Violence It Indeed Is

by Don Boudreaux on April 14, 2014

in Reality Is Not Optional, Seen and Unseen, Work

In the comments on this recent EconLog post by David Henderson (who writes on Robert Reich’s economically uninformed case for the minimum wage), commenter Chris Wegener disagrees with commenter Vikingvista’s observation that government policy to prohibit workers from working at wages below the legislated minimum is violence.  Mr. Wegener writes that

Making sure that work pays a living wage is not violence.

Mr. Wegener here confuses motives with means.  Even if we all agree that the intent of government officials who raise the minimum wage is to do good, and even if we agree that the result of such regulation will be net good, these facts do not render the means other than what they are: violence.

Minimum-wage legislation would not succeed in prohibiting anyone from working at wages below the minimum if government merely suggested to employees that they not offer to work at hourly wages below that legislated suggested minimum.  Some employees would disregard the suggestion, and would have no trouble finding employers to employ them at hourly wages below the minimum.  Therefore, government must threaten to inflict force upon any employers who would accept any workers’ offers to work at hourly wages below the minimum.

Violence is not a nice word, and violence unleashed on people engaged in mutually agreeable actions is not a nice thing.  But the fact that violence is disagreeable doesn’t give Mr. Wegener any basis for saying that his preferred means for achieving his (allegedly) noble end does not involve the threat of violence.  It does.

Let’s view this reality more clearly.  Suppose that, to achieve the goal of all workers (actual and currently unemployed) being paid a “living wage,” government issues a regulation that requires each American with an annual income of at least $75,000 to hire at least one currently unemployed worker at an annual salary of at least $20,000.  Each hired worker is to be employed as a “personal servant” to the American who is obliged to hire him or her.

I make more than $75,000 annually, so I would be obliged to hire at least one currently unemployed person and to pay that worker (my “personal servant”) at least $20,000 annually.

Let’s assume that this policy – no doubt contrary to fact – assures that all low-skilled workers in America are indeed paid a “living wage.”  I assume that Mr. Wegener would regard this outcome as desirable.  But surely he could not with a straight face proclaim that the achievement of this outcome does not involve the threat of violence leveled against Americans whose annual incomes are at least $75,000.

….

Whenever you hear someone say that a government policy does not involve violence, ask that person if he or she would therefore be content for government to credibly announce that the policy in question is only a suggestion.  If that someone’s response is akin to “No, the policy must be binding,” then that someone in fact understands that the policy in question is grounded in violence.  (Note that this observation says nothing by itself about the merits or demerits of any policy.  It simply points out the reality of government intervention.)

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