One big problem conservatives face in trying to develop and implement effective public policy is that conservative thinkers have gotten used to operating in an intellectual milieu that assumes activist government is the answer to every question.

In his recent New York Times column, "The Missing Fifth" , David Brooks exemplifies the point. The column identifies a problem — fewer men are working:

[I]n 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.

How is it possible that so many men manage not to work? In part it’s because many receive federal disability benefits:

Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do.

Brooks theorizes the cause of the problem as a mismatch between the kind of people we happen to have in America and the kind of jobs available:

Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35 percent of those without a high school diploma are out of the labor force, compared with less than 10 percent of those with a college degree.

Part of the problem has to do with structural changes in the economy. Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have been getting more productive, but they have not been generating more jobs. Instead, companies are using machines or foreign workers.

After pointing out that this is a serious problem, both because people who do not work acquire bad habits and because society misses out on the contributions these people could make, Brooks decries the inability of our current political discourse to address the problem:

This is a big problem. It can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left are still fantasizing about. It can’t be solved by simply reducing the size of government, as some on the right imagine.

Yet, Brooks knows what needs to be done:

It will probably require a broad menu of policies attacking the problem all at once: expanding community colleges and online learning; changing the corporate tax code and labor market rules to stimulate investment; adopting German-style labor market practices like apprenticeship programs, wage subsidies and programs that extend benefits to the unemployed for six months as they start small businesses.

Reinvigorating the missing fifth — bringing them back into the labor market and using their capabilities — will certainly require money.

The column goes on to identify large and growing federal expenditures on health care for the elderly as a big problem — basically because such spending crowds out other spending for various programs such as Brooks proposes to get men back in the labor force:

If this were a smart country, we’d be having a debate about how to shift money from programs that provide comfort and toward programs that spark reinvigoration.

There is certainly a reasonable debate to be held on how much federal spending should go to comfort the elderly versus how much to educate the young or run programs to benefit the working population. It is also true that to consider what expenditures will make America a more prosperous, powerful, and successful society in the years to come is a conservative thought, responding to lefty environmentalism and self-hate in foreign affairs that hopes for America to decline.

Yet, on the substance of the issue, Brooks takes what is clearly a matter of personal responsibility and turns it into an excuse for a whole range of federal programs.

The key question when confronted with this 20 percent statistic is one Brooks never asks: How do these people eat and live?

Most people work at jobs in order to support themselves and their families. Maybe they get some pride from a job well done and enjoy their coworkers. Regardless, the number of big lottery winners who stick with being a custodian or file clerk or traveling salesman is pretty few.

Work is what one does because one must. But why is it that 20 percent of the male workforce feels that they don’t have to work?

It is always the case that those who don’t want to work will point to the mismatch between the work available and their skills. Indeed, many of the proposals Brooks mentions, such as expanding community colleges or paying people unemployment while they start businesses, are just another way of helping people avoid the necessity of taking the jobs that might actually be available.

For most people the best way to acquire the skills and habits that successful labor force participation demands is not, in fact, to take courses at a community college. It is to take a job – a job that is likely going to be unpleasant in many ways and only minimally remunerative. Fortunately, in America, that is not the end of the story, and sticking with that tough job opens the door to better jobs and a better life.

In the end, Brooks’s notion that solving this problem requires programs and will cost money is based on an unwritten assumption that society can only use carrots, when, in fact, the real issue is a lack of sticks.

If there is an option for people to get disability when they are not actually disabled, people will take it. If they get health care through Medicaid, eat with food stamps and live in subsidized housing, whether it’s their own or a girlfriend’s or mother’s, people will take it. After all, the alternative is not to make millions and have a house in the Hamptons; the alternative is lots of hard unpleasant work.

Solving this problem does not mean launching new programs or spending more money. It actually means spending less. It means limiting the time people can collect unemployment; it means restricting the ability of people to collect disability; it means that one doesn’t have medical insurance if one isn’t willing to work.

It is nice to think we can change individual motivations solely with carrots; the reality is that sticks have their place as well. There’s a reason why social welfare programs only grow over time – and almost never contract. There’s a reason folks commonly, over time, become more dependent on social welfare programs.

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