L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 283, August 8, 2004
"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so
are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to
harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
President George W. Bush, August 5, 2004
The 3 ‘Es of the Minimum Wage
Exclusive to TLE
It's time, once again, to talk about the minimum wage.
Or rather, it's time to talk about why we're still talking about it.
Why is this absurd law still with us? Why is it so popular? Why are the Democrats talking about the need to raise the minimum yet again?
From an ethical perspective, the law is wrong. From an economic perspective, it is damaging and dangerous. And yet the emotional perspectivethe actual basis of most opinionshas a strangle hold on well-intentioned people.
Let me elaborate the three 'E's mentioned above:
E1: Ethical alignment.
E2: Economic alignment.
E3: Emotional alignment.
To take a position, I believe one needs to address the first two: the ethical and the economic. To persuade someone, I think one needs to address all three. We libertarians often neglect E3. While most people will claim to hold positions based on morality or on consequences, they really base their positions on symbolic- or emotional alignment: agreeing with "the good guys" and not wanting to side with "those people" etc.
E1: The Ethics of the Minimum Wage
When debating the minimum wage law with an advocate, I used to address only E1: the right of contract. I didn't need to understand the economics of price fixing and the consequences for unskilled labor; all that mattered was the right of individuals to engage in voluntary arrangements without the coercive influence of third parties.
If I own myself, then I own my labor. If I own my labor, then I have a right to exchange it for whatever compensation I agree to, on whatever terms I agree to. That's my perspective as a worker. My perspective as an employer would be the same: if someone is willing to do work for me at a price I find agreeable, then it's nobody else's business to interfere with our exchange. This seems so straight-forward to me now that it takes a real effort to remember how I could ever have believed anything else.
E2: The Economics of the Minimum Wage
As Jim Cox points out in his Concise Guide to the Minimum Wage, the question isn't whether a person will be employed at an hourly wage of $X or something more than $X; the question is whether the person will be employed at $X or unemployed at $0.
In the past, when talking with a minimum wage advocate who didn't know any economics, I'd try to sketch out a very quick lesson on how to produce shortages and gluts through price fixing. I eventually realized that I was abstracting too much to hold their attention. (See E3, below.) It has proven more useful to describe concrete examples.
When I was growing up in New York, buildings all over the Upper West
Side had doormen. They would welcome tenants and visitors in the
lobby, and operate a manually controlled elevator to take them to
their floor. At some point in the late 1970s, the doormen went on
strike. I learned three things from this strike:
Everyone seems to understand why there are hardly any manually operated elevators left on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but they don't seem to generalize that understanding to labor and the minimum wage.
Similarly, there are many on the economic Left who advocate excise taxes on cigarettes because they know that higher prices will discourage consumption of cigarettes. They want higher gas taxes to lower the consumption of gasoline. So why is it so hard to see that higher work prices will discourage the consumption of labor?
Many people I talk to about the minimum wage seem unaware of any economic downside. The mark of economic illiteracy is the failure to anticipate trade-offs. But some minimum wage advocates do understand the economics of price fixing and do acknowledge that a rising minimum wage means an increase in unemployment. So why do they still support the law? They point to labor statistics, which show that the unemployment effect is mostly on teenagers. They claim that it is worth a rise in the wages of "bread winners" if the only downside is the loss of some part-time and summer jobs for kids. They tend not to mention that these unemployed "kids" are mostly young black men, and that they are the least skilled and least educated among young black men. These are the people most in need of on-the-job training! Minimum wage advocates, mostly white so-called liberals, take for granted the very skills that these young men are now unable to learn on the job: punctuality, responsibility, communication, cooperation, etc. Next time you hear someone decrying the plight of inner city youth, ask how different their futures would be if the bottom rungs hadn't been removed from the economic ladder.
E3: The Emotional Support of Minimum Wage Law
The most painful part in writing this is that nothing I'm saying is new.
So why is this battle still being fought? Worse yet: why does it seem that we're losing? Minimum wage is one of the absolute simplest issues to address rationally, and yet the irrational law enjoys overwhelmingly popular support.
Abstract arguments and ethical principles leave people cold. They say that they are "results oriented"which would seem to imply a belief in the positive economic consequences of price fixing. But when confronted with basic economic theory and history, they remain unconvinced.
Because to them, minimum wage law feels right. They don't like thinking of someone working for less than $X per hour. To them, it therefore follows that no one should be allowed to hire a person for less than $X per hour. They don't see it as a prohibition on labor; they see it as a blow against the oppressive bosses!
They associate the libertarian position not with principle or conviction, but with cold hearts, greed, and selfishness. What we call freedom of contract, they call exploitation. What we call reason, they are convinced is merely rationalization.
This is emotional alignment. Symbolic self-image. People who seem to care about the poor tend to support minimum wage law; therefore someone who wants to support the poor supports the position of that group. It's as if reality itself could be defined by majority rules.
"I am a progressive, therefore I support progressive legislation." Or, "The Christian position is X, and I'm a Christian, therefore I support X."
It's all based in the belief (habit, reflex) that an issue isn't about a principle, isn't about reason, but is always about whose side you're on. There's management and there's labor. The rich and the poor. Exploiters and exploited. Minimum wage law is seen as siding with labor, siding with the poor, the underdog. To oppose minimum wage law is to side with management, to support the rich over the poor.
And of course, the whole context is the damned Class Warfare assumption that Marx managed to plant in the brains of even the most ardent anti-communists. An appreciation of market economics reveals the mutually beneficial nature of trade (as would simple philosophical rigor), but our culture has been indoctrinated with the image of economics-as-warfare. People believe that the rich take wealth from the rest of us, rather than creating wealth for the rest of us. To side with the rich in our dichotomous symbology would be to side with the thief over the victim, and no amount of principled argumentor even practical disproofwill shake that impression out of someone's head when it's been lodged in there for so long.
What is to be done?
Should libertarians abandon principles and persuasion in favor of symbolism and emotional manipulation? Perhaps we should focus more on public relations and advertising than on philosophy and economics.
No, there's nothing wrong with E1 or E2. They are the realms of reason. Abandoning our heads for our hearts leaves us with only arbitrary next steps. But persuasion requires more than reason. It might be less about teaching and more about helping people unlearn certain mental reflexes.
From now on, if I'm going to discuss minimum wage law (or any other regulation, prohibition, or legislation) with a supporter, I'll say up front that I'm going to address three different perspectives on the same issue, and I'll introduce them to the 3E approach. There's not much I can do to change someone's symbolic alignment or their emotional reflexes, but by making these things an explicit part of the conversation, I can hope to reduce the hold they have on a person's moral imagination.
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