Sunday, December 24, 2006

Thoughts on the Minimum Wage

Last night I was listening to talk radio and the host, who labels himself as a conservative libertarian, was talking about proposed upcoming changes in the minimum wage. The host stated that he's against having any sort of a minimum wage. He believes that in a free market system that both workers and employers should have total freedom in setting the terms of the employment contract; that a worker is always free to decline a job offer if they deem the pay offered to be insufficient. He went on to say that those seeking work are selling their physical skills, their mental skills, or a combination of both. To these, I'd add that what people are primarily selling before these two things is their TIME, which is the most precious commodity we have.

In theory, the libertarian part of me agrees with him; that greater freedom from government interference in conducting our private affairs is a good thing. But on a more practical, realistic level, I know this would work only to the benefit of employers. The goal of employers is to get as much work out of an employee while giving back as little as they can legally get by with in order to maximize their profits.

It's easy to say that people are always free to seek work elsewhere if what a particular employer is offering is unacceptable, but with no checks and balances to curb the worst excesses of greed, it is likely that nearly all employers would be offering rock bottom wages. It is naive and shortsighted to think that employers will offer fair wages just out of the goodness of their hearts. From their perspective, they are in business solely to make money, not help people make a living.

Workers would have to eventually cave in, because they'd have to work somewhere or starve, and more people would be compelled to work at more than one job just to get by. We'd be working more hours in order to get the same wages.

Many people in the 19th century were able to get by without a minimum wage because people then were able to produce much of what they needed themselves and were also able to resort to bartering. But we must remember that child labor was also prevalent during this time, as many families needed every member earning wages, working from sunup to sundown, to support the family. But it's a different world now -- families are no longer self-contained production units, nor is barter a practical solution to cash-flow problems. And, needless to say, child labor is totally unacceptable, repugnant to a modern society.

A completely unrestrained free market system is an unworkable utopia. We must have basic safeguards, such as a fair minimum wage, to curb the marketplace's natural tendency to greed. Let's support raising the minimum wage.


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