But a wage floor alone isn’t enough. It wouldn’t be enough even if there weren’t employers who dodged it. A living wage might be a start, but that isn’t enough either. We will not tackle inequality until we start talking about wages that are fair. We cannot make any dent on what is fundamentally a moral issue unless we’re prepared to talk about morals.
So, indeed, let us talk about the morals of wages. We might even take the point that Zoe makes about such morals herself:
And yet you’d have to go as far left as Marx before you’d find anybody insisting “this isn’t going to work”, saying, “wages have to reflect our relative input into what we’ve produced; they cannot be a lottery”. And still, nearly 200 years later, the same squeamishness obtains.
Excellent. Wages should reflect the value that labour adds. Can’t see a problem with that at all. For that’s what market wages are.
It isn’t quite true that everyone gets paid their productivity. But it is true that average wages across and economy will reflect average productivity. And the system that gets us closest to payment by that productivity is indeed the market system.
Which is what Zoe is complaining about of course. Because some people have low productivity, possibly even low to zero marginal productivity, they end up, in a pure market system, being paid very little to nothing (that’s the unemployed of course).
And we also, as the moral beings that we are, all agree that leaving those with such low productivity to starve in the streets is a bad idea. To take an extreme and possibly distasteful example, someone with a serious case of Down’s Syndrome. There’s no job that he or she could do that would produce enough value for them to survive. Pace those who insist that such should be coathangered at an early age we all agree that we should all chip in so that they have enough to eat, be clothed and shod, gain access to fingerpainting supplies and so on. We might disagree about voluntary charity or forced taxation to pay for it but the moral duty to provide is still there.
But here is our moral conundrum. These people with this low productivity. Should we load the burden of provision onto the shareholders of companies that we insist employ them at higher than their productivity wages? Or, given that it is us as the wider society that insists on the morality of higher than productivity wages should it be us as the wider society that dips into our own pockets to top up those wages?
Clearly, it should be us. It is not moral to state that x must be paid but make sure that it’s ‘im over there that ‘as to pay, don’t you dare touch my cash. Being moral would be to say that x has to be paid and here is some of my cash to pay for it.
That is, the moral position on topping up market wages which we think are too low is to add to those wages through charity or tax: not through dumping the costs on others by rigging the market.