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The Personnel Is Political: The Left’s Distorted Outlook on the Minimum Wage

Steven Benen think private employers raising their wages in response to market forces is a triumph for the minimum wage. Say what?


A priceless little gem of leftist thinking appeared yesterday at Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC blog, in which Steve Benen declares a triumph for the campaign to increase the federal minimum wage—in the form of private employers voluntarily raising their wages in response to market forces.

Say what?

Here’s what he wrote:

Congressional Republicans are in a position to block every effort to raise the federal minimum wage, but the economy is moving on without them.

Whether GOP lawmakers like it or not, some of the nation’s largest retailers–Gap, Ikea, and Wal-Mart, among others–have already raised their company’s minimum wages. Today, another major retailer joined the club, reinforcing the larger trend.

That’s the original version, captured here. But the second paragraph has since been altered, with the following correction notice:

The second paragraph originally suggested GOP lawmakers might somehow disapprove of private-sector businesses raising their own workers’ wages, which was a foolish way to put this. Obviously, Republican lawmakers, like everyone else, want businesses to raise wages whenever they want to raise wages. I’ve edited the above text accordingly.

But this doesn’t quite cover it. Benen goes from declaring that Republicans are hostile to rising wages to implying that they are indifferent. In fact, increasing private wages is the right’s economic program for the average worker. Advocates of the free market do have a grand economic plan. Freeing private businesses from arbitrary costs and controls, we argue, will enable the economy to grow vigorously, and this—among many other benefits—will result in employers competing for workers, which will drive up their wages. That’s what we have been saying, over and over and over again, for a very long time. And it is precisely what is finally, belatedly happening at the end of this grindingly slow economic recovery. This is noted in the article Benen links to.

Walmart’s announcement signals that the company wants to keep attracting good talent and doesn’t want to lose its workers to competitors—which in turn signals that there’s increased competition to get good workers.

In other words: the free market works. Who’da thunk it?

This is just another example of something wearyingly familiar to anyone on the right: people on the left are willfully ignorant of our actual ideas and arguments. They have not bothered to study or think about free-market economics. Instead, they indulge in their own self-serving mythology about how Republicans are a bunch of mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes who delight in the poverty of the ragged hordes toiling at the Dark Satanic Mill.

But there’s an even bigger absurdity that glares out of this article. Why does Benen treat private, voluntary wage increases as a triumph for the push for a minimum wage? Why does he even describe these private wage increases as a “minimum wage”? The lowest wage Wal-Mart pays is not a “minimum wage” in any meaningful sense. They could pay a lower one if they chose. So they are not “increasing the minimum wage.” They are simply increasing their wages.

But what really gives away the underlying assumption is the reminder Benen feels he needs to give his readers: “Remember, as was the case with Wal-Mart, this is a done deal–it’s a private-sector move, which will occur regardless of Congress’ wishes.”

Wait, you mean private employers can set their wages regardless of Congress’ wishes? How long has this been happening? And who exactly, wants to stop it from happening? (Hint: it’s not the right.)

Partly, Benen is trying to steal credit on behalf of big government for something accomplished by the free market—sort of like President Obama claiming credit for high oil production and low gas prices, right before he vetoes approval for the Keystone pipeline. But beneath that there is a bizarre unwillingness to respect the difference between private economic decisions and political action. That how Benen ends up presenting private wage increases as some kind of political statement in defiance of Republicans—and even as a kind of political end-run around Congress.

Hence the original assumption that Republicans are in favor of low wages. It depends fully on breaking down the distinction between government coercion and private action. If Congress doesn’t think the federal government should force employers to pay a certain wage, then this must mean they don’t want private employers to pay that wage. Conversely, if private employers do in fact choose to pay a higher wage, that must mean they are signaling their support for government action to enforce that wage on all employers.

The left’s faith in government does not permit them to fully admit the possibility of action outside of government, or any progress that is not the product of a political movement. So I guess it should be no surprise that the same people who think the personal is the political also think personnel decisions are political.

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