In the airport-turned-town of Seatac, Washington, a ballot proposal to institute a $15/hour minimum wage clings to a narrow lead and faces a certain recount, while in Seattle a state socialist candidate has won election to the city council on a platform including a $15/hour minimum wage for the entire city. Across the United States, campaigns to institute hikes in the minimum wage are gaining momentum, including in Canton, Ohio, where news that a group of Wal-Mart employees has instituted a mutual aid program for those among them who don’t have enough to eat has spurred local officials to demand a substantial hike.
As a working class activist, my first impulse is to support such calls, as I support anything that seems likely to help my side in the ongoing class war. However, not only will hikes in the minimum wage probably wind up hurting the people they are supposed to help, such hikes address the wrong problem anyway. The trouble isn’t that we are paid so little; it’s that the government, through a constellation of policies, makes living much more expensive than it ought to be. We are hungry in the midst of plenty, and we are stuck paying Trevelyan’s price for Trevelyan’s corn.
Workers are paid to produce, and increasing the price of employing them will do what increasing any other price does — incentivize economization and substitution, or in simpler terms, push employers to drive fewer workers harder and to replace them with machines wherever possible. Automation is coming, as it has always been coming, and the day will come when fast food restaurants find replacing fry cooks with burger bots and cashiers with pay kiosks economical. A $15/hour minimum wage will merely hasten that day, and in the meantime drive employers to demand ever more from already exhausted, minimally staffed crews.
But the inability of workers to support themselves decently, much less support their families, on the wages they are earning is a real problem, and one that has a real solution — bring down the government. As Charles Johnson documents in “Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty As We Know It,” and as many of us who have lived in poverty and among the poor know first-hand, the poor are beset on all sides by a litany of state interventions that limit their options and raise their costs of living. Health care is priced out of reach by state-backed cartels; self-employment is made a distant dream by business licensing and insurance requirements; governments at every level openly state a desire to continually raise the price of housing and such increases are nigh onto universally celebrated as policy triumphs. Even food, the most basic stuff of life, has its price openly and deliberately inflated as a matter of state policy, ostensibly to protect family farmers but in reality to fatten the purse of agribusiness.
Raising the minimum wage is a short term solution that creates more problems than it solves. Doing so only hastens the replacement of workers with machines, and without addressing the basic structure of state capitalism, with its socialization of costs and policy of ensuring that gains in productivity accrue to owners, not to workers, such a development would be disastrous. Rather than frittering with the details of the system hoping to achieve social peace and general prosperity, we should smash the entire thing and build a new order in its place, an order built on free association of free individuals, an anarchic order. Rather than pleading for scraps from his table, let’s hang Trevelyan and take the corn.