The dark history of the minimum wage


We read today that the national minimum wage will increase by 20p an hour to £6.70 from October, and that this will benefit more than 1.4 million workers. What we hardly ever hear from politicians is how many people will feel the costs of this increase, in addition to the people who are already being hurt by having a minimum wage law in the first place. The problem with state-enforced minimum wage laws is pretty standard economic text book stuff: the minimum wage makes it harder for low-skilled workers to get a foot on the labour market ladder, it unfairly loads the burden on firms that employ low-wage earners (a burden that could be avoided by simply reducing the tax low-earners pay, or taking them out of tax altogether), and as a result it often causes inflation of prices and reduction in staff as firms try to recoup their losses.

With the announcement today, and with the Budget looming, I was very interested to stumble upon an article this week by Jeffrey Tucker about a Eugenics Plot Behind the Minimum Wage, in which we find out that in the early 20th century some eugenicists tried to introduce the minimum wage as a means of getting some of the lesser able people out of the employment market. Here are some relevant quotes that are bound to shock:

A careful look at its history shows that the minimum wage was originally conceived as part of a eugenics strategy — an attempt to engineer a master race through public policy designed to cleanse the citizenry of undesirables. To that end, the state would have to bring about the isolation, sterilization, and extermination of nonprivileged populations.

It was during this period and for this reason that we saw the first trial runs of the minimum wage in Massachusetts in 1912. The new law pertained only to women and children as a measure to disemploy them and other “social dependents” from the labor force. Even though the measure was small and not well enforced, it did indeed reduce employment among the targeted groups.

Leonard documents an alarming series of academic articles and books appearing between the 1890s and the 1920s that were remarkably explicit about a variety of legislative attempts to squeeze people out of the work force. These articles were not written by marginal figures or radicals but by the leaders of the profession, the authors of the great textbooks, and the opinion leaders who shaped public policy.

“Progressive economists, like their neoclassical critics,” Leonard explains, “believed that binding minimum wages would cause job losses. However, the progressive economists also believed that the job loss induced by minimum wages was a social benefit, as it performed the eugenic service ridding the labor force of the ‘unemployable.’”

So when we hear politicians make minimum wage commitments in the run-up to the election, bear in mind that those that preceded them were always fully aware that wage floors precluded people from the labour market, and that they were once deliberately implemented to expunge the demographic landscape of those they thought inferior citizens that were unworthy of earning a living. That they so readily endorse a policy that places a barrier to employment for so many people tells you just about all you need to know about the extent to which winning votes matters far more than aiding people’s job prospects.

I hope that, in my lifetime, politicians and social commentators begin to get the simple message that if you artificially remove the lower rungs on the labour ladder, you make it difficult (often impossible) for people to climb it, or in some cases, get on it at all.