Abolish the Minimum Wage and Bring Back Robber Barons!

3425972_origYou wanna hear a good libertarian joke? Robber barons are humanitarians and abolishing the minimum wage is the humanitarian thing to do.

Ok, it’s not funny, but Amity Shlaes argues at the National Review that having a minimum wage is not just economically a bad idea (because it dips into the pockets of the 1%ers), but it’s morally bad, too. Her argument to abolish minimum wages is that government regulations get between the good will of employers and the grunts who work for them. In a time when job confidence is particularly low, when most people can get fired for any or no reason at all, when unions are treated by most companies and managers as the ultimate threat, when workplaces are increasingly hostile to those who work there, and when employees have no guarantees about their employment, Shlaes argues that bosses really do have our best interests at heart and we need to return to the lofty times of slavery and robber barons.

 In the 19th century and well into the 20th, many employers and employees believed that their relationship, the two-party one, was key. Outsiders — regulators, unions, lawmakers — were intruders… Because the employee-employer pair set their terms together, they trusted each other. From time to time, they also helped each other.

Oh, so the best time for 1800’s til the early 1900’s, before those busy-body interlocutors from the government and the unions got nosy? Such ideal work conditions were the plantations, sharecropping, urban sweatshops, unregulated mines, and company towns. Such good times. Let us go back! Let’s set the Wayback Machine to the era of Robber Barons and Rebels.

Yeah, so the two-party relationship, as Shlaes calls it, was and is key. It’s important for the precise reason that it is not a relationship of equals, but one of exploitation, with bosses using and tossing workers at a moment’s notice. This was not a good relationship for most workers, but for a long time it was the only one they knew. When employees demanded too much or the working conditions were too dangerous (and people regularly died on the job or because of it in these years), the workers began organizing and striking. They formed unions at this period not due to interference, but out of their own awareness of their need for collective bargaining. Solidarity would work where the “two-party relationship” was so obviously failing them. Unions weren’t interrupting outsiders. They were the work of employees who recognized the tw0-party system was exploiting them and killing them.

Additionally, workers and their allies recognized a need for intervention from the law on their side. The law had long been on the side of the 1%ers, so things needed to change. Or things would get out of hand really quickly. Schlaes seems to think that child labor laws, factory inspections, and minimum wage laws were a bad thing because it got in the way of this fantastic deal for the employees and employers. But employees and even some employers sought the intervention.

Schlaes then talks about the Homestead riots – which took place at one of robber baron Andrew Carnegie’s factories. The riots were caused by Carnegie’s hired strike-breakers. Schlaes acknowledges that the event was pretty bad, but then counters that with evidence of Carnegie’s good nature through his building of libraries.

If we let them be infinitely rich, like Carnegie, they may build us some libraries! Sure, many will starve and others will die, but the robber barons might be nice to us before they die! Of course, libraries are a positive good, but the robber barons weren’t merely being altruistic in their endowments to schools and libraries. Similar to how capitalists use charitable giving for their own means, they also helped to found schools and libraries in order to create a more literate workforce. More educated workers means they are less likely to be volatile – meaning fewer violent strikes like the Homestead one. This would be good for the future of their companies (especially if the classes looked like factories).

Now, this idea that the state was not involved in disputes between laborers and employers is patently false. Presidents, governors and mayors were almost always on the side of the capitalists and would bring in police and the National Guard to help settle disputes between strikers and their bosses. And by “settle disputes” I mean they shot protesters.

Schlaes also lauds pre-FDR Supreme Court, a bench that, like the post-Reagan one, has been eternally on the side of corporations. Since shortly after the fourteenth amendment was made, long preceding Citizens United, they started interpreting it to the benefit of the personhood of companies, but not of African Americans. Howard Zinn noted:

of the Fourteenth Amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, nineteen dealt with [black people], 288 dealt with corporations.

Ultimately, this is about the power that an employer has over employees. And it is a strong, strong power. What’s terrifying is that not only are we making some headway into going back to those times, but that conservatives and libertarians are holding this model up as preferable. That semi-slavery is preferable to them – that’s… something.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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