The ease of publishing and sharing editorial content that the Internet affords us has done wonders for the proliferation of knowledge, of ideas, of opinions and critiques, and of contrasting viewpoints. This ease has also, unfortunately, made sloppy thinking and faulty logic far too common.

Consider a recent tidbit, shared by left-leaning ThinkProgress.org, about a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. It is “concluded” that a minimum wage worker cannot find an affordable place to live anywhere in the country. Moreso, it is “concluded” that even if the $7.25 national minimum wage were to be raised to $15, this would still be true.

I have scare-quoted “concluded” because there is a dirty trick played with the statistics that support the assertion. If you’re a cynic and have spent a lot of time parsing such things (and I aver that you cannot have done so without becoming a cynic), you may have caught the trick: The authors use “a one-bedroom apartment at the average fair market rate” (emphasis mine) as the metric for whether a minimum wage earner could afford to find a place to live. This utterly ignores the fact that, for an average to exist in any situation where not all rents are equal (in other words, everywhere), there must be below-average and above-average rentals on the market. In other words, there’s nothing requiring a minimum wage earner to pay the average rent rate, and there are certainly ways for a low earner to have an affordable place to live (unless government has mucked with that and made things worse e.g. NYC rent control).

Consider, next, the back story of this piece of (deliberate or ignorant, you decide) tendentiousness: the debate about minimum wages i.e. the premise that the government has the right to tell employers that they must pay their employees at least X dollars per hour (in some, but not all, cases, by the way). Advocates for higher minimum wages, and for the more woke phrase “living wage,” contend that people have a right to earn a comfortable living, that this right must be supported by government force used against employers, and that any worker who wants to work for less must be denied that option for the greater good (though they never actually say this part).

Lets ponder this “right to earn a living,” a right that extends deep into common law and to the Leveller movement of the 1600s, but one whose very existence was denied by progressives in the early part of the 20th century (and, yes, I acknowledge the omission of the word “comfortable”). Lets contemplate the common-sense question:

Do I have the right to freely offer my labor to someone in exchange for his money, without coercion or outside interference?

Sadly, the answer in America (and in much of the first world) is “no.” Both in practical terms and under the law.

I derive my libertarian philosophy and beliefs from one core tenet:

I own myself and the fruits of my labor.

and from application of the Golden Rule, i.e. that I am neither greater nor lesser than any other member of my society in this tenet. If it is true for me, it is true for every other individual. The concept of ownership necessarily includes the right to do as I please with that which I own, provided I do not infringe upon others’ self- or property- ownership. Consider, though, what the reality is:

• Government regulates your work place and countless aspects of your job.
• Government restricts what you are allowed to buy or sell.
• Government takes part of everything you buy or sell.
• Government limits what you are allowed to charge for or pay for many goods and services.
• Government decides where you are allowed to work.
• Government requires you to get permission to engage in many economic activities.
• Government controls the mediums of exchange that you might use.
• Government intervenes in contracts you might enter into.

In other words, I do not, under this government and its current set of laws, have the right to exchange the fruits of my labor for compensation I deem acceptable. I do not have the right to earn a living.

How, then, can anyone argue that I have a “right” to a minimum wage or to a living wage? How can someone assert that I have a right to earn enough money to support a certain level of lifestyle when I do not have a right to earn anything other than by the government’s leave? Obviously, I do not. As has been observed many times, the real minimum wage is zero, and legally mandating anything greater than that simply creates a void where people are not permitted, no matter how much they wish to, exchange their services for money that someone else is willing to give them.

Minimum wages create unemployment, especially among the least skilled and those just entering the work force, and act as barriers to climbing the economic ladder. That ladder is often portrayed as missing the first few rungs by those who claim that laissez-faire and conservative policies harm the poor, but they have it backwards. Government’s meddling in the right to earn a living is what removes those rungs.

Advocates for higher minimum wages and other benefit mandates argue that the wealthy have too much power and leverage in the employer-employee relationship, and that government’s protection is needed. What happens, though, when that “protection” prevents people from getting jobs? The jobless become reliant on government handouts (of money taken from others by force), and become welfare-trapped into a state of dependent under- or un-employment. Then there’s the racist angle of the minimum wage. It was spawned out of racism, and, by stifling corrective market forces, masks racist hiring behaviors (which are then “addressed” by even more laws and regulations).

As is so often the case, government creates or exacerbates a problem by meddling, then has to meddle some more to try and correct the problem. That’s the real world, proven time and time again. Underpinning this real-world failure is the core philosophical disconnect in applying the word “right” to a comfortable living, but not to a living in general. Obviously, this is equivocation – those who insist on the former “right” do not define it the same way as the latter right. Sadly, too few people recognize this.

Thus, it bears repeating: How can anyone have a right to a decent/comfortable living, when they don’t have a right to earn a living in the first place? If I cannot choose to trade my labor or its fruits for something I consider valuable (e.g. money) apart from the government’s permission and terms, my right to earn a living doesn’t exist. This is the essence of economic liberty, and this reality is why we must conclude that economic liberty is all but dead.

The great tragedy is that almost no one talks about this. We hear constant chatter, and witness high-concept conflicts, over speech, religion, self-determination, privacy, association, assembly, and “moving about,” but the arguments about economic liberty are small-scale and nibbling around the edges. Even the subset of economic liberty known as property rights is, again, mostly nibbling around the edges.

This should greatly worry every lover of liberty and every opponent of collectivism. The fact that this truly vital and fundamental right is so deeply abridged that we aren’t even talking about it any more is a frightening realization. It’s time to fight for its survival.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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