Quite a while ago, I posted an excerpt from a letter Thomas Jefferson had written to James Madison while he was living in France, just prior to the beginning of the French Revolution. I have the necessary bibliography listed here for the specific details and a link to the full text.

In the letter, Jefferson discusses the land use situation in France at a time when the population was facing inadequate stocks of food, noting that much of the land had been claimed by the French nobility, and that it was illegal for anyone to hunt or fish on the land that may only be used for recreational purposes. In other words, one rich guy has 10,000 acres to do with whatever he likes, while 10,000 peasants face starvation for need of game or a patch of land from which to subsist. Jefferson also mentioned things government could do to alleviate the problem, such as impose a sliding-scale tax on land to prevent hoarding.

When I posted that letter, the conversation about it immediately took a turn toward the question of whether government need guarantee a job or means of survival. It’s an interesting question regarding what a major leader of the American enlightenment thought about government’s responsibilities toward its people. But I suspect that, for those wondering if this letter means that Jefferson thought government should guarantee a job or land or some other means of survival, the true meaning is far more subtle.

Jefferson did not say government had a responsibility to feed people or guarantee land, or game, or what have you. In my interpretation, he said government should prevent hoarding, a supply side policy aimed at the availability of raw materials for subsistence. It is what I would call the ultimate in what today we might call a libertarian approach to practicality that answers the question: are people entitled to do what they like when it harms or deprives someone else of a means of survival. Jefferson’s answer was, obviously, no.

In this regard, the letter provides a whole renewed way of thinking about occupational licensing regimes and overregulation of things that ordinary people might do on an independent basis in order to simply bring home the bacon when jobs are scarce. We have, over the last century or so, regulated so many things for the sake of NIMBY or in the name of some nebulous notion of public safety that at the heart of it is simply the politics of syndication, and wages have been regulated on top of that.

My opinion is, that this sort of order to society never has worked well, given the longstanding and renewed every election cycle political declaration of war on poverty, and it certainly did not work well given our recent experience with monetary policy problems– negative demand shock, no jobs and lots of hungry people being kicked out of their homes.

The recent situation of the Great Recession perhaps is much less obvious of the putting out affect than the one analyzed by Jefferson. But it is similar. We have policies that basically criminalize non-syndicated economic activity of all kinds, all the while adopting other policies such as explicit inflation targeting that, as a practical matter, transmits itself through the employment channel – too much demand, too many jobs (what a nightmare!). The basic effect is to deny avenues of self-employment, allow large firms to corner markets, fail to ensure adequate investment or have a planB, and then kill the jobs which may have otherwise been available with poor monetary policy.

The popular elitist answer to the question of “where are the jobs” is to tell everyone that they are and will have nothing without college. They want you to survive their way, or there is nothing for you in this world but a government hand out and living in slums. And that isn’t an assessment of reality. It’s a promise.

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