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Minimum wage argument flawed

Letter to the Editor | Friday, January 19, 2007

Mark Poyar opens the new semester with the latest salvo in the ongoing minimum wage debate. I wish to applaud him for his rigorous argumentation and join with him in praising the virtues of examining the implications of our beliefs. He presents an eloquent argument of the sort logicians and mathematicians call a “reductio ad absurdum,” in which we reject one principle because it is inconsistent with another. In particular, let us call the two principles he considers the Principle of Self-Ownership and the Principle of Minimum Wages. Then his conclusion, which I will grant for the sake of argument, is: If the Principle of Self-Ownership is true, the Principle of Minimum Wages is false. But is the Principle of Self-Ownership true? Mr. Poyar speculates that many people would not disagree with it, but of course this fars fall short of a strong argument for its truth. And perhaps many people would disagree with it, if they knew that it was inconsistent with other principles they hold more dear.

Indeed, this is the argument I want to make in this letter: while Mr. Poyar has given us an elegant reductio ad absurdum, I believe it is actually a reductio ad absurdum of the Principle of Self-Ownership, not the Principle of Minimum Wages. That is, the conclusion we should arrive at is that, since the Principle of Minimum Wages is more likely to be true, the Principle of Self-Ownership is more likely to be false, relatively to each other. So, why is the Principle of Minimum Wages more likely to be true?

I have several reasons for thinking this; here is just one, which I am simplifying for the sake of space. The Principle of Self-Ownership implies that we only have moral obligations to not harm others, and do not have any moral obligations to actively prevent others from suffering harm. For example, suppose I happen to come across an infant drowning in a shallow pool of water. Rescuing the infant would require no more of a sacrifice on my part than expending a small amount of time and energy. Nevertheless, the Principle of Self-Ownership says that it is entirely within my rights to let the infant die. She has no right to even this minimal use of my property. On the other hand, the Principle of Minimum Wages finds some support from the intuition that we do in fact have moral obligations to prevent harm – in particular, to prevent at least the worst harms of the deepest poverty. Since it seems true by a moral intuition that we have these sorts of positive moral obligations, it follows that the Principle of Minimum Wages is intuitively more attractive than the Principle of Self-Ownership. And by Mr. Poyar’s reasoning, since we must reject at least one of these, I conclude that we must reject at least the Principle of Self-Ownership.

Dan Hicks

grad student

off campus

Jan. 17