That’s the claim being made about Obama’s proposal to outlaw discrimination against the unemployed. It’s a very old argument that surfaces everytime government has to step in to prevent businesses from ruling out entire classes of people as potential employees. A good example of these arguments against fairness can be found in a Chicago Tribune op-ed column of 9/22/2011, “The wrong help for the unemployed,” with the subtitle, “Employer discrimination is not the real problem.”
Its basic point is that such a law isn’t needed because the practice is not widespread and once the economy improves enough, hiring eventually will include those currently unemployed.
It’s easy for white males (like the column writer) to believe this because many have never experienced discrimination. As everybody who isn’t a white male knows, job discrimination still is widespread, often precisely because the white males making hiring decisions are clueless about their own prejudices. Laws against this aren’t terribly effective, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t needed.
Once again, the old claim is made that market forces on their own will lead to rational hiring policies because companies want to hire the best people available. In reality, when market forces operated without fair-employment laws, businesses demonstrated they wanted to hire only the best white, heterosexual, physically able males available for the highest-paying, most desirable jobs.
In the past several decades, business has enjoyed freedom from hard-won regulations intended to curb their most egregious misbehavior. The results include financial devastation for middle-class investors, homeowners, the unemployed and – as usual – the poor. This will remain true as long as American business remains relentlessly focused on profit as its first, last and only goal, an obsession used to justify all kinds of unjust practices because profit has been enshrined as sacred.
When businesses make job growth their top goal instead of profit, unemployment will ease and the economy will improve. But we’ll always need laws restraining market forces and their use to protect employees, consumers, communities and even businesses from their own worst instincts.