Following Philip Davies’ remarks in respect of enabling the disabled to access jobs, there has been a great deal of discussion about the minimum wage. As an advocate for liberty, I may be expected to side with those who agree with Davies’ thesis: for sure, my instinctive reaction has always been to dismiss the minimum wage as just another piece of restrictive social engineering.
But when I think about it…
To take a purely ideological stand against social engineering per se is to dismiss the notion of morality which is, itself, no more than a social construct. Total freedom is a wonderful ideal but once we subscribe to the notion of society, it is unattainable unless we’re prepared to accept murder, rape and pillage. Accordingly, we agree to – and enforce – a certain level of restriction provided that its imposition is fair, universal and achieves some benefit to society that unfettered freedom cannot. In short, we are prepared to accept our freedoms being diminished if it can be demonstrated that the alternatives are more disadvantageous to us as a whole.
If we were to adopt the policy that Davies was advocating, we may well achieve his aim of putting more disabled people into the workplace. But if we had full employment, there would be no need for such a scheme: it is only necessary because we suffer from structural unemployment currently exacerbated by the collapse of western capitalism. Therefore, adopting Davies’ proposal would result in unemployment being displaced from the disabled to another group of people: any canny employer will simply use the legislation to offload those of us on minimum wage and above.
If this were the only consideration, we might feel that it is a price worth paying. But to do so would unsettle one of the basic tenets of libertarianism as we increase the tax burden by shifting a significant part of the employers’ labour costs to the state. Many lower-paid workers already need to be subsidised by the benefits system: lowering wages yet further will aggravate the problem.
Abandoning the minimum wage altogether would have the same effect writ large and would represent a major step on our current frogmarch back to serfdom. On balance, I would suggest that the retention and universality of the minimum wage are the least of all evils in this debate.
Of course, this doesn’t help the disabled. But though Davies’ objective is an honourable one, it is probably intractable as long as we have unemployment. Perhaps a better way forward would be to re-model the work ethic bit of our morality so that paid work is not the only measure of our worth in society.