seal it through any bias among the rest of the pride.
If the lame lion fails, it is because (s)he actually tries and fails, not because (s)he is not allowed to try. As for pack hunting, it is commonly reported that lions feed their sick and injured pride members, which, from the perspective of the hardnosed Darwinian employer makes little sense, until it is pointed out that investing in the temporarily down-on-their-luck less fit can often be—at least among the sensible lions, in the long run, less costly than searching for one that is better or trying to breed replacements (which male lions reportedly exhaustingly—frequently unsuccessfully—undertake every 25 minutes over a four-day period of mating to produce one cub, which if conceived and born, is at huge risk of being killed by dominant interloping new adult males invading the pride).
Most importantly, the analogy with “survival of the fittest” breaks down upon consideration of the fact that the weeding out of a lame lion increases the odds of the fit survivors’ more efficiently getting and keeping the proverbial “lion’s share” of the kill for themselves, whereas the elimination of the “unfit” unemployed can easily, through a spiraling Keynesian-multiplier contraction in spending and consumption caused by lost income, redound to bite the employer and the economy in the butt, culminating in larger shares of misery for all.
The existence of this kind of feedback loop between lost income for the unemployed and reduced consumption for all, which is without a counterpart in the lion pride, counsels extreme caution in making Darwinian extrapolations from lion kills and Darwinian culls.
- “In a tight job market, employers can afford to be very picky and would do themselves, their shareholders and clientele a huge disservice by not hiring the most obviously qualified candidates, namely, those who are proving themselves on jobs they have now.”
Analysis: Social Darwinists have often rightly been criticized for committing what in ethics and logic is called the “is-ought” fallacy, namely, trying to derive moral judgments from factual ones. For example, from “nature is merciless” or “natural selection can be brutal”, Hitler speciously concluded “nature—and we—ought to be merciless and brutal”. That’s as logical as arguing that because people do get cancer they should get cancer.
Apart from this common social Darwinist conceptual and moral fallacious confusion of “can” and “should”, viz., “We can be unfairly picky, so we should be unfairly picky”, this “tight market” argument is subtly self-contradictory: That’s because it cannot be argued that the job market is tight AND also that those who are unemployed in a tight market are ipso facto disqualified.
The “unemployed=unemployable” equation makes sense—if it ever does—only or at least mostly in an economy with nearly full employment, because only in that circumstance does protracted unemployment rightly and unmistakably serve as a reliable red flag regarding employability, suitability and professional fitness.
If this specious “tight market” justification were to be evaluated by lions, their response might go something like this: “If there aren’t enough prey to support a large pride, we will, of course, take on fewer new members; but, the ones we will consider choosing will include those that are the hungriest and most determined, not only those whose bellies are already fat and full.”
Are You as Smart as a Lion?
Clearly, if lions are smart enough not to throw talent to the lions just because it’s paired with an urgent hunger to get the job and get it done, HR managers and their companies should be smart enough to grasp the point of the fable of Daniel and the Lion, in which Daniel is ultimately saved by the lion from whose paw he previously removed a thorn: Ease the pain, enjoy the gain.
Go ahead, at least fairly consider the unemployed, and make the logical-lion prides proud of you, your business logic and your lion-hearted courage to do the smart and right thing.