Posts Tagged ‘Iron Law of Wages’

Overcoming the Iron Law of Wages

September 4, 2013

EPI-low-wage-workers-reality-8-28-2013-2-54-01.pngOne of the arguments against raising the minimum wage is that employers won’t hire people if the wage is higher than the value of the employee’s work.

Obviously this principle is true.  In fact, an employer will not hire someone unless the wage is less than the value of the employee’s work to the employer.  Otherwise the employer would make no profit.

Under conditions of economic competition, there is pressure to keep wages as low as possible.  This is especially true for franchise and subcontract businesses, when the franchisers and the buyers have the economic power to squeeze their profit margins as low as possible.

Workers have no power, as separate individuals, to prevent wages from being forced down to subsistence level.   There’s a name for this process, the Iron Law of Wages, which was formulated by the economist David Ricardo 300 years ago.

The reason that, contrary to Ricardo, wages have risen over the century is that sometimes skilled workers are scarce and command a higher wage,  sometimes workers have been able to organize unions and bargain collectively, and sometimes governments have set minimum wages to limit how far wages can be pushed down.

Certain libertarians and free-market theorists oppose a role for government or even for labor unions.  They say wages should be negotiated between free individuals.  When an individual business owner is hiring an individual worker, that may make sense.

When a worker is up against a powerful collective organization, such as a corporation, then the worker needs something to equalize bargaining power.   And in the case of fast-food franchises, workers are not up against the individual business owners.  They are up against the corporations that set the terms for the franchisees.   A higher federal minimum wage would change the equation.