Kevin Williamson | Minimum wage laws are the worst kind of welfare

Kevin Williamson, National Review:

As welfare-state models go, the best ones seem to be the most straightforward: Impose high taxes on one end and write large checks on the other. This template has the added benefit of being honest and transparent, which is why no politician willingly embraces it.

The worst kind of welfare state is the welfare state that is ashamed of itself and therefore feels obliged to pretend to be something it isn’t. Instead of forthrightly taxing individuals and businesses and converting that revenue to welfare benefits in an honest and transparent way, covert welfare statists usually attempt to disguise welfare payments as wages. Artificial wage increases imposed by law perform the same function as ordinary welfare benefits — transferring income from politically disfavored groups to politically favored groups — but the revenue doesn’t show up on the government ledger as taxes and the outlays don’t show up as spending. Everybody in government gets the opportunity to engage in a little delicious moral preening about how they’re doing the right thing for the hardworking people of wherever while maintaining fiscal discipline, as if the underlying facts of the policy — “Patron X shall give Client Y at least Z amount of money” — weren’t fundamentally identical to those in a transparent welfare state.

Which is to say, laws mandating wages and benefits beyond market prices are political money laundering for unpopular welfare payments. They work brilliantly: Americans have a generally low opinion of welfare programs, but large majorities of us — including majorities of Republicans — support raising the minimum wage.

The problem, as coddled French dairymen and millions of unemployed Americans ought to know, is that a wage is a price — the price of a particular quantity of labor — and when prices go up, demand goes down. Politicians may break all sorts of laws, but they cannot break the law of supply and demand.

In the U.S. context, what this means is that the left hand of government spends its time adding to the cost of employing Americans with wage and benefits mandates while the right hand of government spends its time trying to enact legislation that will prevent these higher costs from having their natural effect, e.g. by restricting trade with those perfidious low-wage foreigners in Germany and Sweden, or by bribing and bullying companies into knuckling under to political demands. This produces a labyrinthine network of mandates, penalties, and subsidies that is so complex as to be incomprehensible to anybody without the time and resources to make a careful study of the matter, which in effect renders the architecture of this secondary welfare state invisible to the typical voter.

And that, of course, is the point.


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