Minimum wage laws are seen as a way to help poor people have a better life. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour? Fine, we’ll raise that to $15.00 an hour, at least in certain progressive cities, and allow people working in fast food joints to earn a decent wage instead of the peanuts they are receiving now.
The problem is that minimum wage laws hurt the very people they theoretically want to help–people with a weak educational background, young people just trying to enter the work force, people of color, people who really want to work but have very minimal skills.
We all want other people to flourish, right? So pass a law that everyone has to be paid at least $15.00 an hour, and other people will flourish just like that. What could possibly go wrong?
But the person running the business has to make a profit off the labor of person he hires, or he can’t stay in business. So he has to sell his burgers for a lot more. Or he has to replace his now-expensive help with increased automation. Or both. He hires a lot few workers. Marginal workers who were useful at $7.25 an hour, are a luxury the employer cannot afford at $15.00 an hour. Many workers will be out of a job.
While we may want other people to flourish, the fact is that we cannot help other people to flourish by pointing a gun at employers and saying, “Pay your workers what we insist you pay them!”
Do we REALLY want other people to flourish? I’m not so sure that we do. Liberals, for example, are the people who push minimum wage laws most dramatically. Do they want to help people? What they want is to feel good about themselves, to feel that they are more generous than other people. “See, here I am insisting that Joe Schmoe earns $15.00 an hour flipping burgers, while you selfish defenders of the free market don’t care a hoot about Joe.” But then if Joe loses his job entirely because he is not worth $15.00 an hour, that’s just too bad. It’s certainly not the liberals’ fault. “Hey, no one should have to work for such small wages! We’ll create a government program which trains Joe to learn a new skill, so he can earn $20.00, $30.00, $40.00 an hour. Who could possibly have guessed that raising the minimum wage would cost Joe to lose his job? Meanwhile, Joe is receiving excellent unemployment compensation payments, until he has his wonderful new job after he goes through the training we will generously provide.”
But I wonder how many of the rest of us, Christians and conservatives, REALLY want other people to flourish? Because if we did, wouldn’t there be a whole lot more push-back against the insistence upon minimum wage laws? Minimum wage laws discourage the employment of people of low skills–the people who really need help!–and we don’t particularly give a rat’s patoot. “I’ve got mine, Jack.” Oh, a handful of Christians and conservatives have done a wonderful job of pointing out the harm that minimum wage laws do to ordinary people including people of minimal skills, but their numbers are minute compared to the legions of us who shrug and go with the flow. If it were not so, minimum wage laws would face enormous, principled, and loud opposition. Instead there is mostly . . . crickets.
If we want to help poor people of minimal skills, young people, black and brown people, people who want to work, ordinary people of every sort, the best thing we could do for them is to end minimum wage laws entirely. (Ending unemployment compensation and other forms of welfare would be helpful too, but let’s limit this fantasy wishing to one topic for the day.) Then anyone could get a job. He might not be earning $15.00 an hour, or even $7.25 an hour, or even $5.00 an hour, but he would be working.
Man is created in the image of God. We were made to work. Even before the fall, we had work to do. (Genesis 1:26-30) Every one of us needs to feel that we are being productive, that we are not simply cumbering the earth with our presence. Oh, of course our bent toward sin makes us willing and often even eager to live on the production of others, but we pay a horrible price psychologically when we do not work and support ourselves. We may not consciously realize that we are paying a price, but we pay it. Our self-respect is tied up with our willingness to work.
Christians and conservatives are capable of understanding these simple truths. But by and large we do not understand them. Why? I suspect that this is a covenantal judgment on us. We ourselves are breaking the Eighth Commandment that we not steal. (Exodus 20:15) We won’t tithe. We insist upon receiving Social Security, Medicare, and free public education. Therefore we can’t and don’t think clearly about all kinds of economic issues, including minimum wage laws. We are more like the liberals than we like to imagine–more concerned with having a high opinion of ourselves than with protecting ordinary people.
Henry Hazlitt wrote a wonderful book entitled Economics in One Lesson, first published in 1946. If you care about protecting and helping ordinary people, here is a superb place to learn some economics. He devoted Chapter XIX to minimum wage laws. Read him for yourself, if you feel so led, but here are a few quotes.
“You cannot make a man worth a given amount by making it illegal for anyone to offer him anything 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.”
“A nice problem, moreover, will be raised by the relief program designed to take care of the unemployment caused by the minimum wage law. By a minimum wage of, say, $1.15 an hour, we have forbidden anyone to work forty hours a week for less than $46. Suppose, now, we offer only $30 a week on relief. This means that we have forbidden a man to be usefully employed at, say $40 a week, in order that we may support him at $30 a week in idleness. We have deprived society of the value of his services. We have deprived the man of the independence and self-respect that come from self-support, even at a low level, and from performing wanted work, at the same time as we have lowered what the man could have received by his own efforts.”
“The more the individual worker produces, the more he increases the wealth of the whole community. The more he produces, the more his services are worth to consumers, and hence to employers. And the more he is worth to employers, the more he will be paid. Real wages come out of production, not out of government decrees.”
The minimum wage laws are one of the many, constant, and growing attacks on Christian civilization. The attack of $7.25 an hour is bad enough. $10.00 an hour will be worse. $15.00 is worse still. That liberals are attacking civilization is no surprise. Their goal is to kill God and to boss us all around, and to feel incredibly righteous as they do so.
What is our goal?