Why the Minimum-Living-Fair Wage is Bad for the Poor

If there is a principle which unifies the last three hundred years of economic research it is this: When two adults voluntarily consent to trade, each gain. To take a concrete example, if you hire me to cut your lawn for $5 an hour and I agree to that wage, we are both better off for having made the agreement. I must value the $5 more than I dislike the work, otherwise I wouldn’t have agreed to it. Conversely, you must value a trimmed lawn more than the $5 otherwise you wouldn’t have parted with your money. I may prefer that I make $15 an hour and you may prefer to pay me zero. But since neither of us is permitted by law to coerce the other, each of us will have to compromise. And when we do, we both stand to gain. Sometimes I think that this principle might be so simple it evades people. That seems to be the only explanation for perennial attempts to raise the minimum wage.
A minimum wage law–sometimes called a “living wage” or a “fair wage”–tells mutually consenting adults that though they have found a price which is agreeable to both, they cannot trade at that price. For those of us concerned about civil liberty, this is quite distressing. It is a blatant violation of our most basic (and ancient) right of voluntarily association with our fellows.
To the economist interested in social justice, a minimum wage law is more than distressing. It is a travesty. This is because minimum wage laws end up hurting the very people they were designed to help.
To understand how, we must begin with an important corollary to the “gains from trade” axiom. This corollary is the principle that market prices and wages have a tendency to naturally settle at those values which maximize the number of mutually beneficial trades. That is, the market wage rate will tend to maximize employment given the willingness of people to hire employees and the willingness of employees to work.
To be sure, this “equilibration” process does not work perfectly. It works best, however, when left alone. When minimum wage laws interfere in the process by raising wages above the equilibrium rate, employers and employees who would otherwise come to an agreement fail to do so. That means people who would otherwise be employed cannot find work.
Think of how employers make decisions. Even the most benevolent employer on the planet needs to make a profit. That means she can’t spend more money on her employees than they make for her business. There are low skilled workers (usually young workers with little experience or training) who are willing to work for low wages to get a start in life. If a law forces a potential employer to pay her employees more than they can make her, the employer will not take a loss for the sake of humanity. Instead, she will hire fewer workers. She may be able to automate some of her work (substitute capital for labor in the parlance of the economist). She can also move her business somewhere else where minimum wage laws are not so far above equilibrium. If none of those options are available, she may even go out of business. (It is worth noting that large employers tend to have greater resources and can do without the employees more easily than smaller businesses.)
Just as employers and employees stand to gain from trade, both stand to lose when minimum wage laws obstruct it. The sad thing is that employees are the worst hit because they lose everything.
It would be nice if we could wave a wand and raise everybody’s wages without decreasing employment. But the fact is that ours is still a free society (thankfully) and employers aren’t obliged to hire any number of workers at any price. Mutual gains would be possible for all of us if more well-intentioned politicians knew this.