Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fuller Wages, I: “A Condition of Dependency”


First off, for those of you who think that this is a posting about the Fuller Brush Company, still going strong after more than a century (although we don’t see anything about worker ownership . . . ), we’ll give the standard response we get when we ask people what’s wrong with the Just Third Way: “You’re just wrong, that’s all.”  In any event, just because you haven’t seen a Fuller Brush Man (or Ma’am) doesn’t mean 1) the company isn’t around, or 2) it doesn’t have a good product.

Red Skelton as "The Fuller Brush Man"
Enough of that.  What we’re concerned with today is not the Fuller Brush Man, The Fuller Brush Man (1948), or Red Skelton (or even Lucille Ball in The Fuller Brush Girl, 1950), but R. Buckminster Fuller v. the Wage System.

And now for another caveat.  That’s Wage System, NOT wages.  Yes, believe it or not, whenever we’ve said something ungood about the Wage System, there has always been some agent of Big Brother around to howl that we’re advocating abolishing wages.

Worst Stamp Design EVER
So, to be perfectly clear, we are all in favor of a just wage.  We always have been.  A just wage is one of the essential features of any economy.  If people are not justly compensated for their labor, it’s a sure sign that something is wrong in the system.  As Pope John Paul II said, “[I]n every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly.” (Laborem Exercens, § 19.)

The problem is that there are some people who will read that statement and declare that the pope has infallibly declared that wages are the only way to make a living.  That is, the pope (who has no such authority) has mandated the Wage System, and you’re a bad boy or naughty girl if you even hint that anything else is possible.

Now, even though we are all in favor of a just wage, and even agree that a non-just (as opposed to unjust) wage can be justified in the short term if the market wage rate is below what is required to meet a propertyless worker’s ordinary domestic needs adequately, there’s a problem.  If you pay people more than their labor is worth on the market, you’re paying them for something they are not doing.  You are paying people not on the basis of justice, but of need.

Just for fun, let’s insert our caveat again.  Re-read everything above.  At no point have we said either that a just wage should not be paid, or that, when necessary, people should not be paid based on what they need.  In fact, read it a couple more times.  It’s easier than writing the whole thing down again.

Yup. That's her.
The reason we had you re-read what we really said or wrote about wages is that what we’ll say next is going to outrage a lot of people.  Even though paying people what they need instead of at the market rate is not objectively evil (i.e., inherently wrong), it does have some unintended evil consequences.

You didn’t miss that word, did you?  We clearly wrote “unintended.”  That means they are not intended.  Nobody is accused of doing anything wrong.

Just playing it safe, here.

Happy, carefree wage workers.
Paying people at a rate higher than the market rate builds a sense of entitlement on the part of the recipient, inculcates resentment in those who are paying more for something than it is worth, and turns people who should be acting and living like adults into permanent dependents of the employer who pays the wage, the State that forces the employer to pay the wage, or the union that holds management’s feet to the fire to get the wage. It also unnecessarily increases costs of production and raises prices and the cost of living.

This is not a Good Thing.  Yes, people should be paid what they need when there is no other recourse, but it keeps them in the status of children — or slaves.

There’s also another, really big problem that we’ll look at tomorrow.

#30#

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