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Minimum Wages And Trade Barriers Can’t Manufacture Dignity


This week, the District of Columbia passed legislation ensuring that all untipped jobs will pay $15 per hour by the year 2020. The usual suspects celebrated. Unions across the nation took heart. “Fight for 15” rolls onward.

Pernicious labor laws always leave conservatives in an uphill battle. Economists can explain until they’re blue in the face that these laws harm our most vulnerable citizens. They hurt small businesses. They increase unemployment. They raise the prices of many goods and services, putting serious pressure on the budgets of low-income Americans. Despite that, a sizable segment of the public is in favor.

It’s a classic standoff between number-crunching wonks and liberal “values voters.” Going by the data, minimum wage is a bad idea. That fancy math has little effect on the kind of voter who just desperately wants to show his support for “the common worker.” As he sees it, compensating workers is not just a matter of filling their material needs. It’s a question of dignity. An honest day’s work should command an honest wage. People shouldn’t have to work three jobs or delay retirement until 75 just to keep bread on the table.

Protecting the dignity of work is indeed a laudable goal. In our time, however, garden-variety Marxist exploitation is no longer the greatest worry. Wheel-spinning futility is the shadow that looms over our workforce. In an effort to keep the bills paid, people tend to take the jobs that are available. What happens, though, when make-work political initiatives turn those jobs into aimless drudgery? Can workers who aren’t really doing anything be either dignified or respected?

Offering Nothing In Return for Money Is Shameful

The following example may help to illustrate the problem. Suppose you’re destitute, with children crying from hunger. You’ve applied unsuccessfully for every job opening you can find. In short, you’re desperate.

A sympathetic friend tells you about a new government workfare program. You hurry to the recruitment office, sit through a brief interview, and are shown a room containing two buckets of balls. The interviewer offers you a full-time contract, which pays you a living wage to throw the balls from one bucket to the other, then back again. You can start immediately.

There is also a second option. You can forego the ball activity entirely and simply walk away with a check, along with a handshake understanding that you are now a commissioned “Good Samaritan.” There are no specific parameters for this job, and no one will check up on you. Just try to pay it forward by advancing the common good. Pick up litter. Read to neglected children. Plant a flower garden for your elderly neighbor’s enjoyment. The specifics are up to you; just make someone happy.

I would accept the second offer. It would be ridiculous to spend my days ministering to buckets of balls when I have the capacity to do real good. Massive time-wasting would not erase whatever shame I felt at accepting a handout. If I must draw on the beneficence of the taxpayers, at least I’d want to give something back.

Perhaps this example seems silly and far-fetched. After all, we don’t really have workfare programs like this. What we do have, though, is a binder full of strategies for divorcing jobs from any honest measure of their real social value. We’re terrified of the unbound market, so we use minimum wage, union negotiations, subsidies, labor laws, and a host of regulations to prevent it from sweeping us all into the Randian dystopia of our nightmares. We let a thousand rent-seeking flowers bloom because we’re convinced that without them our green pastures will turn into a festering swamp.

Possibly it would, but at least we should be realistic about the tradeoffs. Large-scale market interference risks turning jobs or even whole industries into the equivalent of anti-productive workfare programs. What might that do for the dignity of the American worker?

Manufacturing Entitlement, Not Service to Others

Already we can see the public thinking along these lines. In many circles it’s now considered bad taste to stress productivity as an important element of a job. From there it becomes very natural to accede to the “Fight for 15” expectation that compensation be tailored to the worker’s needs, not the market’s. In Trumpism, we saw a naked demand from the Right that jobs be “brought back” so American workers can have them.

Perhaps we should thank Donald Trump for his crude sloganeering, which at least makes plain what others have tried to hide. The productivity doesn’t matter anymore. There’s no problem with firing Chinese workers and paying Americans three times as much to do exactly the same thing, because the goal here is not per se to make stuff. We just need to keep American workers punching their time cards. We’re manufacturing dignity here, not consumer goods. The material product is effectively a prop in our work-play.

The real tragedy is that it won’t work. As the ball example is meant to illustrate, labor doesn’t become dignified just because the terms are spelled out in a formal, negotiated contract. To command respect, the worker needs to make a real social contribution.

This doesn’t in the least imply that honorable labor must be highfalutin and rarified. Cleaning public toilet bowls is a real social contribution. Writing second-rate academic papers is of far more dubious value. Widget-making certainly can be a contribution, so long as the widgets are wanted and needed. Of course, if you’ve somehow arranged to stop better and more efficient manufacturers so you can make the widgets, it’s harder to find dignity in that.

These truths can be painful because men were made to work, and few things are more injurious to our personal pride than to be told “Your labor is not wanted.” In the long run, though, irrelevance will out. Manufacturing jobs conferred dignity (as well as financial security) on American workers in the mid-twentieth century because, following the Great War, we were making fully half of the world’s manufactured goods. Those workers were genuinely important, both to the American economy and to the world. That’s why they were respected.

Times have changed, closing the niche for low-skill, high-muscle American industrial workers. But even if we succeed in recreating the setting, we couldn’t recover the respect. In the end, you just can’t manufacture dignity.

We’re All Rent-Seekers Now

Having said all of this, it’s important to realize that rent-seeking is ubiquitous in our society. Trump’s rhetoric is noteworthy for its obviousness, but the effete can be just as shameless about protecting their professional turf. They simply do it in more sophisticated ways. It’s easy to sympathize with the fast-food workers demanding their $15 an hour when you consider that those workers are at least flipping burgers, which people actually want. How many high-level bureaucrats or six-figure academic administrators fail to contribute even that much?

As automation and high-level computing start to claim more jobs, the clamor for job-saving, wage-boosting measures will grow louder. What will we do when the newly minted $15-an-hour jobs are swept away by machines (which fast-food chains are now doubly incentivized to create)? Will we let it happen, or try to regulate our way out of the problem? What happens when white-collar information workers suffer the same fate? Driverless vehicles could provoke another massive wave of layoffs. In short, a great many Americans may, in the foreseeable future, find themselves needing a new line of work.

This is a real problem, and we shouldn’t be callous about the crippling blow job loss can represent in the life of a working person. Still, it’s important to face the situation honestly. American families need economic stability, but workers also need dignity, and they won’t find it in meaningless, unproductive jobs. Looking over our society, we must seriously ask the question: What is to be done? In this case, it’s not rhetorical.