Ideas have consequences, Richard Weaver once wrote. They pace the course of human history—both good ideas and bad. And while intentions may be honorable, the passing of time has proven that, in the long term, you can’t get good results from bad ideas.
The minimum wage is a classic example of a good intention and a bad idea. The idea behind minimum wage legislation is that government, by simple decree, can increase the earning power of all marginal workers. Implicit in this idea is the notion that employment is an exploitive relationship and that business owners will never voluntarily raise the wages of their workers. Businesses, we are told, must be coerced into paying workers what they deserve, and only politicians know what this is.
Not only does this line of thinking run contrary to the most basic economic principles of a free society, but it is also patently illogical. If government could raise the real wages of millions of Americans by merely passing a law announcing that fact, then why stop at $3.35 per hour, or $4.65, or even $107 Isn’t $500 per hour more compassionate than $50? Absurd, you say, and I would agree. But the “logic” is perfectly consistent with the idea of a minimum wage, once you have accepted the premise that political decrees can raise wages.
What does make wages rise? It is most certainly not government edicts that simply rearrange and redistribute existing wealth. Wages rise in response to the creation of new wealth through greater productivity. The more that a society produces per capita, the more there is to distribute through the marketplace in the form of higher wages, better benefits, and lower prices.
The “bigger economic pie” concept is not complicated in the least, and yet it is a principle that seems to elude us time and again in matters of public policy. We know instinctively that government cannot create or produce anything. It regulates, confiscates, and consumes, all at the expense of the private economy. And yet we still believe that government can wave its magic wand with laws like the minimum wage, and we all will be better off.
Politicians engage in this deception to buy political favor from special interest groups. We keep falling for these political deceptions because our focus is on short-term personal gains rather than on the long-term consequences to the entire nation. We see the apparent benefit of having our own wages increased. But we don’t consider the nameless victims of the minimum wage hike who will lose their jobs because the government has priced them out of the labor market. (It is precisely because minimum wage laws eliminate low-skilled workers from competing in the job market that organized labor lobbies Congress for massive minimum wage hikes.)
Commenting on the minimum wage, economist Henry Hazlitt put it succinctly:
You cannot make a man worth a given amount by making it illegal for anyone to offer him less. You merely deprive him of the right to earn the amount that his abilities and situation would permit him to earn, while you deprive the community even of the moderate services that he is capable of rendering. In brief, for a low wage you substitute unemployment. You do harm all around, with no comparable compensation.
The net loss to society that results from this sweeping act of “wrongful discharge” is staggering. Those losses include: (1) The loss of employment to the individual himself, (2) the shrinking of the economic pie by the loss of his productive contribution, (3) the financial loss to society in supporting him in his idleness (unemployment compensation, welfare, etc.), (4) the financial loss in funding useless job training programs and other government efforts to get him re-employed, and (5) the net loss to society in having consumer prices driven up to cover the higher labor costs, and the loss of market share to foreign competition that may occur.
The cruel irony of the minimum wage is that it harms most the very segments of our society that it is intended to help—the unskilled poor and the inexperienced young. The evidence to support this is overwhelming, and it is the black community that is the hardest hit. in the 1950s, black teenage unemployment was roughly that of white teens. Following years of steady increases in both the level and coverage of the Federal minimum wage, over 40 per cent of the nation’s black teenagers are now unemployed.
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