How Mrs. Adkins Got Her Job Back

As the “living” wage debate heats up in Albuquerque, it seems appropriate to stop and remember how we got here.
Of course, we at the Foundation have long argued that minimum wage laws are abhorrent because they harm the very people they are intended to help: the poor. By raising wages above their market-clearing levels, these laws increase unemployment among low-skilled workers. Don’t believe me? Open up any intermediate microeconomics texts such as this one. Or this one. Or this one.
Aside from the economics of the issue, what does the law say? From the very beginning, American jurisprudence held an individual’s right to contract sacrosanct. No act of government could overturn a contract lawfully entered into by consenting adults. An integral aspect of Roman and English common law since time immemorial, the right to contract was codified in the famous Dartmouth College Case of 1819. The trustees of Dartmouth College had entered into a contract with the King of England in 1769. A half century later, the New Hampshire legislature amended the charter without consulting the trustees. The trustees filed suit and the Supreme Court found that New Hampshire had impaired “the obligation of a contract.” The Dartmouth College case was a powerful demonstration that though governments rise and fall, an individual’s sacred right to contract with his fellows shall not be infringed.
The right to contract was again affirmed in the 1905 Lochner decision which struck down a law limiting working hours. The court found that if two consenting adults can agree on terms of employment, government has no right to interfere.
In 1923, an important case raised the issue yet again. A 21 year old woman of the last name Adkins worked as an elevator operator at a children’s hospital in Washington, D.C. According to the court, “[Ms. Adkins] alleges that the work was light and healthful, the hours short, with surroundings clean and moral, and that she was anxious to continue it for the compensation she was receiving.” For its part, the hotel found her “services were satisfactory” and “would have been glad to retain her.” Unfortunately, upon the enactment of a federal minimum wage law, the hospital could no longer afford to pay Ms. Adkins and had to let her go. Thankfully for Ms. Adkins, the court found the minimum wage law violated her right to contract. The court struck down the law and Ms. Adkins returned to work.
In 1936, in Morehead, the court came to the same conclusion in a similar case. Then, in an astonishing move, the court reversed itself just 10 months later in the famous West Coast Hotel vs. Parrish case. The reversal came about because of one man: Justice Owen Roberts. To this day, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to why Justice Roberts reversed himself (some have argued Roberts was trying to appease FDR in order to get the president to abandon his court-packing plan).
In any case, the sacred and ancient right to contract was forever abandoned and minimum wage laws have been legal ever since.
As the city of Albuquerque contemplates a drastic hike in its minimum wage, it seems appropriate that we pause and remember the plight of poor Ms. Adkins. There are many like her today who stand to lose their jobs because some well-meaning folks haven’t taken an economics class.