The minimum wage debate is framed by the media as a battle of ideas between conservatives, who believe that poor people are responsible for their condition and basically deserve to die, and liberals, who believe that the minimum wage should be raised so income inequality can be somewhat stemmed. These two positions set the margins of discourse in our societies.
Both sides of the debate share some major assumptions:
1. They both believe in the “virtuousness of work”; that working is inherently good and not having a job is a situation to be remedied or a personal dysfunction. From an Anarchist standpoint, the desirability of work is highly suspect; in a capitalist society, work is inherently demeaning, alienating, and serves to enrich the elite of society at the expense of the workers and unemployed.
2. Wages are rewards for having a job, not a right. Apart from general grumblings about unemployment, we don’t hear much about the right to a job, let alone the right to a wage. Wages remain controlled by the economic elite and the minimum wage is really the only restriction on that control.
3. They think minimum wage is about teenagers, but three-quarters of minimum wage earners are not teenagers (admittedly, it’s mostly conservatives who posit this).
These assumptions have profound consequences on how people relate to work:
* Unemployed people, whether by choice, by handicap (physical or mental), or by “the market,” feel guilty. The only possible consequence of this unearned guilt is a lowering of one’s confidence and a lesser enjoyment of life. Guilt cannot give someone a job, therefore it is uselessly destructive.
Not only that, but there’s no reason why anyone should feel guilty from not working. Of course they may feel anxiety due to financial stress and that’s normal, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with not having a job. Why should one feel guilty at not being made into a “human resource”?
* Wages are set according to “offer and demand,” which really means set according to the power wielded by each party. Owners offering a job for which a lot of people compete have the leeway to offer low wages, because they hold the power.
* Owners of the means of production steal a profit (because it is theft, not production, I would not say “make a profit”) by lowering costs and/or raising prices. The most important category of costs is wages. If forced to offer higher wages, owners can generally get away with offering fewer jobs or raising prices.
Conservatives claim that the minimum wage lowers employment, while liberals claim that the minimum age has little to no effect on employment for various reasons. Either way, the unbiased, objective evidence for a link between minimum wage and employment is spotty at best and is usually based on bad science. Various reasons have been proposed to explain the lack of correlation.
Small increases may have no effect or such a small effect that it’s swallowed up by normal fluctuations. But a small increase in the minimum wage, while beneficial, would not solve the problem of inequality.
The 15$ living wage proposal would be a substantial income equalizing policy, even though it wouldn’t be accompanied by a strict reduction of income for the rich. The problem I see is that such a large increase would have a substantial impact on employment, putting workers between a rock and a hard place.
The minimum wage debate, like the other debates I’ve discussed previously (abortion, gun control, immigration), is a distraction from the real issue; in this case, the real issue is control over jobs. The capitalist elite always seeks greater profits, and these new profits can only be achieved by raising prices, which hurts the working class the most, or cutting costs, which means lowering wages/benefits or hiring fewer people.
There is no permanent solution to poverty and inequality possible until we reject the doctrine of private property of the means of production. The push for a higher minimum wage benefits us, but any debate about minimum wage laws which does not set this as the ultimate goal of any legislative measure wastes revolutionary energies. That’s why we need to put this fact at the front and center of the debate.