Being economically worth less does not mean you are worthless

I’ve just been on Channel 4 News discussing Lord Freud’s comments about letting people with disabilities choose to work for below the minimum wage. I haven’t watched it back but I gather from Twitter that I fluffed it a bit – unfortunately the producers put me up against two people without telling me, so I got flustered. 

The thing I said that upset people the most was that some people with severe disabilities or learning difficulties may be economically worth less than people without. (One of the people I was debating apparently thought I said ‘economically worthless’.) 

Lots of people have taken this to be a comment on the moral value of people with severe disabilities or learning difficulties. This is an error. The value of a person’s labour is equivalent to what others will pay them for a given amount of time, also known as their productivity. When Lord Freud talked about people not being ‘worth’ the minimum wage, this is what he meant.

It has absolutely nothing to do with how important they are as a person. Some very good people are unproductive because they are inexperienced, they don’t have economically-valuable talents, or they are disabled. Some very bad people are very productive because they did well in the lottery of life. Indeed this is something I care about very strongly, and it has led me to abandon beliefs I once held quite strongly in favour of mechanisms that would redress some of this imbalance.

Perhaps it was a bad choice of words to say ‘economic worth’ because many people are unaware of the above. I can understand that if you heard me say someone was ‘economically worth less’ (let alone ‘economically worthless’!) that you might think I was making some comment about that person’s value as a human being. I’m pleased, at least, that many people who disagree with me nonetheless give me the benefit of the doubt, and I hope I’d do the same.

I think Freud’s comments were motivated by a sincere desire to make disabled people’s lives better off by allowing those that want to work to do so, with their wages topped up by the taxpayer. Whether or not you agree that this is a wise move it does nobody any favours to suggest that anybody in this debate thinks people with disabilities are not valuable as human beings.