Good Jobs at No Wages

Half-serious suggestions.
Aug. 31 1996 3:30 AM

Good Jobs at No Wages

A small suggestion for improving welfare reform.

Even many supporters of the recent welfare reform acknowledge a small flaw: The new arrangement requires welfare recipients to take jobs, but does nothing to assure that jobs will be available. President Clinton's original notion of "ending welfare as we know it" was to require work and also, if necessary, to supply it (plus training, day care, health care, etc.). But that kind of welfare reform costs more, not less, than just writing a check. So the Republican version, which Clinton signed, leaves out the second part of the equation. It supplies less money, not more, to the states, frees them to cut off benefits, and largely leaves the details to them to figure out.


The states face quite a challenge in finding employment for all these people. And the federal government, as is so often the case, makes the task even harder with unnecessary, job-destroying regulations. Many of these regulations have come under withering scrutiny in recent years by right-wing think tanks, conservative editorial pages, and Republican members of Congress. Yet one such piece of federal red tape has escaped the criticism it deserves: the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ("Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States"). Possibly due to misinterpretation by activist judges, this job killer forbids American citizens--acting voluntarily, of their own free will--to sell themselves into slavery. Or, to put it in terms even a liberal might understand: It denies women the freedom to control their own bodies, albeit by selling them to someone else.

Critics of government welfare programs often ridicule the notion that people would starve in the streets or die of untreated diseases without AFDC, food stamps, Medicaid, etc. Private charity, they say, will provide for truly needy cases. We may soon find out if this is correct. However, the logical defect is not hard to spot. People are unlikely to invest in the feeding and care of others if they are not in a position to reap the benefits. But this defect can be easily remedied.

An analogy might be made to the situation of elephants in Africa. In 1989, under pressure from groups alarmed by the destruction of African elephant herds, President Bush banned the import of ivory. Most of the rest of the world soon followed, and the ivory trade was devastated. The best thinking now is that this was a bad idea, because it destroyed any incentive Africans might have to nurture and protect the elephant herds. A better approach is to make sure that the elephants' human neighbors have a commercial stake--through reasonably regulated hunting and ivory sales--in seeing the herds thrive. That way, you can "turn what heretofore have been liabilities into assets," as an article in the American Spectator once explained.

Similarly, America's welfare recipients can be turned from social liabilities into social assets. The best way to assure that private individuals will come forward to supply food and health care--and even job training!--to those who are about to be freed from their debilitating dependency on government is to allow these giving individuals to acquire an economic interest in the nutrition, health, and skills of the former welfare recipients. The employment arrangements that have been traditional in this country since 1863 are obviously not adequate to the task, because there is nothing to stop a healthy, well-fed, well-trained person--once raised up to this desirable state through private-sector initiative--from taking her services elsewhere. Repealing the 13th Amendment would solve this problem, by allowing people to contractually commit their future good health and skills to an employer.

Rich people, it should be noted, already have this ability. Various devices such as bonuses and stock options enable companies to reasonably assure themselves of the continuing employment of key executives without violating the 13th Amendment's onerous ban on what should more accurately be called "contracts of permanent employment." But poor people are usually not in a position to demand stock options. Therefore, they are unable to make a convincingly binding commitment to an employer. The 13th Amendment prevents it. As is so often the case, a seemingly compassionate government regulation--enacted with the best of intentions--has the effect of hurting the very people it was intended to help.

Beyond its practical effects, repeal of the 13th Amendment would restore to every American what we now know is the most important freedom of all: freedom of contract. The issue of a person's God-given right to contract for his or her permanent future employment is really an extension of the recently concluded debate over the minimum wage. Although the reactionary forces of Big Labor and Big Government won that battle, House Majority Leader Dick Armey was, of course, absolutely right to note again and again (and again) that the effect of a minimum wage is to deny workers the opportunity to contract for their services at a price employers are willing to pay.

Clearly abolition of the minimum wage, as Armey and others advocate, would be an important step in fulfilling America's promise of a job for everyone who wants to work (and, for that matter, everyone who doesn't want to work). But it is only a first step. One might argue that abolishing the minimum wage is close enough to relegalizing slavery, since it would free people to work at whatever wage they chose--including no wage at all. But this alone would not liberate people to commit their future labor in a way that potential employers can reasonably be expected to rely on. Only a contract can do that: a contract of permanent future employment, which the employer can call upon the government to use its powers to enforce, if necessary. Now that Washington has stopped guaranteeing welfare benefits, a compassionate government surely owes its poorest citizens no less than this.

Michael Kinsley is editor of Slate.