Labor and the Living Wage

CNNMoney reports (“Minimum wage increases for workers in eight states,” December 23) that “[w]hile some workers are worried about smaller paychecks next year, more than 1.4 million low-income earners will see their wages go up on New Year’s Day.” The story notes that these jumps emerge at a time when “the fate of the payroll tax cut [remains] in limbo.”

In the American political vernacular, people who “believe in free enterprise” oppose minimum wage laws as an affront against the employer’s right to contract with his employees. Within the current economic paradigm, however, the debate over minimum wage statutes is a red herring, a distraction from more fundamental questions about that paradigm.

Inquiries about labor’s proper wage have been central to anarchism since its birth as an explicit idea. In practical politics, those important issues are generally ignored in favor of superficial appeals to “American free enterprise.” The argument from conservative quarters is that government ought to stay out of the employment agreement.

But government is already involved in those agreements, long before the minimum wage question comes up. The boss and the worker  negotiate inside an environment that has decisively stacked the deck for the former, making invocations of the right to contract something of a cruel joke. The free market everyone keeps talking about just doesn’t exist — at least not yet.

“We might,” mused William Godwin, “examine into the abuses which have adhered to the commercial system; monopolies, charters, patents, protecting duties, prohibitions and bounties.” Godwin was as staunch an enemy of economic privilege and advocate for labor as there has ever been.

In his judgment, though, that positioned him very obviously as a champion of free markets, opposed to restrictions on voluntary trade on the grounds that they constitute the origins of exploitation. In more recent times, because free markets have been so completely and so unfortunately conflated with the capitalist system that exists, the labor movement has largely come to see the language of freedom as mere cover for further injustice.

Market anarchists in the tradition of labor writers like Godwin embrace a fuller understanding of liberty and of mutually beneficial exchange. We believe that the only surefire way to make large numbers of productive, working people accept consistently inequitable terms of exchange is to use a program of aggression.

Today, that aggression, exercised through the state, has become so much a part of the societal and economic landscape that it is regarded as part and parcel of something regarded as “the free market.” The core, prerequisite conditions that the economy rests upon are never scrutinized in a way that could help us understand what’s going wrong for labor. Low, unfair wages and dismal pictures of widespread poverty go mostly unexplained and unaddressed, dealt with on a piecemeal basis without any conceptual lodestar. This needn’t be the case.

When people deal with one another in a framework where they enjoy equal rights and opportunities to make wealth from their unique skills and labor, they (in the normal course) exchange close to equal values. Because no one has used violence to gain an unfair advantage — to restrict the other’s ability to provide for herself or access natural resources — individuals are ultimately compelled to trade things that are worth approximately the same amount.

In the capitalism of the present moment, on the other hand, we are methodically held back from taking advantage of natural opportunities that are completely peaceful and morally acceptable. If those opportunities were left open, working for a wage wouldn’t be as inevitable or as enticing, and brokering a bargain would look quite different: Minimum wage statutes would, as a practical matter, become a non-issue.

It is the state and its economy of limitations that labor ought to fight against. A true free market is an egalitarian goal, unchaining the working majority from a few, ruling thieves.

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist