Putting the disabled to work

David Cameron has vowed to find jobs for the disabled, on the basis that "We have a social responsibility to help disabled people into the workforce". What could be more sympathetic and just than the government giving people a leg-up who face great obstacles in life? This is the Tories' new passion for "social justice" in action.

But how are they going to do this? Are they going to create jobs specifically for the disabled? Jobs created by the government to "make work" rather than jobs created by the market to satisfy a need, inevitably cost more money than they create. The idea that those jobs remove people from benefits and therefore create value rather than cost was exposed as a fallacy centuries ago, and dismantled by Henry Hazlitt. Someone will be paying for "make-work" jobs, and that diverted money will cost jobs every bit as valuable as the jobs that are created, and more so, because the lost jobs were ones that would have been demanded by the market, and therefore been productive, rather than existing simply to occupy someone's time.

Or will the Tories introduce regulations that encourage employers to give preferential treatment to disabled applicants. If so, there will be able-bodied people who will be unemployed because some disabled people received preferential treatment. Those abled-bodied people are no less valuable. To the extent that a disabled person were able to do the job equally well, then little harm has been done, though little has been gained. But to the extent that the disabled person were able to do the job equally well, they would have been considered for the job anyway, without government intervention.

Government intervention is only needed to make employers do something they otherwise would not do. If what they would otherwise not do is employ a disabled person for the post, it is because they believe an able-bodied applicant would do the job better. It is a harsh reality that this may well be the case in many, perhaps most, jobs. In these circumstances, what government intervention will have achieved will have been to ensure that a less suitable candidate was employed in preference to a more suitable candidate. There will be one person employed and one person unemployed either way, so the direct costs are roughly the same, but in the case of affirmative action, there is an additional cost from the lower productivity of employing someone who is not the most suitable person for the job.

This may sound heartless, but the complete disdain of proponents of affirmative action for those who are refused jobs despite their merits, simply because they were the wrong colour, or gender, or unencumbered by disability, is at least as heartless. And at least the heartlessness of those who oppose affirmative action is undiscriminatory and beneficial to the economy.

This should be fundamental Tory territory, and the fact that Cameron doesn't get it tells us a lot about where the party stands under his leadership. It stands in an intellectual no-man's land.