First of all, I apologise for my recent absence. I have been reading a lot and this has not left me much time to write. I hope this article will be the beginning of my return to the proverbial track.
Now, in the aftermath of Sam Harris’s recent book The Moral Landscape (which I have not read, incidentally), I’ve been reminded that various forms of utilitarianism are the most likely choice of moral framework for the new atheists. I want to highlight the fact that using happiness and/or suffering as the standard of morality is circular.
So, let’s start with what we do know; happiness (I will use ‘happiness’ for the rest of this article, but ‘suffering’ could just as easily be substituted) is an emotion, and emotions do not happen in conscious vacuums, they are the consequence of a cognitive process: you identify something that exists in reality or relates back to reality indirectly, you evaluate it against a standard, and based on that evaluation, you feel an appropriate emotion. In primitive terms, if you evaluate something to be good, you are happy, and if you evaluate it to be bad, you are sad. Broadly speaking, evaluation is the essence of morality, as morality relates to value judgements, i.e. what is good and bad. What this means is that utilitarianism claims that an emotion, ‘happiness’, is the standard for morality, i.e. that which causes happiness is morally good.
I’m going to use a simple analogy to expose the fallacy in this argument, one that we can all relate to – handing in a school essay to be marked by the teacher. To connect the terms: your essay is the ‘thing’ in reality to be evaluated, the teacher reading it is him identifying it, his marking of the essay is the evaluation and the grade he gives you is the emotion.
So, the first question is, when he evaluates your essay, what is the standard he marks it against? He can’t just say it’s a good essay – good by what standard? How does he know? The clear answer in this situation is: the essay question. He may use complex criteria when marking your essay, but they are all subsumed in the question: how well have you answered the essay question? This is how he decides how ‘good’ your essay is. Then comes the grade, which has a clear and simple relationship to the evaluation: if your essay is excellent, you get an ‘A’, if it’s extremely poor, an ‘F’.
Now, here’s the important part – what the teacher cannot do is use the grade as the standard against which he evaluates your essay. If he did, then the clearest way of linking the evaluation to the grade would be: an ‘A’ grade essay gets an ‘A’, a ‘B’ grade essay gets a ‘B’, a ‘C’ grade essay gets a ‘C’, and so on. The circle should be clear for all to see here. This clearly doesn’t, cannot, make any sense – how do you know what constitutes an ‘A’? The question is erased from the process – under this system, it is a good essay because it got an ‘A’, and it got an ‘A’ because it is good!
You may think this is glaringly obvious to the point of being absurd, but this is precisely what utilitarianism does with morality. Using an emotion as the standard for morality is exactly the same as using the grade as the standard for marking an essay. To say something is ‘good because it causes happiness’ is equal to saying it ‘causes happiness because it causes happiness’. What is happiness? How is it measured? These questions are ignored.
The emotion is the end result of the process, it cannot be used as the standard for the evaluation before it has even occurred. To say, for example, that getting an ‘A’ for your essay is good because it makes you happy is to presume the emotional outcome of an act before it has even been evaluated. It has to be good against an objective standard, resulting in the emotion of happiness.
Of course, the standard against which morality should be evaluated is the life of the organism carrying out the evaluation. That which further sustains the life of the organism is the good, which leads to happiness, and that which impedes or endangers its life is the bad, which results in suffering.
Let’s put this in terms of our analogy again. If you get an ‘A’ in your essay, you will identify it and evaluate it using your life as the standard thus, “education is good for my life, it will help me to sustain and further my life in the future by teaching me how to use my mind, which is my greatest asset for living on Earth. The fact that I received an ‘A’ for this essay means I am achieving my education to a high standard, so this is good for my life.” This evaluation leads to the emotion of happiness.
What the utilitarians do is to try to make emotion both the cause and the effect, which is the very definition of a circular argument. Stated explicitly, if you are happy because something is good, it can’t also be good because it makes you happy – you can’t have it both ways! For example, here is the utilitarian approach applied to charity: is charity good? Yes. Why is it good? Because it makes people happy. Why does it make people happy? Because it is good. Why? Because it makes people happy. Why? Because it is good…
The real irony, is that the new atheists who adopt this moral philosophy are lightning quick at spotting and destroying these sorts of arguments when they are used by theists, but oblivious to the ones that they themselves believe.
Afterword: This is a brief point exposing one flaw in utilitarianism in general. For those who are interested, Evanescent wrote a superbly detailed critique of one particular brand of utilitarianism.
I recently finished reading this, but I can’t by any standards present this article as a book review. I didn’t make any of the notes I normally would when reading a book with the purpose of reviewing it, as I started it long before I decided to return to writing.
This is more of a recommendation. It was a while since I’d read any Dawkins and I’d forgotten how enjoyable and engaging his writing style is. It is a fascinating, enlightening read, and taught me a lot I didn’t know, even though as a fairly well read and seasoned evolution debater, I didn’t necessarily think it would.
Having read this book, I doubt I will ever waste my time debating with another creationist ever again. Instead, I will direct them to this book and say this: “read this book all the way through. If it doesn’t change your mind, don’t ever bother debating evolution with anyone ever again.”
This book jumped out at me from a shelf in Waterstones, and I was fooled by the cover into thinking it would be quite a light, chatty read. Far from it, Liberal Fascism is a meticulously researched, detailed account of the history of Fascism, and a compelling argument for its position on the left of the political spectrum, rather than the right where most people place it.
Again, I’m not in a position to give a full review, only a strong plug. It casts a strong light back on America’s past, undigging the long buried and forgotten activities of Wilson, FDR, Kennedy and Johnson, revealing some shocking violations of the constitution. It compares these events with the activities of Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s Italian Fascists. He also looks at where Fascism stands today, with a particularly chilling chapter on Hillary Clinton – a woman who now scares me to the point where I could literally have nightmares!
Goldberg is a Conservative, not an Objectivist, but he is an advocate of free market Capitalism and individualism, so there is a lot he has to say that I can get on with; but the people who need to read this book are the liberals who, in innocence, don’t realise just how dangerous their seemingly good intentions can be.
Society is more important than the individual because it gives the individual more freedom and more resource. Unless, of course, you’d rather kill your own food and make your own medicines?
So said a socialist to me in a recent private debate. I replied thus:
I certainly do not want to kill my own animals, thank you! No man is an island, right? I’m more than happy to PAY someone to kill an animal for me, provided that we both agree to trade freely and voluntarily, and that nobody else is allowed to interfere with our transaction.
The objection is a common one against individualism. It makes the mistake of assuming that just because human beings do, undeniably, need to interact with one another, this some how makes the well being of some undefined and indefinable collective more important than the well being of any individual. Society neither grants nor denies freedom to an individual. Freedom is granted by nature, and denied only by an act of force from a fellow man. But this article is not about individual rights versus collective rights, so I shall grudgingly resist the urge to digress. The point I’m making, as a preliminary, is that we do have to interact with other members of society but this does not conflict with the fact that collective rights do not exist, only those of individuals.
The reason that we don’t all have to grow our own vegetables and milk our own cows is that we get other people to do those things for us. Not by enslaving them, not by pointing a gun at them, but by trading with them, voluntarily and through mutual consent. Trade is the exchange of values to mutual benefit. It’s not difficult to grasp this concept. One person has a TV they want to sell, another person wants to buy it. They agree on a price of £500. One man is happy with his new TV and the other is happy with his money. This is why, contrary to popular belief, a successful trade has two winners, not a winner and a loser.
There is, however, a deeper, less obvious poetry to this process: not only have the two parties traded with each other, they have also traded with themselves. They agreed on one price (£500) for one item (the TV). The key to this figure is that it is worth more to the present owner than the TV he’s selling, but less to the new owner than the TV he’s buying. So the original owner has taken a piece of his property, the TV, a value in his life, and exchanged it for some cash, which is worth more to him than the TV. Meanwhile, the buyer has taken some of his property, the cash, a value in his life, and exchanged it for a TV, which is worth more to him than the cash. Both men now have more value in their lives, they have both profited! And, to keep the collectivists happy, the net wealth of society has increased.
There is a symmetrical beauty to this that takes my breath away, two free men voluntarily exchanging values. The question is, why on earth would this need regulating? Whether it’s a second hand TV, your monthly wages or a company worth billions of pounds, whenever values are exchanged the core elements are the same. Why would the government feel justified in interfering in the property and affairs of men who are not fighting, not using force of any kind against one another? Why would they take it upon themselves to dictate what prices are fair, what methods of business are ethical, what level of success is too great for it to have been achieved fairly?
I wish I could answer these questions. Imagine a visitor to a gallery deciding that a great work of art needed improving (perhaps a smudge on his glasses mistakenly lead him to believe he saw a blemish on the canvas), and endeavoured to carry out the work himself, only to find, for some strange reason, he’d made it worse. No problem, he thinks, I can fix the problem I caused and leave it as I found it. But, alas, his attempt to undo the first blunder has yielded another, greater than the first, and far from being simply ruined the painting is now unrecognisable. You might think he would learn his lesson, but no, so determined is his arrogance, so assured is his belief that he alone can make the painting perfect, that he forges ahead with the next attempted recovery. This, is the government meddling with the economy.
Free markets are the fresh, fertile soil for the roses of prosperity because, at the micro level, they all come down to the same principle – free men trading their property, un-coerced by the government or any other third party. When you buy an expensive toy for your child for Christmas you are not being robbed by some faceless, evil, mystical corporation. The toy shop is owned by a person, or a group of people who own their respective shares in the company as individuals. You do not, on this occasion, need protection from the government. You are free to choose what you buy and from where, or to not buy at all. Businesses must compete for your patronage not through force, but by appealing to your faculty of reason. The sooner we realise this and cast away the shackles of government economic policies, the sooner we, not as a society but as individuals, will be truly free.
Forgive me for the lack of progress with the basic functions of this blog, it turns out that writing it and building it at the same time is quite a challenge. Finally, though, here is the blogroll, which I intend to extend as time goes by. Please check the sites out from the link below or from the sidebar, where they will reside from now on.
When it comes to willingness to changing one’s mind, a lot of people talk the talk. And, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. It’s very easy to say that you’d admit you’re wrong and change your mind if you were shown the evidence, but it’s another thing all together to actually do it.
I have. Quite a few times. In fact, come to think of it, I can’t think of a single view I held seven years ago, pertaining to religion, philosophy, politics or economics, that I still hold today. Everything I think about the world, every view I hold, I do because I was willing to change my mind. This makes it rather frustrating when I’m told that I’m stubborn or dogmatic, or that nothing would change my mind.
(As an aside, a tip of the hat must go to Evanescent here: I’ve changed my mind gradually, one piece at a time, with little difference from day to day – not unlike evolution. He changed his entire world view in one go…twice! From Jehovah’s Witness, to Atheist, to Objectivist, all because of his commitment to reason and intellectual honesty.)
When it comes to comparing the changes in my views over the last four years, however, I’m particularly fortunate. I don’t just have to think back to what I used to believe, I have a written record, in the form of the blog I used to write, A Load of Bright. I maintained the site for six months in 2007, when atheism was relatively new to me. I was quite clinical debunking religion (if I say so myself) but looking back, my politics and philosophy were extremely confused. In this series I’d like to pick out some articles from ALOB and refute them, highlighting the mistakes I made and showing why they were wrong.
I’m going to start with this article from the site’s early days, Catholic Discrimination Agencies, in which I criticised Catholic adoption agencies for requesting exemption from new UK anti-discrimination laws. While holding up my hands in acknowledgement that I made some mistakes, forgive me if I don’t shed any tears for the Catholic Church – I’m sure they’ll recover from my scathing words, given enough time and support. Rather than picking the article apart piece by piece (and there are enough mistakes that I could), I’d like to focus on one particular passage:
Liberty and equality are mutually exclusive. Legislation that enforces equality of one group, by definition deprives every one else of the freedom to discriminate against them. This is a good thing!
But don’t we value freedom and liberty? Shouldn’t, say, a small private company have the right to refuse employment to homosexuals? If you’re simply looking at the freedom of the company’s owners, in isolation, a case can be made. However, if you allow it, you set a precedent. If every other company in the country then exercises their right to refuse employment to homosexuals, then homosexuals would be deprived of their right to work and earn a living, which would cause them grievous harm. In stark contrast, it would do the company no harm at all to have homosexuals working for them. It’s a case of balance.
Excuse me for a moment as I cringe with embarrassment. Ah, how slippery the slope I walked, and I was oblivious to it. Perhaps I’m fooling myself, but I distinctly remember the sense that this did not sit entirely right with me even as I wrote it.
The collectivist ideas here are rife – I was making the argument that it was ok to violate the rights of private business owners provided that it some how benefited society as a whole. In other words, we can violate some peoples’ rights for the greater good. The end justifies the means. Oh dear.
I was completely and utterly wrong. Individual rights, the only rights that exist, are inalienable, impenetrable, eternal. It’s never ok to violate them, there is never a right to violate them, regardless of any perceived potential benefit to any number of people as a consequence.
The answer to my question “Shouldn’t, say, a small private company have the right to refuse employment to homosexuals?” is yes! The company is their property, they can employ whoever they like and refuse employment to anyone they like, for any reason they like, or no reason at all. You don’t violate someone’s rights by refusing to trade with them – and employment is simply a form of trade. The government, however, dictating to a private business owner who he can and can’t employ and why is a gross violation of his rights. No good can come of it, it is a flagrant encroachment on his freedom to trade voluntarily. To clarify this point, I’ll quote from Ayn Rand’s article Racism published in The Virtue of Selfishness.
No man, neither Negro nor white, has any claim to the property of another man. A man’s rights are not violated by a private individual’s refusal to deal with him. Racism is an evil, irrational and morally contemptible doctine – but doctrines cannot be forbidden or prescribed by law. Just as we have to protect a communist’s freedom of speech, even though his doctrines are evil, so we have to protect a racist’s right to the use and disposal of his own property. Private racism is not a legal, but a moral issue – and can be fought only by private means, such as economic boycott or social ostracism.
The true irony is that while many people would argue that without discrimination laws racism would flourish, the opposite is actually true. Discrimination laws are racist, the only political system that respects everyone’s rights is Capitalism. Also from Rand’s Racism:
There is only one antidote to racism: the philosophy of individualism and its politico-economic corollary, laissez-faire capitalism.
Individualism regards man – every man – as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights – and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.
The ideas I expressed are also a consequence of the views I held on morality, at the time Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism’s Universal Utilitarianism. I thought that we could some how calculate net happiness for all people. As Evanescent has shown in exquisite detail, this is not how morality works.
Ah well, one lives and learns. The main thing is that we are honest with ourselves, that if something doesn’t seem right in our minds that we proactively seek to resolve the contradiction, which can only be there, never in reality.
The 4th anniversary edition of the Objectivist Roundup is now up at The Secular Foxhole. It includes my article on the minimum wage and Evanescent’s ‘UK Government dictates ‘acceptable’ lifestyle to citizens’.
Submissions to the next edition can be posted here.
I oppose “Job Seekers Allowance” (previously known as “Unemployment Benefit” and, in the UK, colloquially referred to as “the dole”). Few people dispute that there are people who abuse the system by pretending to seek work when they actually have no intention of finding a job, content to live off the state or, more specifically, those who fund the state i.e. those who work. But the argument is usually made that they are a scant few, and that for the most part people in genuine need of help to find employment are the beneficiaries. This is beside the point – being out of work does not entitle you to the property of others, no matter how unfortunate your circumstances.
So, what would you do if you found yourself out of work in a free society that offered no benefits? While I don’t believe the state should support unemployed people, I have no intention of undermining the gravity of the situation. I was unfortunate enough to be made redundant in 2005 and that day is ranked in the top three worst days of my life. I was fortunate to find work again quickly without having to claim benefits (yes, I would have claimed them if necessary and no, that doesn’t make me a hypocrite. If anyone wants to dispute that I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments), but if I hadn’t found a job and there were no benefits, what could I have done? What solutions could we offer to people out of work with no means of paying their way? Well, I have two suggestions I’d like to offer.
The first is actually very simple: insurance. If you wanted to be insured for unemployment you could just phone up an insurance company who could give you a quote based on various factors that could be used to calculate your ‘risk’ factor. For example, how long have you worked with your current company? If you’ve been there for six months, your policy will cost more than it would if you’d been there for six years, and more again than it would if you’d been there for sixteen years. Have you ever been fired for gross misconduct? What financial position is your employer in? If they are struggling and in the process of down-sizing, this would affect your policy.
It would also be affected by factors at home, for example the number of dependents you had and, consequently, the total costs you would need to cover in the event of losing your job. You would have to specify the exact amount of money you would need each month or week in the event of making a claim.
You could specify different levels of cover, for example, a basic policy may just cover you for compulsory redundancy, whereas a more comprehensive policy may cover you for outright dismissal.
Insurance companies could also reward their customers for taking the trouble to reduce their risk level. For example, you could have a ‘no claims bonus’ which would accrue each year, just as with a car policy. You could also have your premium lowered for obtaining further qualifications to consolidate the security of your current employment. Or, you could have a discounted joint policy for you and your partner.
Based on all this, you would pay a premium each month or year for your insurance policy. Then, in the event of making a claim, the insurance company would pay the living costs agreed in your policy until you found a new job. They would be entitled to do checks to ensure you were doing everything possible to find a new job and would reserve the right to suspend payments if they found the case to be otherwise, and the longer your claim period the greater the increase would be in your premium when you came to renew your policy.
There would also be great incentive for employers and insurance companies to form partnerships or sponsorships whereby an employer would recommend a particular company for its employees, who in turn would receive a discounted price. Companies could even, in a bid to compete for the best potential employees, offer to contribute to the premium, as they often do with pension schemes.
And, of course, insurance would not be a legal requirement so premiums would have to be competitive.
The second option is for uninsured people who lose their jobs (who wouldn’t then be able to take out a policy, just as you can’t take out a home insurance policy when your house has just burned to the ground). Having lost your job you would go to your bank or another finance company and ask for what I’m going to call an “unemployment loan”. It may sound bizarre, asking for a loan when you’ve just lost your only means of repaying it, but bear with me. The bank would ask you to calculate how much money you would need each week until you found employment, which you would do. They would also need to see your CV/résumé and check your references to assess your probability of finding new employment quickly, and at what salary level. Needless to say you would also be credit scored. Having done all this, the bank would then make a decision and, for the sake of this example, offer you a loan, in the form of agreed weekly payments until you found new employment. They would, just like the insurance company, expect to see evidence of your efforts. (If, at any time, they found you were not trying to find employment, then all further payments would be suspended and you would be given a bill for the loan to repay.) Once you found a job you would go back to see them and, based on your new salary, you would agree the terms of repayment of the total amount loaned, plus interest.
I suspect that this second method would be far more expensive than the insurance option. The risk would be higher for the banks and, therefore, the interest rates higher to compensate. It would, however, give an option to people who weren’t insured, and, again, the possibilities for expansion are not difficult to imagine. The banks could form partnerships with recruitment agencies to mutual benefit who, of course, have relationships with the prospective employers who, again, in turn, could offer to help their new employees repay their employment loans as part of their benefits package.
So, those are my ideas. They may not be world beaters, but the greater point I’m trying to make is that if I can come up with these, what could the experts come up with? The sky is the limit when problems are given to the free markets to resolve, rather than the state.
One of the first objections I had to Objectivism’s opposition of tax was the scenario of the genuinely hard working, honest man out of work with no means to support himself or his family. What I’ve found is that, once you break out of the socialist/collectivist/altruist mind sets, and really try to come up with new solutions, they are nearly always better than what we currently have.
But surely you do?! Don’t you? I mean, you work hard, and if there wasn’t a minimum wage than your boss could just pay you whatever he wanted, in theory; even 50p per hour, and how could you live on that? No, surely the easiest thing, the fairest thing is just for the government to make sure that all employers are forced by law to pay everyone a wage that meets a certain level which is deemed ‘enough’ for any person to manage on.
Well, that depends on how you define certain words like ‘fair’ and ‘rights’, that is, if you define them at all.
Let’s start with ‘rights’. Rights are, to quote Ayn Rand, “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context”. In essence, rights are the rules and principles that all men must adhere to if they are to live together in society in peace. Their existence follows logically from our nature as rational beings; one does not have a right to something because he thinks or says he does, no matter how loudly and passionately he shouts.
Rights are hierarchical. They start with the right to life, which in its most basic form means the right not to be killed. The most obvious action this right would prohibit is someone taking a gun and shooting you dead, and it does, but there’s more to it than that. The right to your life also means the right to sustain your life through productive work. For example, if you are in a plane that crashes on a lone, tropical island and several of you have to survive there until you are rescued, you might find a section of land and grow vegetables there to eat. Just as the other islanders have no right to kill you and eat you to sustain their own lives, they also can’t take the vegetables you’ve grown either, because if you keep growing them and they keep taking them all, you’ll die – which violates your right to life just as shooting you would have. This fundamental right, the right to keep, use and dispose of the goods you have worked to produce in order to sustain your life, is what we commonly refer to as property rights. Without property rights, there is no way to practically implement your right to life.
That essentially is all there is to it. You have the right to live, and to sustain your life through the acquisition of property by work and trade. The only thing this means for everyone else, the only thing that anyone else needs to do in order for your rights to stay in tact, is to not kill or harm you, and to not steal or damage your property. In fact, as your body is your property, the latter pretty much covers it all. And it is all you have to do to respect the rights of others. The quickest way to summarise that, is that you must not initiate force against another human being.
Incidentally, the term ‘equal rights’ is a tautology, rights are equal by definition. Rand, again, “since Man has inalienable individual rights, this means that the same rights are held, individually, by every man, by all men, at all times. Therefore, the rights of one man cannot and must not violate the rights of another.” What this means is that a right cannot impose an obligation on another man. This is why you cannot have the right to, for example, a house. You can buy a house, or even build one, but if you have the right to be ‘given’ a house then it means someone else has to buy it or build it for you, and that is a violation of their rights.
Ok, so what do we mean by ‘fair’? Most people, in the context of something like the minimum wage, mean the socialist kind of ‘fair’, i.e. wealth sharing. It’s not fair, they say, that the rich business owner has more money than his employees and therefore he should be forced to pay them a certain amount for their work.
The key word in that last sentence was ‘force’. Remember what we said earlier about not using force? That is exactly what the minimum wage is – force, used by the government to control, manipulate and expropriate a man’s property. It is a flagrant violation of his rights. And that’s the only thing that is unfair, violating rights. There will always be rich people and poor people, sometimes people have the wealth they deserve and sometimes they don’t. Those who are poor despite their best efforts are certainly unfortunate, but that does not give them a right to the property of others.
Now, the common response to the case for individual rights is “no man is an island”. We all have to work together as society, and that means doing what’s best for society, they say. Well, we certainly do have to live together in society, but society is just a collection of individuals, who still have rights. Society does not have rights. It can’t, because rights pertain to life, thought and action, and as a society is not alive, doesn’t think and doesn’t act, it can’t have rights. You may think that society does act as an entity, but it doesn’t, its actions are only the sum of the actions of individuals. The way to do what is best for society is to protect individual rights; look after individuals, and societies look after themselves.
So how do we interact in society while respecting individual rights? The answer is trade. Trade is the exchange of values to mutual benefit, and it is, literally, the trademark of civilisation. The thug uses his fists to assault and steal, the man uses his mind to appeal to the minds of others to trade freely and voluntarily. Trade functions on the foundation of freedom, meaning nobody can force you to sell something you don’t want to sell, nor buy something you don’t want to buy.
For example, let’s say I have a car that I want to sell, which I paid £2,000 for one year earlier. You’re interested in buying it. You offer me £2 for it. I say I want £200,000 for it. You’re not going to pay the latter and I’m not going to accept the former. The beauty of trade is that neither of us has to do anything, we can either find an acceptable price in the middle that we’re both happy with, or walk away. Most people think that trade always has a winner and a loser, but actually the buyer and seller are both winners. If you end up paying me £1,000 for the car because we agree on that price, we’ve both won. The car is worth more to you than £1,000, and £1,000 is worth more to me than the car, so we’ve both effectively profited from the trade.
What if, though, we agree on the price of £1,000 for the car and, just as you’re handing me the cash, a policeman walks up to us and informs us that a new law has just been passed forbidding the sale of any car under any circumstance for less than £1,500? It’s my car, I protest, it’s up to me what price I sell it at. I can only afford £1,000, you say. The policeman tells us that if we finish the deal he’ll be forced to arrest us both. Would you be outraged? If so, then what makes you feel any differently about the minimum wage?
Employment is trade. You provide a service to your employer, and in return he remunerates you with an agreed wage, a payment for each hour of your time. When broken down to its key structure, it’s no different from buying a car; it is the exchange of values to mutual benefit. The government enforcing the minimum wage is the policeman who turned up to spoil the car sale. The minimum wage is a violation of rights, not just the employer but the employee’s too – it is a violation of your right to trade your property freely.
So, that is the philosophical argument against the minimum wage, but what about economically? Well, for one thing, every time the minimum wage is raised by the government businesses just tend to put their prices up by at least the same amount if not more, so it often gets effectively cancelled out anyway.
Even aside from that, the minimum wage is a form of price fixing, and the consequence of price fixing is always a restriction on competition which is the fuel by which capitalism flourishes. Most people understand the way this works more easily if it’s seen a bit higher up the chain. Let’s say two rival automotive manufactures both have an opening for a production manager in their respective plants. Let’s say that company A is bigger and more successful and they’re offering the job at £43k per annum, whereas company B is only offering £38k. Although there are no guarantees, most people understand and accept that as a rule, the bigger, better company offering the higher salary will recruit a stronger, more experienced and/or better qualified candidate, who will then contribute to them continuing to be a bigger, better company and allowing them to continue offering higher salaries for future positions that become available. My question is: why should this principle be any different when applied to cleaners, bar tenders or other low wage jobs? It shouldn’t! It’s the same, the hotel that offers higher wages for bar staff will recruit better quality candidates, who will contribute to the hotel being more successful and allow them to continue paying competitive wages, and so on. The hotel down the road that scrimps on wages for bar staff will face the consequences, i.e. the old saying, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. This is why it’s absurd to argue that people would end up being only paid pennies per hour. Just as I refused to accept £2 from you for my car, nobody would accept such a low wage (and if they did, it would be their choice and they would be free to refuse and walk away). For this reason it’s essential to understand that employment is trade in every sense of the word; you always have the freedom to walk away from your employer.
So, the market allowed to run free without interference from the government rewards the players accordingly, but the minimum wage prevents this. Because all of the hotels have to pay at least the minimum wage, it artificially raises the going rate for bar staff and leaves few able to afford, or willing to pay, any more. A de jure minimum nearly always become a de facto maximum.
It also can have a negative effect for the employee. For example, a woman in her late fifties who has taken early retirement from a long career in office administration may wish to get a part time bar job as a hobby. She doesn’t especially need the money and so she intends to offer to work for extremely low wages as an incentive to hire her, compensating for her age and lack of experience. The minimum wage law prevents her from doing this, it paralyses her ability to compete with other prospective bar staff for business.
Capitalism is a political system that works on the principle of freedom and individual rights. The minimum wage, like all forms of government interference with economics violates the rights of all individuals concerned and stagnates the market. It is philosophically, politically and economically wrong, both in theory and in practice.