Idle Jack and Busy Bert

by Diana E. Forrest

Idle Jack is the hate figure of the welfare system. No matter how low the unemployment benefit is, he would rather take it than work.

This really bothers Busy Bert. He is looking for a good job, but in the meantime has taken a boring minimum wage one instead. There do not seem to be lots of good jobs around. Once Bert pays his fares and his rent, he does not feel that he is much better off than Idle Jack.

Bert struggles out of bed — Jack lies in. Bert goes on a long horrible commute — Jack only has to go to his local jobcentre and that not every day. Bert has to put up with boring work and a boss who does not realise Bert’s true potential. Bert has busily taken work-related courses so he can get a better job, yet here he still is, stacking crates.

It isn’t good enough. In his break, Bert reads his favourite paper. It tells him all about Idle Jack and how much he is getting from the state and how little he deserves it. Surely Bert should be better off than Jack? If he can’t be better off, then at least Jack should be worse off. He too should have a taste of worker hell. Bert’s favourite paper is all for workfare.

If Bert lived in a cooperative society instead of a competitive one, then making Jack work more would mean Bert worked less. “Come on, Comrade Jack,” he could cry. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! The less work you do, the more the rest of us have to put in. Get out of bed and get stuck in.” This is the way Bert feels things work.

However, in a competitive society, that is not how things work. If everybody were as desperate to get a job as Bert, then more jobs could pay minimum wage and still get workers. If somebody even busier wants Bert’s job, that does not mean that they can share the work as in the cooperative society. It means that unless Bert works harder he could find himself out on his ear and replaced by an even more exploited wage slave. On the other hand, if ever an employer were so short of labour that they wanted to hire Idle Jack, they would have to improve pay or conditions or both, because Jack does not really want a job.

Cooperative society: Jack working hard helps Bert, Jack being idle harms Bert. Competitive society: Jack working hard hurts Bert, Jack being idle helps Bert.

Bert does not see this. He does not connect making Jack desperate to get a job with the precarity of his own position at work. He just feels that if he could wipe the smile off Jack’s idle face, the world would be a better place. Jack must have more duties and restrictions. The benefits system is therefore designed to bring about the employment of Idle Jack, whom nobody wants to hire.

If only Busy Bert realised how much of the firm’s assets were being tied up in a nice pension package for his employer, Wealthy Willie! He might then realise how near he is to getting the same deal as Idle Jack. The dreadful day arrives, the firm fails, and Bert is unemployed. He has been lining a pit with spikes that he himself is about to fall into.

Bert feels that the system that is designed to thwart Idle Jack won’t thwart him, but it will. Bert will try to get part time work if he can’t get full time work. The system will penalise part time work, because it might be Idle Jack’s route out of full time work. Because the benefits system does not allow for expenses, Bert’s part time work might leave him worse off than Jack, who does none. Bert will try to take another work related course. The system will restrict this, because it might be Idle Jack’s way of avoiding a proper job. At least they will let me do voluntary work and get some experience, thinks Bert. This too will be restricted. The system may even stop Bert doing voluntary voluntary work and force him to do compulsory voluntary work instead.

As Bert struggles and argues with the system, he may spot Wealthy Willie as he floats away to safety on his yacht. Willie has been organising a comfortable escape route from the failing firm while Bert had his envious eyes on Jack.

And if there were a Citizen’s Income instead? Jack could idle away in peace. But Bert would also have more options. He could hold out for a better job or take a low paid one and strike for more pay. He could train or work part time more easily. He could devote more time to voluntary work if he liked. He could consider having his own business, because he would have something to live on while starting it up. And, as long as he worked for pay, even if part time, Bert would be better off than Jack, because his pay would not be clawed back by the benefits system but added to his CI.

The terror that people will choose to be idle will influence a lot of people against CI. But they do not realise that the system that permits idleness also permits enterprise. Certainly, destitute people can be very enterprising, but their enterprise is more likely to take the form of cleaning a windscreen and holding out a hopeful palm than of developing a hot new invention for the market.

So — which is best? A system that claims to punish the idle but sometimes hits the deserving as well? Or a system that gives something to everybody and lets them make their own choices?

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