Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Santorum’s “Unemployment” Gaffe, and the Laissez-Faire Philosophy

Of course Rick Santorum really does care about the unemployment rate. And yet, in another sense, he doesn’t.

When Santorum declared on Monday, “I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn’t matter to me,” he wasn’t gloating about his personal fortune of millions of dollars, and the way the lack of an income for the rest of his life wouldn’t dampen his lifestyle. No, obviously, he was talking about his campaign strategy, and the fact that his (very slim) chances of becoming president don’t rise and fall with the state of the economy.

Some might say that Santorum was not being politically astute by thinking strictly about himself, and not pausing to think about what was happening to the country he was seeking to lead. He didn’t comment on the broader, non-political implications of unemployment until reporters prompted him several hours later, but that is a separate issue.

Because, in a different sense, Santorum really doesn’t care about the unemployment rate. He cares, obviously, when people can’t easily find jobs, but he also doesn’t believe that is a proper concern for government. He regularly ridicules the suggestion of another candidate, Mitt Romney, that government policy could “fix the economy” (in Santorum’s words). He really, sincerely believes the pre-Keynesian, 19th-century philosophy of “laissez faire,” of a hands-off approach to managing the economy.

Based on what the candidate has said, it is hard to imagine that a Santorum administration would be willing to spend the money for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the agency that keeps track of how many people have jobs. You would almost expect Santorum to do away with the entire Department of Labor, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics resides, along with half a dozen other departments that have a problem-solving approach to economic matters. On the campaign trail, Santorum has hammered away at the point that it isn’t government’s role to help people. He hasn’t spoken favorably about programs such as unemployment compensation or Food Stamps. Santorum promises the federal government won’t be involved in managing the economy or solving its problems. But then, why would it be spending billions on statistics to track metrics that it promises not to manage?

It seems safe to say that a vote for Santorum is a vote for doing away with the official unemployment rate. That doesn’t mean there won’t be an unemployment rate, of course, but we will hear about it in estimates from polling companies and university committees, not in government announcements.

And when unemployment goes up, as it surely would under the approach Santorum has outlined, he could just say again, “I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn’t matter to me.” Because that is, in a nutshell, what the laissez-faire philosophy about economic policy says.