The Failed Moral Argument for a "Living Wage"
by Ryan McMaken
With Labor Day upon us, newspapers across the US will be printing op-eds calling for a mandated “living wage” and higher wages in general. In many cases, advocates for a living wage argue for outright mandates on wages; that is, a minimum wage set as an arbitrary level determined by policymakers to be at a level that makes housing, food, and health care “affordable.”
Behind this effort is a philosophical claim that employers are morally obligated to pay “a living wage” to employees, so they can afford necessities (however ambiguously defined) on a single wage, working forty hours per week. This moral argument singles out employers as the morally responsible party in the living wage equation, even though the variables that determine a living wage go far beyond the wage earned.
For example, as I discussed here, the living wage is a function not simply of the wage, but of the cost of housing, food, health care, transportation, and a myriad of other factors. Where housing costs are low, for example, the living wage will be lower than it would be in a place where housing costs are high.
So, what matters is not the nominal wage paid by the employer, but the real wage as determined by the cost of everything that a wage is used to purchase.
Why Is Only the Employer Responsible?
So, if it’s the real wage that matters, why is there a fixation on the nominal wage itself? After all, wages, in real terms, could be increased greatly by forcing down food costs and rents. So, why is there not a constant drum beat for grocers to lower their prices to make necessities affordable? Why are activists not picketing outside grocery stores for their high prices? Why are they not outside KB Homes headquarters for KB’s apparently inhumane efforts at selling homes at the highest prices that the market will bear? Why are people not picketing used car dealers for not lowering their prices to make transportation affordable for working families? And why are gas stations strangely exempted from protests over the high cost of gasoline? Certainly, all of these merchants are just as instrumental in determining real wages as any employer. Grocers, landlords, home sellers, and the owner of the corner gas station can put a huge dent in the family budget when they allow their “greed” to impel them to charge the highest prices they can get away with in the market place.
And yes, it’s true that plenty of activists regularly denounce landlords as “slumlords” or greedy capitalists for charging the highest rents the market will bear. And there are still plenty of activists who argue for price controls on rents and food. But they’re in a small minority nowadays. The vast majority of voters and policymakers recognize that government-dictated prices on food and housing lead to shortages. Setting a price ceiling on rents or home prices simply means that fewer housing units will be built, while setting a price ceiling on eggs, or milk or bread will simply mean that fewer of those staples will be brought to market.
Read more: mises.org