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The Real Law of Wages

How minimum wages help some, but hurt others...
 
ONE OF the oldest fallacies in economics is that the amount of work done should be reflected in the amount of pecuniary reward received for doing it, writes John Phelan at the Cobden Centre.
 
How can it be fair that someone who slaves away for hours slicing kebab meat in a kitchen on a sweltering day earns £6.19 per hour while someone who kicks a football around for a few hours a week gets £2,040 per hour?
 
In fact, the amount of work we do is not commensurate with how much we are paid. Nor should it be. In the late 18th century for every bit of effort the average Indian textile worker put in he or she was paid just one sixth of what a British textile worker was paid for the same amount of effort because the British worker, with their greater capital stock, produced six times as much with that given amount of effort. Whatever our gut reactions, what wages reflect is not the 'effort' of the worker but their output and the market's and the employers subjective valuation of that output.
 
When deciding whether or not to hire, and at what wage, an employer will only employ that person if they think doing so will add more to turnover than to costs and they will not pay that person more than he or she is expected to add to turnover. To pay more would mean that that the employer is paying to employ that worker. This is the real Iron Law of Wages.
 
If a landlady has to pay £100 per week to hire a barman she will hire him if she expects doing so to add more than £100 per week in revenue. If hiring that first barman adds £150 per week to turnover, and a second barman (because of diminishing returns to labour) adds £140 both will be hired. If hiring a sixth barman adds £100 in revenue and hiring a seventh barman adds £90, then the landlady will hire six barmen at £100 per week.
 
If, however, a minimum wage is introduced which raises the cost of hiring a worker to £115 per week the fifth and sixth barman are now being paid more than they generate in revenue, their marginal product, so they will be laid off. The first four barmen are £15 a week better off, five and six are looking at their P45s.
 
The lesson is that raising minimum wages, as the Conservatives are now rumoured to be considering, makes some people better off but they also make some people worse off.
 
Some will deny this and say that the mass job losses predicted when the minimum wage was introduced never materialised. But what about the jobs never created? Number seven in our example who was never employed lost a job just as surely as did barmen five and six when the minimum wage was raised. Indeed, many advocates of higher minimum wages implicitly admit this by not pushing for a much higher minimum. Doing so, they admit, would lead to unemployment. But they can never explain why, if the demand curve for labour is downward sloping at one point, it is not so at another.
 
The only way to raise wages is to raise the marginal productivity of labour. To make labour more productive we either need to train it better (sending one of our barmen on a cocktail course so he can entice a lager drinker to splash out on a Pina Colada) or give it more capital to work with as in the textile example (optics on spirits bottles as opposed to measuring cups).
 
Sadly there is reluctance in Britain to pursue either of these paths. Our education system has been slipping compared to those in other nations and our financial system, with its addiction to low interest rates and focus on consumption, is inimical to capital accumulation. If the government is worried about low pay it needs to get serious about these issues. They are fundamental questions and attempts to mollify their symptoms with minimum wages are a waste of time.

Built on anti-Corn Law radical Richard Cobden's vision that "Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less," the Cobden Centre promotes sound scholarship on honest money and free trade. Chaired by Toby Baxendale, founder of the Hayek Visiting Teaching Fellowship Program at the London School of Economics, the Cobden Centre brings together economists, businesspeople and finance professionals to better help these ideas influence policy.

Cobden Centre articles

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