I'm an Outside Agitator
By David Henderson
Frequent Econlog commenter Greg G wrote recently:
But there is something very strange about this debate [about the minimum wage]. All the agonizing about the suffering that the minimum wage causes to poor people seems to come from relatively wealthy people. The minimum wage is quite popular among poor people.
When will people start coming forward and self identifying as actually wanting to exercise their liberty to work for less than the minimum wage? Even the long term unemployed don’t seem to do this. Quite an extraordinary amount of ink is spilled defending a freedom that so few really seem to want to exercise.
To this I have six answers:
1. Actually, the first time the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the minimum wage, it was, in part, because a female elevator operator came forward [her erstwhile employer did too] to complain that it was putting her out of work. See Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. Here’s the relevant section of the decision:
In the second case the appellee, a woman 21 years of age, was employed by the Congress Hall Hotel Company as an elevator operator, at a salary of $35 per month and two meals a day. She alleges that the work was light and healthful, the hours short, with surroundings clean and moral, and that she was anxious to continue it for the compensation she was receiving, and that she did not earn more. Her services were satisfactory to the Hotel Company, and it would have been glad to retain her, but was obliged to dispense with her services by reason of the order of the board and on account of the penalties prescribed by the act. The wages received by this appellee were the best she was able to obtain for any work she was capable of performing, and the enforcement of the order, she alleges, deprived her of such employment and wages. She further averred that she could not secure any other position at which she could make a living, with [261 U.S. 525, 543] as good physical and moral surroundings, and earn as good wages, and that she was desirous of continuing and would continue the employment, but for the order of the board.
2. I remember in about 1977, when President Carter was proposing an increase in the minimum wage, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal about a social worker named Betty Jackson who had a message for those who wanted to raise it: “Drop dead.” Why? She was having real trouble placing black teenagers in jobs. And before you dismiss the WSJ, remember that this is the news section, which had and has some of the most left-wing reporters of any major newspaper.
3. I occasionally run into college students who would much rather be paid a wage below the minimum wage to take an internship. Right now, they can’t, and would much rather earn, say, $5 an hour than the $0 per hour that many internships now pay.
4. It is often wealthy people who agitate for those who are less wealthy. There’s a long honorable tradition of this.
5. It’s quite conceivable that many people put out of work by the minimum wage would rather have jobs at a wage less than the minimum than at no wage at all. I would bet that few of them understand that the minimum wage is causing their problem. So, given the general economic ignorance of the public, the surprise would be for relatively uneducated teenagers to understand the harmful effects of minimum wage laws when even a large percent of wealthy people don’t understand.
6. I don’t think it’s that strange that people not directly affected in a big way care a lot about people who are and that the people most affected don’t agitate much. Hundreds of thousands of people are in prison for buying, selling, using, or producing drugs. Yet I know of few of them who explicitly advocate ending the laws that put them in prison. That has never stopped me from advocating ending those laws. Indeed, one reason I don’t use illegal drugs, besides the fact that I don’t want to get into trouble with the police, is that I think I will be more credible arguing against laws that I don’t break. Co-blogger Bryan Caplan advocates allowing people to immigrate to this country. I don’t know whether he thinks that there are many people in other countries advocating relaxing or ending U.S. immigration laws. That doesn’t stop him–nor should it.