Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment

“Supply creates its own demand,” or so goes the popular interpretation of Say’s law. (More about that, below.) But if what you have on offer is not in demand by others, you are out of luck.

That is the point of Megan McArdle’s post, “The New New New Economy.” McArdle writes:

One of my first jobs out of school, way back in 1994, was as a secretary.  I’d be shocked to find that any of the executives at that organization still have secretaries–maybe the executive director, but maybe not even him.  Already at the time there wasn’t really enough for me to do; my boss had a secretary because, well, people in his position did.  That’s not because the work was being outsourced to Bangalore, but because computers and the internet were eliminating much of the coolie labor that secretaries used to take care of.  And of course, the recession is accelerating the pace of change–and leaving the people who are displaced fewer options to transition.

Government interventions that destroy jobs — the minimum wage, capital gains taxes, progressive taxation, etc. — exacerbate the problem because they prevent low-skilled workers (teenagers, mainly) from stepping onto the bottom rung of the employment ladder and eventually acquiring skills (or the money with which to acquire skills) that enable them to compete in an increasingly cyber-mated economy.

Which brings me back to Say’s law, explained succinctly by Steven Horwitz in “Understanding Say’s Law of Markets“:

Say was making the claim that production is the source of demand. One’s ability to demand goods and services from others derives from the income produced by one’s own acts of production. Wealth is created by production not by consumption. My ability to demand food, clothing, and shelter derives from the productivity of my labor or my nonlabor assets. The higher (lower) that productivity, the higher (lower) is my power to demand.

When a firm adopts a more productive technology — one that enables it to reduce the price of a product or service and/or offer a better product or service for the same price — the firm benefits and its customers and potential customers benefit. The firm can reap higher profits (if it is in a competitive position to do so) by “sharing” the productivity gains with customers through its pricing strategy. Customers and potential customers, by the same token reap the benefit of a better and/or less expensive product or service.

Who is made worse off? The workers whose skills are such that they cannot produce things that are valued by consumers. Or, if they can produce them, they cannot produce them as cheaply as, say, an automated system. And that system may well have been introduced because government policies of the kind mentioned above make it less profitable for firms to employ labor.

Whose “fault” is that? In a free-market economy, it would be no one’s fault; it would be what it is: an unfortunate subset of the populace lacking the wherewithal to produce what others want. It follows that governmental interventions have created a large (and growing) additional subset of the populace who could — and should — blame their fate upon the minimum wage; capital gains taxes; progressive taxation; regulations that restrict inputs, processes, and outputs; and all other government policies that discourage employment, saving, capital formation, and business expansion.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
Economic Growth since WWII
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Price of Government
Gains from Trade
Does the Minimum Wage Increase Unemployment?
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given