Picking on New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is one of the largest participation sports on the Internet. And rightfully so, since he often says ridiculous things that demand a response from those who understand basic economics better than he does, despite his having won a Nobel Prize. His January 26 column, “Jobs, Jobs and Cars,” has him once again making such an argument. This time it’s on the subject of job creation.
Krugman claims that the Republican argument for the importance of job creation relies too heavily on the “heroic entrepreneur” rather than recognizing that “successful companies—or, at any rate, companies that make a large contribution to a nation’s economy—don’t exist in isolation.” For Krugman this means there’s plenty of help from government. Although I can’t speak for all Republican politicians, I can say that Krugman’s view of the argument for free markets is utterly mistaken.
The argument for the market is based precisely on the fact that the entrepreneur exists in a social context that helps to determine how effective her actions will be. The most heroic entrepreneur imaginable cannot be very productive if she is shackled by government regulations or is trying to operate in a society with ill-defined or poorly enforced property rights. As Ludwig von Mises recognized as far back as 1920, this is the same reason that successful entrepreneurs fail miserably when they try to run government agencies like businesses: What gives the entrepreneur the ability to succeed are market signals, which are necessary to determine what people might want and how well it was provided. Even the smartest person can’t learn if a teacher uses black chalk on a blackboard in a dark room. No entrepreneur can succeed in isolation.
More important, though, is that both Krugman and politicians from both parties are much too concerned about job creation when they should be concerned about value creation. Creating jobs is easy; it’s creating value that’s hard. We could create millions of jobs quite easily by destroying every piece of machinery on U.S. farms. The question is whether we are actually better off by creating those jobs—and the answer is a definite no. We want labor-saving, job-destroying technology because it creates value by enabling us to produce things at lower cost and thereby free up labor for more urgent uses.
A century ago 40 percent of Americans worked in agriculture; today it’s less than 2 percent. The former farm workers didn’t all go unemployed. The wealth created by higher farm productivity and lower prices enabled us to demand all kinds of new products that in turn created many more jobs than were lost in agriculture. This is the story of innovation everywhere.
So rather than talking about job creation, let’s focus on value creation. The case for freeing markets is that such freedom best enables individuals to find ways to use their knowledge and skills to create value for others and thereby create wealth for themselves. The more wealth that value creators can keep, the more likely they are to continue to create it. Even if a value-creating innovation destroys jobs in the short run, the increased wealth will bring a great deal of job creation in its wake.
Krugman tries to criticize Apple by pointing out that the “heroic” Steve Jobs has only created about 43,000 Apple jobs in the United States (though he created around 700,000 overseas). But this misses the point: The real job-creation number that matters here is all the ancillary jobs created through the invention of the Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Those inventions, along with every other technological innovation, have created tens of millions of jobs in programming, web design, app design, hardware maintenance, accessories, and more.
Krugman also takes a swipe at fans of Ayn Rand by referring to “the John Galt, I mean Steve Jobs-type ‘job creator.’” But Krugman is blind to the error of his own joke: John Galt’s innovative motor took static electricity out of the air and turned it into useful energy, which would have been a huge job destroyer! Again, the triumph of entrepreneurial innovation is not in creating jobs, but in creating value. Galt’s motor would have freed up a lot of labor to be devoted to new wants made possible by the cheap source of energy. Krugman can’t even see that his own example undermines his argument.
The next time anyone starts talking about job creation, stop listening. Jobs come into existence when entrepreneurs are free to create value. Aiming directly at job creation is a recipe for waste and poverty. Set people free to use their talents to create value for others and the jobs will follow.