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October 16, 2004

Freedom, Minimum Wage, Affirmative Action, and Political Posturing

I'm coming to be more sympathetic to the view that we economists have had a bad influence on political thought with our emphasis on prosperity and efficiency as opposed to freedom and virtue. The end is happiness, I will grant, but material prosperity is only a part of that. In fact, it is a shrinking part: as we get more prosperous, efficiency considerations become less important relative to other things. We are such a rich country now that we can afford to lose some material efficiency if we can thereby gain freedom and virtue. ...

...Two topics in the third presidential debate made me think of this: the minimum wage, and affirmative action. Bush was very soft in his responses on both. Neither he nor Kerry confronted the truth about these issues. The minimum wage is government intrusion into the right of people to make private arrangements with other people-- specifically, it makes it illegal to hire somebody who isn't worth more than the minimum wage. Affirmative action is the practice of giving special treatment to blacks at the expense of more qualified whites-- of saying that someone is more deserving simply by virtue of his skin color.

Both are outrageous injustices, and complications to our lives-- requiring us to think about violating the government wage regulation, and inserting race into decisionmaking.

It is interesting, of course, that some people try to use justice to defend these policies too, and feel strongly that for other people to pay low wages or not engage in racial discrimination is unjust. I do wonder whether such people really follow those principles in practice-- when they hire a babysitter, do they pay minimum wage and hire blacks who seem likely to take significantly less good care of their children?

The main motivation for the beliefs might be the common one in politics: that Smith's political beliefs will not affect national policy (Smith is too unimportant), but they do play a role in the impression Smith leaves on himself and other people. Smith would like to be generous and compassionate. That is expensive if it requires actually giving out money, but it is very cheap if it just means expressing support for the minimum wage and for affirmative action. Support for those positions does not seem so compassionate if Smith thinks things through-- there are the employers, consumers, and whites to think about too-- so Smith avoids thinking them through. And, in fact, Smith will get quite angry if someone tries to remind him of those unpleasant effects-- they ruin the whole purpose of his political position, which is to make him feel good. If Smith were made dictator, he might well start thinking and change his positions, but till then, the main purpose of his politics is to posture.

Are conservatives any different? On some positions, they are not. A conservative might support war just to show he is tough. On most issues, though, the conservative position is not the one you'd take to show you had a good heart or a romantic disposition-- it is, rather, the kind of position a cold and calculating person would take, or a moralistic one. It is not an unrelated fact that the conservative position is the minority one among people who talk politics. This means that expression of the conservative view also is deviant, another reason not to express it insincerely. Thus, conservatives are more likely to have thought through their positions and to not adopt them simply to impress other people.

Posted by erasmuse at October 16, 2004 04:05 PM

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