Those who advocate for a higher minimum wage law appear to have the best interests of workers as their concern. But as is almost always the case when government intervenes into markets, the unintended consequences create more harm than good.
In the case of the federal minimum wage, we need to remember that this law — as well-intentioned as it may be — is not the solution to unemployment or raising the standard of living of workers.
The great appeal of a higher minimum wage mandated by an act of Congress is that it seems like a simple and harmless way to increase the wellbeing of low-wage workers. Those who were earning less than the new lawful wage and keep their jobs after the increase are happy. They are grateful to the lawmakers, labor leaders, newspaper editorialists, and others who pleaded for the higher minimum wage. News stories will report their good fortune.
That’s the visible effect of raising the minimum wage. But to understand the entire issue, we must look for the unseen effects. Milton Friedman explained in Capitalism and Freedom:
Minimum wage laws are about as clear a case as one can find of a measure the effects of which are precisely the opposite of those intended by the men of good will who support it. Many proponents of minimum wage laws quite properly deplore extremely low rates; they regard them as a sign of poverty; and they hope, by outlawing wage rates below some specified level, to reduce poverty. In fact, insofar as minimum wage laws have any effect at all, their effect is clearly to increase poverty. The state can legislate a minimum wage rate. It can hardly require employers to hire at that minimum all who were formerly employed at wages below the minimum. … The effect of the minimum wage is therefore to make unemployment higher than it otherwise would be.
The not-so-visible effect of the higher wage law is that demand for labor will be reduced. Those workers whose productivity — as measured by the give and take of supply and demand — lies below the new lawful wage rate are in danger of losing their jobs. The minimum wage law says if you hire someone you must pay them a certain minimum amount. The law can’t compel you to hire someone, nor can it force employers to keep workers on the payroll.
The people who lose their jobs are dispersed. A few workers here; a few there. They may not know who is to blame for their situation. Newspaper and television reporters will not seek these people, as they are largely invisible, especially so in the case of the people who are not hired because of the higher minimum wage level.
Some things employers do to compensate for higher labor costs include these:
- Reduce non-wage benefits such as health insurance.
- Eliminate overtime hours that many employees rely on.
- Substitute machines for labor. We might see more self-service checkout lanes at supermarkets and more use of automated telephone response systems, for example.
- Use illegal labor. Examples include paying employees under the table, or requiring work off-the-clock.
- Some employers may be more willing to bear the risks of using undocumented workers who can’t complain that they aren’t being paid the minimum wage.
- Some employers may decide that the risks and hassles of being in business aren’t worth it anymore, and will close shop.
Solution to low wages
If we are truly concerned about the plight of low-wage and low-skilled workers we can face some realities and deal with them openly. The primary reality is that some people are not able to produce output that our economy values highly. These workers are not very productive. Passing a law that requires employers to pay them more doesn’t change the fact that their productivity is low. But there are ways to increase productivity.
One way to increase workers’ productivity is through education. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that our public education system is not producing graduates with the skills needed for well-paying jobs. But this is a problem that can be fixed.
Another way to increase wages is to encourage more capital investment. But capital is a dirty word to liberals, as it conjures up images of rich people earning income from the labors of others. But as the economist Walter E. Williams says, ask yourself this question: who earns the higher wage: a man digging a ditch with a shovel, or a man digging a ditch using a power backhoe? The difference between the two is that the man using the backhoe is more productive, although the worker using the shovel is undoubtedly working harder. But it is productivity, not work effort, that is valued. That productivity is provided by capital — the savings that someone accumulated (instead of spending on immediate consumption or taxes) and invested in a way that increased the output of workers and our economy.
These savers and investors are not necessarily wealthy people. Anyone who defers current consumption in order to save and invest — no matter how small the amount — provides capital to industry.
Education and capital accumulation are the two best ways to increase the productivity and the wages of workers. Ironically, the people who are most vocal about raising wages through legislative fiat are also usually opposed to meaningful education reform and school choice, insisting on more resources being poured into the present system. They also usually support higher taxes on both individuals and business, which makes it harder to accumulate capital. These people and organizations should examine the effects of the policies they promote, as they are not in alignment with their stated goals.
Minimum wage as competitive weapon
We also need to examine the motivations of those calling for a higher minimum wage. Sometimes they see a way gain a competitive advantage.
In 2005 Walmart came out in favor of raising the national minimum wage. Providing an example of how regulation is pitched as needed for the common good, Walmart’s CEO said that he was concerned for the plight of working families, and that he thought the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour was too low. If Walmart — a company the political left loves to hate as much as any other — can be in favor of increased regulation of the workplace, can regulation be a good thing? Had Walmart discovered the joys of big government?
The answer is yes. Walmart discovered a way of using government regulation as a competitive weapon. This is often the motivation for business support of regulation. In the case of Walmart, it was already paying its employees well over the current minimum wage. At the time, some sources thought that the minimum wage could be raised as much as 50 percent and not cause Walmart any additional cost — its employees already made that much.
But its competitors didn’t pay wages that high. If the minimum wage rose very much, these competitors to Walmart would be forced to increase their wages. Their costs would rise. Their ability to compete with Walmart would be harmed.
In short, Walmart supported government regulation in the form of a higher minimum wage as a way to impose higher costs on its competitors. It found a way to compete outside the marketplace. And it did it while appearing noble.