The Magical Marketplace can be malevolent

Melvyn Magree

Once again, one who lives by profits justifies wages by the magic of the market.  See “Work like you mean it, and let the market set the best wage” by Scott Sayer, Star Tribune, 2015-04-20.  He writes, “Market forces should determine what an hour of work is worth.”

Once upon a very bad time, market forces determined that a slave should work as many hours as the master required.  These masters were so determined that they were right, they were willing to wage a bloody war to protect their interests.

Once upon a bad time, market forces determined that children should work as many hours as the masters of the factories required.  These masters didn’t fight a military war to protect their interests, but they bought a lot of politicians to defeat child labor laws.

Once upon another bad time, market forces determined that young women should work long hours in unsafe working conditions as the masters of the factories required.  Even fires and other disasters did not stop the corruption from letting these conditions continue.  Then the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, killing 145 people, mostly immigrant teen-age girls, made a bit of progress in reducing these conditions.

Even in these supposedly more benign times, market forces determine that masters’ employees should work long hours, well past their ability to function safely.  How many people other than these employees have been killed by truck or bus drivers working longer hours than the drivers could stay alert?  Despite these deaths, there are still masters who decry government interference with too many regulations.

Now as many call for a minimum wage of $15/hour,  Sayer states “Market forces should determine what an hour of work is worth.”  He complains that these figures are coming “from bureaucrats who never had to sign a paycheck in their lives.”  But these “bureaucrats” are officials, elected by the People, who try to follow the Constitution and promote the “General Welfare”.

And just what are these “market forces” that Sayer mentions so often?  Are they many buyers and many sellers free to enter and leave the market?  Do these “market forces” provide buyers and sellers with all the information they need to make an informed decision?  Are all the costs of the transaction covered, or are there costs that others must bear?

There are far fewer buyers of labor than sellers of labor.  The buyers of labor are free to contract or expand their work force.  The sellers of labor must find buyers or be hungry and without shelter.

Both buyers and sellers of labor might not provide all the information for informed decisions.  Buyers might not provide all the details of the job, including how safe it is, how many onerous rules there are, and how reliably checks are issued.  Sellers might overstate their credentials, hide unsuccessful performance, or hide illness that limits their abilities.

Both buyers and sellers of labor might push off costs to others.  Buyers might not have insurance to cover work injuries.  Sellers might engage in theft that needs to be investigated by public law enforcement officials.  Buyers might pay less than “a living wage” passing off to others the concern that sellers have sufficient food, shelter, and clothing.  Sometimes these costs are borne by relatives, sometimes by governments.

These are only a few of the ways that other than “market forces” can influence labor decisions.

Sayer decries that a living wage is based on 40 hours a week, and he wonders why such a limit.  He ignores that many people fought and even died to get a standard work week set at 40 hours.  This push came not from bureaucrats but workers who wanted long, healthy, and enjoyable lives.  They defied Adam Smith’s observation that it was legal for the masters to unite to keep wages down but illegal for the workers to unite to raise wages.

Consider that a work day is eight hours plus a half hour for lunch.  Assume that a worker has a half-hour commute each way and that the other two meals also take about a half hour each.  The worker has now accounted for ten-and-half hours of the day.  Add eight hours for sleep and fifteen minutes each preparing for bed or getting dressed. The worker has now accounted for nineteen hours of his or her day, leaving five hours for other activities.  It seems Sayer believes that the work day should use these extra hours up to give him a thirteen-hour day from his employees.

Even when I was enjoying my job, I was quite willing to go home at the official quitting time.  Sure, there were times when some pressing problem needed more work or when I was so involved in what I was doing that I didn’t want to stop.  In fact, I don’t think that there was an hour of the day at which I didn’t work sometime or another.  Sometimes that was when the work was to be done; sometimes that was when the work just kept going.  But I was always glad when work returned to a normal day-time pace.

It was not bureaucrats who decided the work week should be 40 hours, but We the People.  It was We the People who decided that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.