The closing discussion of Bill Bartholomew’s podcast discussion with progressive Democrat Representative Moira Walsh (Providence) illustrates why socialism tends to collapse a society:
Moira Walsh: Remember what the definition of minimum wage is? No business should be allowed to subsist that relies on paying its workers a non-livable wage. So, if your business can’t afford to pay people, you shouldn’t be open, and also, I just want to make sure, because I know that that one sentence will cause, like, a giant uproar: before you tell me that you can’t pay your employees more money, I want you to tell me how many vacations you took in the last decade. I want you to tell me how much your house is worth. And I want you to tell me how many cars you’ve bought in the last 10 years. Because if you can afford to do all of those things, but your server can’t afford to feed her kid, it’s not that the wage increase is going to put you out of business. It’s that you’re a greedy hm-hmm.
Bill Bartholomew: Right. It’s going to reel you back towards an equitable point.
MW: Equality. You shouldn’t be able to subside on everybody else’s work. Period.
BB: And I think that’s kind of the biggest message in terms of the progressive movement. You know, I think that that, environmental issues, and just generally being a fair and decent person.
MW: You should get paid for your own work. You shouldn’t get paid for everybody else’s work around you. You should get paid for your own work. And so, like, if you’re not paying everybody else, but you’re doing fine, there’s something wrong with this, and it’s not that the wage is too high.
There you have it. If you can’t pay people what the politicians in the State House think you should, then you should go out of business. Could this attitude — already too pervasive in Rhode Island — have something to do with the state’s terrible employment and job growth?
The level of hubris is simply astonishing. Walsh is literally that bitter young employee griping about the fact that, after a life of work and investment, the older owner gets to take vacations… except that she, Walsh, wants government to put him or her out of business because she doesn’t place much value on the investment, management, and risk of the employer.
When I was a young carpenter, I watched wealthy clients live in ways that threw off enough unnoticed waste to solve all of the financial problems my family faced, and my boss gave all the signs of doing just fine, financially. Meanwhile, I was taking risks with my health that may bear consequences years down the road.
The reason I was in that position wasn’t that the government allowed my employer to exist in a free-market paradise. It was that bad government policy had created a terrible job market. I didn’t want government to step in and force my boss to stop his practices, because then I’d have been out of work, and my children would have lost their home.
I wanted the government to get out of the way. Get out of the way of the economy so that I could increase my value to the employer and walk out if he was abusive. And get out of the way of civic institutions, so that we could build moral pressure in our society so employers wouldn’t try to get away with that behavior except where there was no choice, given the circumstances.
By putting people out of business, Walsh would limit competition, which would give surviving players more power, which — by her own lights — they’d use to further abuse their employees, probably with the help of a government that they’d be better able to buy off.
Simply put, it is inappropriate for progressives like Walsh to apply a single standard to everybody in the society, and the reason is clear, if one steps back and looks at everybody as well-meaning individuals, instead of as presumptively “greedy hm-hmms.”
Suppose somebody starts a business later in her career. Because of the job market and the general atmosphere of the company, she is able to find employees who don’t demand a whole lot of money. Along comes a young single-mother who can’t find a job that pays well enough to support herself and her child. That new employee can’t help but compare her struggles with the relative comfort of her boss. (Naturally, she has no idea what struggles the boss may have worked through decades before when the same age.)
Putting that company out of business would be insane. The reason the employer gets away with a wage that is lower than the new employee needs is that there are no other employment options. Shutting her down does not magically create other jobs; it just destroys them.
By contrast, if the market conditions are different and the employer does not increase wages, then she will go out of business because she will not be able to find anybody to do the work her company needs done in order to turn a profit. In this case, the very reason she goes out of business is that employees have other opportunities.
Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that, however, because social institutions would carry the message that Bartholomew suggests about being a “fair and decent person.” The message wouldn’t be presented as an accusation, though, but as an encouragement, allowing everybody to decide for themselves in their own circumstances what is right.
Failure to give up vacations and a nice home in order to pay employees multiples of the market rate for their work isn’t necessarily evidence of lacking decency. It isn’t any more so, anyway, than the failure of a part-time legislator and entrepreneurial podcaster to give up the work that they love in order to take menial jobs that would pay better and fill a need in the economy.
We all make decisions based on our circumstances, and government shouldn’t be a means of imposing our point of view, from our own current position, on everybody else.
Featured image: Representative Walsh’s official State House picture over an illustration from Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.