The minimum wage is a technical issue, not a partisan issue

One of the problems involved with discussing a minimum wage or increases in the current minimum wage is that, for most people, this is a Democrat vs. Republican issue. As the issue usually goes for left-leaning people, Democrats are trying to help poor people, so they favor increases in the minimum wage, and Republicans are indifferent to the suffering of the poor and only interested in helping wealthier people (roughly speaking, employers), so they oppose increases. As the issue usually goes for right-leaning people, Democrats are trying to interfere with the free market based on an ideological crusade, while Republicans are trying to defend the free market against this kind of political interference which helps Democrats in the short run and hurts the economy as a whole in the long run.

To an economist, this kind of political focus is a distraction at best. While many, perhaps most economists in the United States have some kind of party affiliation, this is not a political issue so much as a technical issue. As a technical issue, there’s a better and a worse answer, and these don’t depend on the ideology of the person advancing the argument.

I have no party affiliation. When I say I don’t favor increases in the minimum wage, it’s not because I buy the Republican argument. It’s because I don’t buy the monopsony argument. And because the economic theory we all rely on doesn’t support minimum wage increases as helping the lot of the poor. And because I don’t believe that either Republicans or Democrats are particularly correct in their positions; politics is mostly about symbolism, and the consequences, frankly, are for nerds to work out quietly where nobody will notice. Ultimately, it’s because I think increases in the minimum wage harm most people, and most directly harm the worst off among those physically and mentally able to work.

If the Democratic Party really cared about helping the poor in the long run, I’d be sympathetic. If the Republican Party really cared about the free market, I’d be sympathetic. It’s just that I see little evidence that they actually hold those positions. As far as I can tell, making war on the poor and on the free market is part and parcel of what both parties do. One of the things I appreciate most about the left-libertarian movement is how its adherents devote so much energy to cataloging the innumerable ways that governments make war on the poor by making war on the free market. There are excellent theoretical reasons to think that if the free market actually existed anywhere, instead of a very thoroughly mixed economy in most places, this would be a good thing for the poor. The winners in the current system are already the winners; they gain little by changing the game.

I worry that what I’m writing here may be incomprehensible to the average political partisan in the United States or Europe. To break everything down into good guys vs. bad guys is too easy a mental error to make, and to step outside of that framework is too unfamiliar. But economics does, in fact, deal with technical issues and not partisan issues.


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