John R. Commons and Government as Employer of Last Resort: Three Paths to a Progressive Right to Work
Charles J. Whalen
Journal of Economic Issues, 2020, vol. 54, issue 2, 428-435
Today in the United States, a number of congressional Democrats endorse proposals that would establish a job guarantee for all Americans seeking work. Arguments for such a policy can be traced back at least to the work of John R. Commons, one of the first institutional economists. This article demonstrates that there are actually three arguments in Commons’s scholarship that provide a case for government to hire the unemployed by serving as employer of last resort. These arguments, each highlighted at a different point in Commons’s career, can be viewed in turn as legal, financial, and historical paths to public provision of work for the jobless—government employment that Commons considered part of “the right to work.” The article traces each path, highlighting insight that remains relevant and calling for greater attention to Common’s writings as a way to reclaim the right to work as a progressive cause.
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