I’ve long taken an interest in the Living Wage campaign, both as an opponent of their ultimate goal but also as an admirer of their strategy. Their aim, I believe, is the statutory enforcement of a ‘Living Wage’, which would effectively mean a pretty hefty hiking of the National Minimum Wage across the country. Though well intended, this is a bad idea: we would need a lot of evidence to discard the Econ 101 principle that price floors cause oversupplies, which in the case of labour we refer to as ‘unemployment’ and the evidence is, at best, divided.

But the Living Wage Foundation (and the LW campaign in general) has been far too canny to call for this outright. Instead, they have focused on getting big firms like Goldman Sachs to voluntarily sign up to pay their workers at least a Living Wage.

This isn’t hugely significant in financial terms: it’s fair to assume that most employees and contractors at firms like Goldman Sachs were already earning above the Living Wage before they signed up. A jump from the NMW to the London Living Wage is very significant from the point of view of the individual employee (an extra £100/week for someone on 40 hours a week) but not too significant from the point of view of an employer like Goldman Sachs.

For these firms, signing up to pay a Living Wage may be a relatively cheap PR move. Or, to go back to that Econ 101 point: what these firms are paying for is not just the cleaning, but the image boost that comes from paying all of their their employees well. It’s possible that they’ve reduced employee breaks or labour hours, as often happens when the minimum wage is raised, but who knows.

I’m very pleased that Goldman Sachs is paying its cleaners more. I’d be pleased if more firms spent more of their marketing budgets on cash transfers to low-income workers in this way. But, as they say on the internet, the obvious point is obvious: even if Goldman can afford to pay a small number of its workers more to improve its image, firms in a less financially secure position may not be able to increase wages without bringing on the negative side effects previously mentioned. And, again pretty obviously, such PR only works if there are other firms that do not pay their workers a Living Wage.

The other interesting thing that the Living Wage Foundation has done is focus on government contractors – usually cleaners – who earn less than a Living Wage. Again, I don’t really mind this – there are reasonably good arguments that the government should set pay for civil servants as competitively as possible, but when it comes to cleaners earning a pittance, who really cares? As ‘wastes’ of taxpayer money go, this is hard to get worked up about.

This is all interesting to me because it puts free marketeers in an extraordinarily difficult position. Say nothing and the case for the Living Wage appears to be unopposable – perhaps allowing it to gain enough credibility that eventually it seems completely obvious that it should be legislated for. Go up against them, and we’re in the bizarre position of at least appearing argue against a private firm voluntarily paying its workers more because of consumer pressure. Isn’t that exactly what the market is supposed to do?

Low pay is a serious problem that will probably get worse before it gets better. We on the right do have our own answers: Tim Worstall has pointed out again and again that not taxing minimum wage workers would effectively give them a Living Wage. And reform of the welfare system to subsidise wages (perhaps through a Negative Income Tax) would be a very market-friendly way of helping the poor. But these don’t seem to have gained much traction as specific alternatives to raising the minimum wage. I’m left feeling quite glum: a voluntary Living Wage is basically a good thing, but a mandatory one would be terrible. Is there anything we can do to oppose one without seeming to oppose the other? I’m not sure.