Better people than I have pointed to the practical and philosophical problems with the ConDems’ proposal to introduce workfare. What interests me here is that this represents a common trick (or is it just error?) on the right.
The thing is, the number of unemployed who don’t want to work might well be small. There are only 266,300 people who have been claiming JSA for over 12 months (table 11(2) of this pdf). Many of these, though, have become long-term unemployed because job opportunities dried up in the recession. In August 2008 - just before Lehmans went bust - only 100,800 were long-term JSA claimants.
If we take this as a measure of those who really don’t want to work, then “workshy scroungers” represent a mere 6.8% of the claimant count, 4.1% of the LFS measure of unemployment, and 2.1% of the wider unemployed (which adds the economically inactive who‘d like a job to the LFS measure of unemployment.)
The vast majority of unemployment - over 9-10ths on this reckoning - has nothing to do with people not wanting to work, and everything to do with a lack of demand for labour.
And this is where that rightist trick (or error) enters. They mistake small truths for large ones, and use the small truth to obfuscate the big one. So, the truth - that a few of the unemployed don’t want to work - is exaggerated and used to hide the bigger truth, that the vast majority of unemployment has other causes.
I say this is a common trick because it appears in other guises, for example:
1. “Higher taxes deter people from working.” This truth disguises other truths - that taxes also have income effects that might increase labour supply or that it might be socially destructive rent-seeking that’s deterred, not just productive activity.
2. “Nationalized banks would make inefficient and politically motivated loans.” This truth hides the bigger truth - that private banks create the risk of massively costly financial crises.
3. “The poor benefit from living in wealthy capitalist societies.” This trivial truth hides a trickier question: does free market capitalism benefit them more than egalitarian alternatives?
This is a cunning and powerful rhetorical device. But policy shouldn’t be based upon rhetorical tricks.
Another thing. The question: “how many of the unemployed don’t want to work?” is far trickier than generally supposed. This is because preferences adapt to circumstances; if you can’t find a job, one way to preserve your well-being and mental health is to reduce your wants. The claim that “people are unemployed because they don’t want to work“ could, I suspect, often be reversed: people don’t want to work because they are unemployed.