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The Moral Case for the Minimum Wage is the Left's Strongest Argument

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The minimum wage debate is a shining example of the left’s vigour and academic prowess. There has been an extensive and effective appeal to the various economic data that blast gaping holes in the argument that a higher minimum wage will somehow increase unemployment or drive prices through the roof.

Economists on left have aptly noted that productivity has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, with no similar increase in wages ( Schmitt). Others ( Card and Krueger, but more recently Dube et al) have noted that apocalyptic predictions of mass unemployment have proved wrong in the past. Economists of the middle-out persuasion have shown how a higher minimum wage would stimulate demand.

But, in a sense, we don’t really have to prove this. When debating the Kyoto protocol we don’t ask whether unemployment will drop by 1% or 2%, but whether it’s morally appropriate for two dozen or so developed nations to benefit from GHGs that will primarily affect the world’s poorest people. When Ford executives released the Pinto, it would have been preferable had they asked, not whether the car would be profitable, but whether it’s moral to knowingly sell a deadly product.

Similarly, even were some businesses to fail, unemployment rises and prices increase, a higher minimum wage could still be an acceptable policy. We must ask ourselves whether we want to live in a society when the poorest working people can not afford to purchase basic necessities. Or, put differently, should a business that cannot afford to pay its workers enough to survive be allowed to exist, grow and prosper? This question is not entirely absurd, and we have had to ask, and answer similar questions before. We once had to ask ourselves whether a company that could only remain profitable by releasing toxic chemicals into the air should be allowed to exist. We answered no. We once had to ask ourselves whether a company that could only remain profitable by employing child labour should be allowed to exist. We answered no. We once had to ask ourselves whether a company that could only remain profitable by paying women too little, pushing workers too hard, or maintaining a dangerous workforce should be allowed to exist. We answered no.

It would seem rather boorish to suggest today that were McDonald’s to stop hiring 10 year olds to cook burgers, its prices would have to rise 68 cents and therefore we shouldn’t ban child labor. And yet, because of a similar price rise, workers at McDonald’s must work two jobs or go without health insurance.

That means that what many Americans take for granted: time to read, enjoy coffee in the morning and play with their children are not all luxuries for the employees from whom we purchase burgers. Is that the type of society we want to live in? One in which workers at Wal-Mart must also accept food stamps to keep your “everyday low prices” around?

Walmart and McDonalds brutally crush any attempt for workers to get a decent value for their time and labor. This same brutality occurred frequently during the industrial revolution, a time of environmental degradation, worker abuse and widespread inequality.

This is the left’s strongest argument. Markets are not divine incarnations of revealed wisdom; we must modify them to suit our demands as a society. When markets produce negative consequences, we don’t accept them and move on, we demand public action. So it is now. Some on the left have suggested some sort of Negative Income Tax as a solution (and I would heartily accept a guaranteed minimum income, if it would compliment a higher minimum wage); but this fails to get at the problem. There should be a dignity in labor. Those who work should have enough money to eat, live comfortably and enjoy time off. I’m rather tired of wealthy writers, economists, politicians and businessmen who believe that they should enjoy these benefits, but other members of society should not. I’ve always held the relatively simple belief that profits should always be in service to people, not the other way around.

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