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Why Such An Ungenerous Presumption?

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This hostility by commenter Adam Eran [2] to my most-recent post on the minimum wage [3] is an all-too-typical reaction of someone who does not understand the policy arguments of free-market liberals:

…So the best use of our time is to figure out how to gouge more income from the lowest tier in that bottom 90%? Really?

One can only guess the next item of busines
s for the heartless Mr. Boudreaux is a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Mr. Eran doesn’t understand that the argument against the minimum wage is not an argument against allowing low-paid workers to earn more income.  Quite the contrary.  It’s an argument based on reasoning that leads to the conclusion that minimum-wage legislation causes many of its intended beneficiaries – low-paid workers – to suffer even lower pay ($0.00 per hour) along with being denied opportunities to gain work experience (and, hence, higher future income).  Now it’s possible that this argument is incorrect, but that possibility does not make those of us who base our policy conclusions upon it “heartless” Scrooges who wish to “gouge more income from the lowest tier.”

The fact that Mr. Eran sees the issue as being not one of conflicting views over the actual effects of policy but, rather, as one of good people vs. bad people is telling.  One tale that it tells is that he likely has not thought deeply about the issue, for, had he thought deeply about the issue, he would know that a legitimate debate rages over the actual effects of minimum-wage legislation.  And were he to know that a legitimate debate rages over the actual effects of such legislation, he would understand just how inappropriate it is to accuse someone of a moral failure because he would further understand that what appears to be a moral failure to an uninformed observer is actually a disagreement over the effects of policy.

If Mr. Eran visited a hospital and saw two physicians arguing over the best treatment for a sick patient, presumably he would not accuse one of those physicians as being “heartless.”  Presumably Mr. Eran would not suppose that the disagreement among these physicians is a disagreement between one doctor who wishes to restore the patient to health and another doctor who wishes to make the patient even sicker.  Presumably Mr. Eran would understand that each of the physicians wishes to restore the sick person to health but that these physicians disagree over the best means of achieving that end.  Yet when Mr. Eran encounters a similar disagreement among people who argue about the merits of minimum-wage legislation, he leaps to the conclusion that one of the disputants is a heartless Scrooge.  It’s a mistaken conclusion.

I sincerely believe that most people who today argue for the minimum wage do so with good intentions – namely, they wish to raise the incomes of poor workers.  But I also sincerely believe that, because “intentions” is not a synonym for “results,” the intentions of minimum-wage proponents, when enacted into policy, produce results that are contrary to those intentions.  Yet were I to follow Mr. Eran’s example, I would accuse him and many other proponents of the minimum wage of being heartless Scrooges who wish to gouge income from the poorest workers.  I would accuse them, in short, of a moral failure rather than of an intellectual failure.

In this bootleggers and Baptists [4] policy world of ours there are indeed people who support the minimum wage because they correctly understand that it prices out of the labor market many workers who would otherwise compete with interest groups that are aligned with those supporters.  Labor-union leaders, for example, likely understand this anti-competitive effect of the minimum wage, just as (as documented by David Henderson [5]) Sen. John F. Kennedy understood that a higher minimum wage protected jobs in his home state of Massachusetts by damaging the employment prospects of low-skilled workers in southern states.  These minimum-wage supporters I accuse of moral failure even though I applaud what I believe to be their correct economic analysis of the minimum wage.

But whenever I encounter someone who disagrees with my positive economic analysis of policy my presumption is that he or she is well-meaning and disagrees with me only on the positive analysis.  That presumption of ethical goodnees is rebuttal – I have, for example, come to the conclusion that Sen. J.F. Kennedy’s economics were superior to his ethics – but unlike Mr. Eran’s apparent practice, I do not begin by presuming that disagreement over the merits of policy is a certain sign that those who disagree with me are heartless Scrooges.

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