Friday, March 27, 2009

On Unemployment Benefits

A local radio talk show was discussing the proposal of a few states that individuals collecting unemployment benefits be randomly drug-tested. It was clear that the host, who often comes down on the side of legalizing drugs, particularly marijuana, thought that this was unjust. He also stated that "Libertarians" were up in arms over the proposed legislation and I found myself wondering if that were true. After all, I'm a libertarian (little "l" libertarian) and I found myself thinking it a reasonable idea.

I am for the legalization of marijuana, at the very least, and think the legalization (or decriminalization) of other drugs would probably be a good idea as well. I have also always questioned the wisdom of employers doing random drug-screenings of employees. After all, if you have a good worker, why should what they are doing at home in their free time matter?

However, despite that, in the case of individuals receiving unemployment benefits from the government, I think the random drug-testing might well be warranted. These benefits are funded by tax-payers and paid out to the unemployed as a sort of life-support while they seek a new job. Therefore, I have two problems with these individuals using drugs. First, given the high likelihood of a new employer requiring a drug screen, use of these drugs significantly reduces the chances of being hired. Second, tax-payers should not have to fund someone's recreational drug use. Ceasing drug use while you are unemployed is a good-faith demonstration of earnestly seeking work. After all, the money is being paid out on the basis of need, not entitlement. You are entitled to the money you earn from working and can therefore spend it how you like. Government assistance should be spent to the effect for which it is offered.

*** Addendum *** Some have pointed out that we pay into the unemployment insurance pool when we are working and that benefits are somehow based on the sum/duration of these payments. Therefore, receiving unemployment benefits is hardly the charity I make it out to be and that there should, therefore, be no conditions on how they are spent. Excellent point.

However, the fact that "we all pay taxes" isn't always sufficient argument that we are all equally entitled to the services they fund.These benefits are paid out to individuals that find themselves unemployed "through no fault of their own". The fault of your unemployment doesn't end when you are laid off. The spirit of the insurance is still for you to make an effort to find employment. You are not necessarily "entitled" to all 26 weeks of unemployment that may be available. That's kind of like saying your health insurance should cover your boob job and face lift because you haven't been sick enough to use up your deductible. Just because you've paid into the system for your unemployment benefits doesn't entitle you to collect money for the full duration while sitting at home smoking crack instead of lookingfor a job.

Someone else worried that the expense of drug testing would only be an additional tax burden. But, random testing of 10 or 20% of individuals shouldn't be prohibitively expensive. Even though the hope would be to dissuade people from using the drugs, it wouldn't take many people losing their benefits to cover the cost of the testing.

It is, of course, hard for me to argue the logistics of a system that I largely disagree with in the first place. I would rather we not beforced to pay the government for this insurance in the first place.


  1. Interesting position. I seem to recall, those few times that I was collecting unemployment, that you accrue benefits, and that benefits are paid out based on that accrual. While technically, we all know that they (the government) aren't stowing the money I paid into they system into an account earmarked for only me, and that if I need to collect benefits, they will be paid by the people currently paying into the system.

    Since it's an accrual, based in part on what I've paid in, isn't it more accurate to say that I am getting back what I paid in, rather than living off the public largess?

  2. Your post really made me think. In my perfect Libertarian world, there would be no government unemployment benefits, so in that realm, I would disagree with you. However, in the real world, I can see your perspective and I agree, in part. However, Bill is correct. We all pay into the system, so if I were to take unemployment benefits, the government would be essentially giving me money back from all those years that I have paid into the system. I would have a right to do what I want with the money, even take drugs. Unemployment benefits do have an expiration date, so if I screw it up by failing drug tests, it's my own damn fault.

    The other thing is the extra expense of giving drug tests to everyone on unemployment. Wouldn't that be putting even more burden on the tax payer?