Minimum Wage: Good Intentions, Bad Policy

This article was originally published by ValuesandCapitalism.com on February 15, 2013.

Minimum wage is supposed to help poor people. That’s why two out of three Americans support raising it to $10 an hour. And that’s probably why President Obama, during his State of the Union Address last Tuesday, called for raising it by more than 20 percent.

But as any logician knows, public support for an idea doesn’t make it true.

Minimum wage has always had public support. When the first federal minimum wage legislation—the Fair Labor Standards Act—was passed in 1938, it was thought to be a major victory for the working class. The idea of protecting workers from the profit-motives of their employers was thought to be humane. But the slightest bit of economic investigation tells a more complex story.

Henry Payne cartoon

Cartoon by Henry Payne

Wages are the price for labor. They are the compensation workers require for their time and efforts. As with any price, regulatory controls—whether a price ceiling or a price floor—distort the market, creating either a shortage or a surplus. If the price of milk is capped at $1 per gallon, grocers will soon run out, as customers buy more than they need while prices are low. If the price of bread is not allowed to fall below $10 per loaf, grocers won’t be able to sell their stock as consumers will wait until prices drop to buy bread.

In the same way, minimum wage—a price floor on labor—creates a surplus of workers. At a price of $7.25 per hour, workers who are willing to sell their labor outnumber business-owners willing to hire them. There is only so much money to go around, and—like the grocery store’s customers—businesses cannot spend more on wages than they earn in revenue. And of course, not every type of labor is the same—some jobs simply aren’t worth paying someone $7.25 an hour to complete.

The result: Fewer jobs and permanent unemployment for those unable to produce more than $7.25 worth of goods for their employers. Hardly a means to help the working class.

Now in real terms, $7.25 an hour is a low wage. In fact, workers earning minimum wage today earn less than those did in the 1950s—before the age of quantitative easing and rapid monetary inflation. But that doesn’t make a minimum wage hike any more justifiable.

Despite the good intentions of its modern-day propagators, minimum wage is a questionable policy that should raise eyebrows for anyone concerned with the plight of the poor. At the very least, think twice before supporting a minimum wage hike. History suggests it might not have Mr. Obama’s intended effect.

Read the article at ValuesandCapitalism.com.

Waging War on Work

This article was originally published at Mises.org on February 11, 2013.

Employment law is a mainstay of state economic policy. Few question its efficacy as a means to correct “market failures”—like unlivable wages for meaningful work—that would leave society in shambles. In fact, no serious debate exists among American policymakers about the benefits of such laws. Their utility is simply assumed.

But laws that restrict or stipulate the terms of voluntary employment contracts stifle economic progress and make life harder for everyone—even those for whom the laws were designed to aid.

Minimum wage is the most basic example of such a law. By outlawing employment below a certain wage-rate, the state ensures that no one works for less than what its officials consider a “living wage.” The first federal minimum wage legislation was the Fair Labor Standards Act.[1] Since its passage in 1938, the bill has been amended many times—usually to adjust the minimum wage to account for inflation. Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

In the act, Congress determines that “the existence … of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers” causes inequity, burdens commerce and “the free flow of goods in commerce,” and leads to labor disputes that further hamper free commerce.[2] Minimum wage is their solution to this problem.

But what Congress did not know (or chose to ignore) was that employers cannot pay an employee more than that employee’s discounted marginal revenue product—their contribution to the employer’s firm’s revenues. For example, if an employee generates $10 of revenue for their employer every hour, their employer will not pay them more than $10 per hour. Otherwise, their contributions to the firm would amount to net loss. Employers cannot simply raise every employee’s wages without regard for the employee’s marginal revenue product.

The unseen effect of minimum wage is now made clear: all workers who are unable to generate more revenue per hour for their employer than the legal minimum hourly wage are laid off. As Murray Rothbard writes,

If the minimum wage is, in short, raised from $3.35 to $4.55 an hour, the consequence is to dis-employ, permanently, those who would have been hired at rates in between these two rates. Since the demand curve for any sort of labor (as for any factor of production) is set by the perceived marginal productivity of that labor, this means that the people who will be dis-employed and devastated by this prohibition will be precisely the ‘marginal’ (lowest wage) workers … the very workers whom the advocates of the minimum wage are claiming to foster and protect.

The “marginal” workers Rothbard describes often include inexperienced teenagers, immigrants, and the disabled. For these people, employment is legally impossible under a minimum wage law. They are permanently dis-employed. To deny this effect, according to Ludwig von Mises, is “tantamount to a complete disavowal of any regularity in the sequence and interconnectedness of market phenomena.”

Why, then, do so many continue to advocate minimum wage as a means to subsidize the working class?

The fact is, many such advocates choose to ignore economic reality in favor of more “nuanced” arguments. Consider attorney and writer Carolyn Rosenblatt. In a Forbes.com column published last winter advocating minimum wage for home care workers, she writes,

For anyone who might think [extending minimum wage to home care workers] is not a good idea or that it puts too much burden on the small business employer who has to pay more now to the worker, think about this: would you want your aging loved one to stay in his or her home as long as possible? Are you willing to do all the physical chores of care-giving yourself?

For Rosenblatt, economic law, small business, and market forces are not important. What matters for her (and her intellectual allies) is cognitive resonance—feeling like home care workers are paid as much as she thinks they deserve, all the while refusing to acknowledge that wages are market prices determined by supply and demand.

Arguments like this are all too common among proponents of the minimum wage. They acknowledge the economic problems with their ideas yet advocate them anyway. There is no other explanation. While Rosenblatt and those like her may have the best of intentions, their willful ignorance of economic reality is blatant and hardly forgivable.

Of course, not all advocates of minimum wage are ignorant. Unions, for example, have a strong interest in supporting minimum wage. By doing so, they eliminate competition from those willing to do their work for less. Racists and prejudiced people also benefit from minimum wage. If employers must pay a minimum wage to whomever they hire, they can disregard the wage-demands of potential employees and simply ignore applications from those they hate. This was the reasoning behind the predominantly white Mine Workers’ Union of South Africa when they wrote regarding the application of minimum wage equally to both whites and blacks,

The real point on is that whites have been ousted by coloured labour. It is not because a man is white or coloured, but owing to the fact that the latter is cheap … when that [minimum wage] is introduced we believe that most of the difficulties in regard to the coloured question will automatically drop out.

Minimum wage, then, is hardly the innocent idea its supporters suspect it to be. Like all other forms of market intervention, it is hijacked by those with evil intent—those who seek to use the violence of the law to serve their own ends.

Needless to say, the harms of minimum wage are hardly a mystery to economists—especially those of the Austrian bent. So why bring this up now?

Because despite the liberty movement’s success in undermining the intellectual foundations of state interventionism, the most basic economic truths have yet to be absorbed into public opinion. In fact, just two years ago the Public Religion Research Institute found that two-thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour. Among these supporters are 41 percent of self-described Tea Partiers and 43 percent of “Americans who most trust Fox News”—those who claim to be advocates of economic liberty.

No doubt, libertarians have come a long way. Austrian economics is more popular now than ever. Even on Capitol Hill, the ideas of sound money, financial austerity, and economic liberty have become impossible to ignore. But if two-thirds of the American people maintain support for the flawed idea of minimum wage, libertarians still have a long way to go.

Self-Interest: A Powerful Force for Good and Evil

This article was originally published at ValuesandCapitalism.com on February 7, 2013.

Economists are confusing. They often disagree about the most basic of ideas. But one thing no serious economist rejects is the important role of self-interest in promoting economic growth.

In fact, this idea has been a mainstay of economic theory for centuries. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner,” wrote Adam Smith in 1776, “but from their regard for their own interest.”

Today, the importance of self-interest is all but taken for granted. Schools use grades to encourage students to learn. Employers offer bonuses for high-performing employees. Governments offer tax credit for environmentally friendly choices. Today, doubting self-interest’s role as a catalyst for economic growth is almost unheard of.

But unfortunately, pursuing self-interest can go too far.

In the introduction to his book “Economics as Religion,” Robert H. Nelson defines two types of self-interest. “Legitimate” self-interest, he says, is expressed through market processes: as people seek their own benefit, they produce and exchange in conjunction with others in order to build wealth. This is the same kind of self-interest Adam Smith described.

“Illegitimate” self-interest, on the other hand, is expressed in the form of deceit, coercion and violence—seeking their own benefit, people enrich themselves at the expense of those around them. This type of self-interest is usually condemned, and often illegal.

But while illegitimate self-interest may be rare in the United States on a large scale, this is not the case in many parts of the world. Political violence is common in east Africa. Government transparency is deficient in communist China. Police corruption is rampant in places like Sudan, Mexico and Afghanistan.

Americans often analyze these disadvantaged nations and blame certain public figures or features of regional economies like the presence of oil, drugs or famines. But what we often forget is that the same drive for success that fuels our own economic success creates economic disaster when unaccompanied by strong moral values.

This is because self-interest is the most powerful force in the world. It fuels profit-making and charitable enterprises alike. It drives technological progress and entrepreneurial innovation. Yet without strong social pressure to restrain self-interest, economic mayhem results—regardless of financial conditions. As Nelson shows, the nation of Zambia was for years one of the largest recipients of foreign aid in Africa, yet the Zambian economy actually worsened during this same period. Much of this aid, he argues, went straight into the hands of oppressive political rulers who used it to serve their own ends without regard for the rights of their countrymen.

What Zambia lacked was a social system that upheld the values required for economic growth—values that encourage self-interest in the market yet condemn it as a way to harm others. Until these values exist, no amount of investment or aid will do any good. Self-interest will rule, as it always does, but only through the violence of those whose self-interest overcomes their respect for the rights of those around them.

Self-interest is the fount of economic growth. It is the catalyst for innovation and production. But it can also be the prime mover behind violence and corruption. Needless to say, values and capitalism go hand in hand. If either is left without the other, the economic blessings of self-interest will never be known.

Read the article at ValuesandCapitalism.com.