What warnings about job-destroying regulations really mean

One of the favored rhetorical approaches of groups which represent business interests is to remark that businesses create jobs. This is often coupled with the claim that laws which prevent certain business practices — paying unlivable wages, polluting the environment, creating unsafe work conditions — destroy jobs, or make it harder for businesses to create them. In service of this rhetoric, the Chamber of Commerce building in Washington D.C. has a banner on the outside of it reading “Jobs: Brought to you by the free market system.”

This particular line of rhetoric is of course over-simplistic and misguided, but also kind of amusing. To suggest that a particular economic system or agent in an economic system is the creator of jobs ignores the fact that there are diverse ways to carry out economic production. I would imagine a Chamber of Commerce building in the 1850s displaying a banner that read “Jobs: Brought to you by the chattel slavery system.” In Middle Ages England, a similar organization might erect a sign with the slogan “Jobs: Brought to you by the feudal system.” Additionally, slave masters and feudal lords would be triumphed as job creators, and policies which made it difficult for them to use slaves and serfs would be depicted as job-destroying.

Despite what the banner says, jobs are not brought to you by the free market system. After all, the existence of jobs long preceded the existence of the free market system. If you were to dig deep into the conservative rhetoric on job creation, what you would really find it saying is this: In the capitalist system, private owners of capital must be willing to participate in production for it to occur at all.

What is meant by the claim that businesses create jobs is that capital — which is what business owners have — is necessary for production to take place. Without it, those bringing their labor to exchange in the market will have no place to sell it, and will thus be without a job. The argument that the use of capital is necessary for capitalist production is true by definition. The point is not compelling, and does nothing but describe the mechanics of capitalist modes of production.

So what then is the point being made when business groups say that a particular action is job-destroying? In many cases, that line is used in ways that are so disingenuous as to be laughable. For example, business lobbyists claimed that totally voluntary suggestions that companies not advertise unhealthy food to kids were “job-killing government outreach.”

In other cases, what business groups mean when they say some particular requirement is job-killing is that owners of capital are not willing to make productive use of it if the requirement is put in place. So when they say that a regulation which forbids a local plant from poisoning drinking water will kill jobs, what they mean is that owners of capital are unwilling to use their capital if they are not permitted to poison the drinking water. If they cannot cut costs by dumping their waste into the local water supply, the productive enterprise is not appealing enough for them to carry out. Instead, they might do something else with their capital like buy treasuries or take it overseas to places where they are allowed to pollute drinking water.

In essence then, this whole rhetoric about policies hindering job creation is really nothing more than a threat. Owners of capital are threatening to basically carry out a sort of “capital strike” if the policy is put into place. In the same way that laborers can shut down production by withdrawing their labor, capitalists can shut down production by withdrawing their capital. Claiming that some requirement will kill jobs then is nothing but a way of signaling — often bluffing — that business owners will refuse to employ their capital under those requirements.

What is important to note then is that it is not safety or environmental regulations that kill jobs; it is the reaction of business owners to those regulations which do so. Despite some evidence to the contrary, owners of capital are actually human beings with agency. They do not have to make the choice to withdraw their capital to avoid conducting their businesses in moral ways. That is a decision that they make.

If a business owner closes up shop to avoid requirements that she behave ethically, any reasonable person should blame her for being an awful human being. But instead, this clever rhetoric about policies destroying jobs has effectively masked what is really going on, and caused people to forget that the actual agent of job destruction is not the person who imposes the minimally humane regulations, but the person who refuses to comply with them.