Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Inefficient Allocation Of Labor

Reply to: Minimum Wage — Treating the Symptoms

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Check out this passage by J.S. Mill…

The fact itself, of causing the existence of a human being, is one of the most responsible actions in the range of human life. To undertake this responsibility — to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing — unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being. And in a country either over-peopled or threatened with being so, to produce children, beyond a very small number, with the effect of reducing the reward of labour by their competition, is a serious offence against all who live by the remuneration of their labour. — J.S. Mill, On Liberty

Compare it to this passage by Adam Smith…

Every colonist gets more land than he can possibly cultivate. He has no rent, and scarce any taxes to pay. No landlord shares with him in its produce, and the share of the sovereign is commonly but a trifle. He has every motive to render as great as possible a produce, which is thus to be almost entirely his own. But his land is commonly so extensive that, with all his own industry, and with all the industry of other people whom he can get to employ, he can seldom make it produce the tenth part of what it is capable of producing. He is eager, therefore, to collect labourers from all quarters, and to reward them with the most liberal wages. But those liberal wages, joined to the plenty and cheapness of land, soon make those labourers leave him, in order to become landlords themselves, and to reward, with equal liberality, other labourers, who soon leave them for the same reason that they left their first master. The liberal reward of labour encourages marriage. The children, during the tender years of infancy, are well fed and properly taken care of, and when they are grown up, the value of their labour greatly overpays their maintenance. When arrived at maturity, the high price of labour, and the low price of land, enable them to establish themselves in the same manner as their fathers did before them. — Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

Conditions improve when we efficiently allocate resources. But in order for resources to be put to their most valuable uses, we need prices to accurately communicate demand (valuations)…

The market economy should have natural mechanisms to limit inequality. If housing is very expensive in coastal California, more firms should build houses. If Mickey Mouse toys and Barbie dolls are profitable, more companies should produce those toys. If some professions make more than others, people should move into the higher-paying professions. — Scott Sumner, Kevin Erdmann, Here’s What’s Driving Inequality

Workers should move to the states with the highest wages and businesses should be created in the states with the lowest wages.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy concept. Here’s Scott Sumner again…

Why would a Conservative government sharply increase the minimum wage, in a budget that in many other respects favored small government? The minimum wage is currently 6.50 pounds/hour, and 9 pounds/hour is almost $14/hour in US terms. Also recall that average incomes in the UK are lower than in the US. It can’t be just politics, as they just had an election, and are 5 years away from the next one.
A few months back a commenter suggested that the new German minimum wage was aimed at cutting immigration from poorer EU members such as Romania and Bulgaria. Britain is also seeing a fairly large wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, and the Conservative Party seems to be increasingly opposed to high levels of immigration. Could this be aimed at slowing immigration? — Scott Sumner, Britain’s new minimum wage: Is there a hidden agenda?

Higher wages in one country would decrease the incentive for workers to move there? What about higher wages in one county?

Garcetti said county adoption of the minimum wage proposal would put the Los Angeles area “past the tipping point.” He predicted other cities would follow suit to avoid losing the most qualified workers to higher-wage areas. — Abby Sewell, Jean Merl, Sarah Parvini, Business concerns stall minimum wage vote by L.A. County board

What about immigration in terms of unions?

Typically, the most vocal opposition to changes in immigration laws that would permit more low-skilled immigration comes from labour unions representing blue-collar workers. In the United States, for example, the AFL-CIO has traditionally taken a very tough stance in favour of restrictive immigration laws and border control measures aimed at stemming illegal immigration into the country from Mexico. — Michael J Hiscox, Global Political Economy

What about immigration in terms of businesses?

American business and farm associations have taken a very different position, often lobbying for more lenient treatment of illegal immigrants and for larger quotas in various non-immigrant working visa categories. — Michael J Hiscox, Global Political Economy

Mandating price changes and restricting immigration guarantees that resources will be inefficiently allocated. Garbage in, garbage out.

A minimum wage guarantees that labor will be inefficiently allocated. It also guarantees that businesses will be inefficiently allocated.

When, as in J.S. Mill’s passage, there’s a surplus of labor (and all the associated problems)… the last thing that we should do is mandate a wage increase. Mandating a wage increase will have two main consequences…


  1. Decrease the incentive for people to move elsewhere
  2. Decrease the incentive for people to start businesses


We really want businesses to be created where they are most needed… but this really can’t happen when we prevent wages from accurately communicating need.

In short… the true solution is to maximize the demand for labor. This involves minimizing everything that makes it less likely that somebody will start a business.

Let me know if you have any questions. And welcome to Medium!

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