Atomism and the living wage

The charge of thinking about people atomistically is frequently leveled at libertarians, often at economists, and inevitably at libertarian economists. I find that particularly ironic in the face of some “living wage” arguments. The idea that a low-skilled laborer deserves a wage he can live on, and in some variants support a family on, presupposes that he needs to live on it. While it’s true that many unskilled and low-skilled jobs are done by adults, a great many of them are done by teenagers who do not live on their own and hence do not “need” to be able to support themselves. Even among adults, many adults in low-wage positions live with other workers, whether roommates, partners, or spouses. To assume that all low wage earners are therefore struggling to get by and need help from policy makers seems, well, atomistic.

Everybody wants low-wage earners to be better off. I also grant that many people are desperately poor and have few or no options for help from family, friends, and others. But policy does not happen in a vacuum, and low-wage earners are not atomistically separate. It is socially irresponsible not to take these facts into account when considering policy.


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