Who Is the Real Social Activist?

Milton Friedman's passing way raises some age-old questions. Why educate healthy and talented young people to unemployment?

A few days ago, Professor Milton Friedman, the prophet of the free-market economy, died at a ripe old age. Friedman taught generations of economists and politicians to believe that the smaller the government is and the less it intervenes, the better it is for all of us. He believed in competition and in the working man who lives by the sweat of his brow without government benefits. Friedman's philosophy contributed to a more developed, wealthier global economy with a greater level of well-being for people of all classes.

But in Israel, "Friedmanist" is a curse word. In Israel, those who believe in a free-market economy are against social activism, love the rich, and hate the poor. There are few curses that can compete with the severity of "Friedmanist" - and they are "Thatcherist," "Reaganist," and in the last few years, also "Bibi'ist," named after Benjamin Netanyahu. And indeed, these are three political figures who implemented Friedman's theories in their countries: England, the United States and Israel.

But is a "Friedmanist" really against social activism?

The Economic Arrangements Law for 2007 includes an excellent example of the debate related to the endless struggle between the "good social activists" and the "bad economists."

In order to receive unemployment benefits, Israelis must first work at least one year during the last year and a half. This minimal employment period is considered a qualification period. But in the 1990s, an amendment to the law was passed stating that someone who recently completed his military service could receive unemployment benefits immediately - even if he never worked a day in his life - because the military service would be considered a qualification period. It was as though the soldier had worked, a kind of bluff.

When Silvan Shalom was finance minister, he tried to revoke this amendment, but failed to do so. Netanyahu didn't succeed either. But the 2006 Economic Arrangements Law states that the period of military service should be considered only half of the qualification period. In other words, the soldier would have to work at least six months before he could demand unemployment benefits.

In the 2007 Economic Arrangements Law, the Finance Ministry is trying to go one step further. At first, the treasury tried to declare that unemployment benefits would not be payable to anyone under the age of 28. But following the attorney general's review, it was decided to moderate the proposal and declare that unemployment benefits would be payable to those younger than 28, but that the conditions would be worse than for older unemployed people: they would receive benefits for fewer days and less money, and would be required to accept any work offered to them.

Despite the more moderate proposal, social organizations and Knesset members from the Labor Party are vehemently protesting. They say this is a serious blow to soldiers and young people in low-income towns. They say it will increase the distress and poverty, and that young people, therefore, should not have a difficult time collecting unemployment. Perhaps they should be subject to even easier conditions than others.

Thus do the heroes of society view education values. From their perspective, the soldier who has completed his military service will first encounter civilian life through the employment bureau. There they will learn how to work the system instead of how to work the lathe. There they will learn how to go to an employer and drive him crazy until he writes, "The aforementioned is not suitable," so that the aforementioned can go back on the unemployment lines.

These are healthy and talented young people. Why educate them to unemployment? Why teach them how to live without self-respect, without the possibility of advancing and developing?

The problem in the work force is not that of the young people; it is that of the adults, those older than 45. The young people are in high demand, as can be seen by opening the classifieds pages of the newspapers. The young people can and must find any work, any distance from home, under any conditions, and in all situations. That is the right education for leading a productive life and retaining self-respect.

The young people can replace Thai laborers who work in agriculture and Chinese laborers who work in construction. They can work in industry or commerce, for messenger services or security firms, in marketing, in restaurants - and all work is honorable work. Of course, this is only the beginning, because the same young person must save money and then learn a trade, and so he must start his life by putting his best foot forward, not by receiving destructive unemployment benefits.

Israel's major economic problem is the low rate of participation in the work force and high level of unemployment. Netanyahu succeeded in ameliorating both these levels when he initiated the welfare-to-work policy while serving as finance minister.

Now Israeli society works more and relies less on government largesse, and therefore, is a healthier society. Between 2003 and 2006, the rate of participation in the work force rose from 54.5 percent to 55.8 percent, and despite this, unemployment declined from 10.7 percent to 8.8 percent. In order to understand the extent of this achievement, it should be pointed out that were it not for the increased rate of participation in the work force, the unemployment level would have dropped even more sharply, and would be only 7 percent.

But at the time, the good social activists opposed the welfare-to-work policy, and today they oppose educating young people to get jobs. So who is the real social activist?