The ethics and economics of the minimum wage

Economics and Philosophy 20 (2):351-374 (2004)
Abstract
This paper develops a normative evaluation of the minimum wage in the light of recent evidence and theory about its effects. It argues that the minimum wage should be evaluated using a consequentialist criterion that gives priority to the jobs and incomes of the worst off. This criterion would be accepted by many different types of consequentialism, especially given the two major views about what the minimum wage does. One is that the minimum wage harms the jobs and incomes of the worst off and the other is that it does neither much harm nor much good. The paper then argues at length that there are no important considerations besides jobs and incomes relevant to the assessment of the minimum wage. It criticizes exploitation arguments for the minimum wage. It is not clear that the minimum wage would reduce exploitation and the paper doubts that, if it did, it would do so in a morally significant way. The paper then criticizes freedom arguments against the minimum wage by rejecting appeals to self-ownership and freedom of contract and by arguing that no freedom of significance is lost by the minimum wage that is not already taken account of in the main consequentialist criterion. The conclusion is that, at worst, the minimum wage is a mistake and, at best, something to be half-hearted about. Footnotes1 My thanks to Paul Brown and Jerry Cohen for their written and verbal help, Andrew Williams for long discussions of this paper, two anonymous referees and the editors, and audiences at the Universities of Auckland, Newcastle, and Reading.
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