June 7, 2010
It can be a very effective technique in debate to take your opponent’s statement and reword it to make your own point. Steven Landsburg shares with us what he would have written if he had been the writer for a New York Times article on New York State’s proposed minimum wage law for nannies (emphasis added):
New York state may soon become the first state to restrict employment opportunities for nannies.
The state Senate passed a bill this week that would prohibit New York’s approximately 200,000 household workers from accepting any position that does not include paid holidays, overtime pay and sick days.
Opponents say the step will bring unnecessary hardship to thousands of women—and some men—who have found employment because of labor markets that operate freely, except for constraints imposed by the federal minimum wage.
Yes, if only they wouldn’t pass this minimum wage law, we could get back to the free market. As Kevin Carson might say, “Jesus, vulgar much?”:
Vulgar libertarian apologists for capitalism use the term “free market” in an equivocal sense: they seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles. So we get the standard boilerplate article arguing that the rich can’t get rich at the expense of the poor, because “that’s not how the free market works”–implicitly assuming that this is a free market. When prodded, they’ll grudgingly admit that the present system is not a free market, and that it includes a lot of state intervention on behalf of the rich. But as soon as they think they can get away with it, they go right back to defending the wealth of existing corporations on the basis of “free market principles.”
See, laborers just happen to be stuck with this crappy set of options–the employing classes have absolutely nothing to do with it. And the owning classes just happen to have all these means of production on their hands, and the laboring classes just happen to be propertyless proletarians who are forced to sell their labor on the owners’ terms. The possibility that the employing classes might be directly implicated in state policies that reduced the available options of laborers is too ludicrous even to consider.
In the world the rest of us non-vulgar libertoids inhabit, of course, things are a little less rosy…
…the general legal framework (as Benjamin Tucker described it) restricted labor’s access to its own capital through such forms of self-organization as mutual banks. As a result of this “money monopoly,” workers were forced to sell their labor in a buyer’s market on terms set by the owning classes, and thus pay tribute (in the form of a wage less than their labor-product) for access to the means of production.
Charles Johnson understands the effects the state has on the labor market:
government-imposed distortions of the markets in labor, capital, land, and ideas (inter alia) artificially constrain opportunities for people to make a living for themselves, distorting the labor market to keep disproportionate power in the hands of a small and privileged class of rentiers. Without those market distortions, a law against paying workers $4 an hour would matter about as much as a law against selling pork-chops in Mecca — objectionable on principle, but mainly negligible as a strategic matter, due to a dearth of identifiable victims.
But none of this is to imply that I disagree with Landsburg about the destructiveness of the minimum wage. I’m nuanced like that. Charles again:
But as long as those coercive distortions are substantially in place, we do have to keep in mind how bosses will predictably react to additional coercive counter-distortions that are piled on top tocorrectfor the predictable effects of the first distortion, without actually changing anything about the root causes. And with the predictable patterns of reaction in mind, and their current position of power within the labor market, I don’t think we have to turn into a bunch of vulgar Friedmaniacs or Misoids to agree with them that the effects of keeping, or worse, raising legally-enforced price floors on labor are going to be generally quite destructive, and most destructive to those who need most badly to find a place to sell their labor…
…in spite of fact that the anti-minimum-wage argument has mainly been promulgated with a vulgar libertarian tone, the thing for left libertarians to do in response is not to kick it back down to the bottom of the priorities ladder, but rather to take it up themselves and re-conceptualize the debate — to treat minimum wage laws and the rest of coercivelyprotectivelabor legislation as of a piece with government licensure cartels, zoning laws, the health and building codes favored by the Public Interest and Private Property Values racket, etc., as an integral part of the corporate liberal system of coercive power, which coercively ratchet up poor folks’ fixed costs of living while coercively ratcheting down their opportunities to scratch up a living.
So, yes, Steve, it ain’t a good thing. But can’t we say so without also saying completely ridiculous things like “except for constraints imposed by the federal minimum wage,” labor markets “operate freely”?