The ancient sage Socrates, a giant in the foundation of
Western philosophy, was known for a teaching style by which he aggressively
questioned his students. He employed his "Socratic Method" as a way to stimulate logical, analytical thought in place of emotive or superficial pronouncement.
Rather than lecture or pontificate, he would essentially interrogate. The result was to force his Greek pupils to see the full implications of their conclusions or to realize that what they had accepted as solid was nothing more than the intellectual equivalent of crumbled feta cheese.
The U.S. Congress is moving to enact a hike in the hourly
minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25, with the increase phased in during the next
two years. Economists have long argued that raising the cost of labor,
especially for small and start-up businesses, reduces the demand for
labor (as with anything else). But Congress will likely do it anyway — and
probably with the usual, over-sized measure of self-righteous breast-beating
about helping workers. Maybe what members of Congress need is not another
lecture on the minimum wage from an economist, but rather an old-fashioned
Socratic inquisition. If the old man himself were with us, here’s how I imagine
one such dialogue might go.
Socrates: So you want to raise the minimum wage.
Congressman: Because as Sen. Ted Kennedy pointed
out, minimum wage workers haven’t had a raise in 10 years.
Socrates: Can you name one single worker who was
making $5.15 an hour a decade ago and who is still making $5.15 today? And if
you can’t, then please tell me what caused their wage to rise if Congress didn’t do it. Come on, can you name just one?
Congressman: Well, no, but they must be out there
somewhere. In any event, $5.15 just isn’t enough for anybody to live on. Workers must have more to meet their basic needs.
Socrates: An employer doesn’t have anything to pay
an employee except what he first gets from paying customers. I wonder, whose
"needs" do you consider when you decide to buy or not to buy — the workers’ or
your own? Have you ever offered to pay more than the asking price just to help
out the guy who made the product?
Congressman: That’s not a fair question. My intent
here is purely to help.
Socrates: Sounds to me like the answer is "no," but
let’s move on. Why do you assume your intentions mean more to a worker than
those of his employer? It’s the employer who’s taking the risk to offer him a job, not you. You’re only making speeches about it.
Congressman: Employers are interested only in
Socrates: Are you saying employees are not? Are they
more interested in working for companies that lose money, and if so, then why
don’t they all line up for government jobs?
Congressman: Look, $7.25 isn’t much.
Socrates: I’d like to know how you arrived at that
figure. Was it some sophisticated equation, divine revelation or toss of the
dice? Why didn’t you choose $20.00, which is not only a nice round number but
also a lot more generous?
Congressman: Well, $20 would be too high, for sure.
Too much of a jump at once.
Socrates: It sounds like you think the cost of labor
might indeed affect the demand for it. Good! That’s progress. You’re not as
oblivious about market forces as I thought. What I want to know is why you
apparently don’t think higher labor costs matter when you raise the minimum wage
from $5.15 to $7.25. Do you think everyone, regardless of skill level or
experience, is automatically worth what Congress decrees?
Congressman: Now hold on a minute. I’m for the
Socrates: Then why on earth would you favor a law
that says if a worker can’t find a job that pays at least $7.25 per hour, he’s
not allowed to work?
Congressman: I’m not saying he can’t work! I’m
saying he can’t be paid less than $7.25!
Socrates: I thought we were making progress, but
perhaps not. Can you tell me, if your scheme becomes law, what happens to a
worker who is worth only $6.00 because of his low skills, lack of education,
scant experience or a low demand for the work itself? Will employers happily
employ him anyway and take a $1.25 loss for every hour he’s on the job?
Congressman: Businesses need workers and $1.25 isn’t
much, so common sense and decency would suggest that of course they would.
Socrates: So employers who employ people are too
greedy to pay $7.25 unless they’re ordered to, but then when Congress acts, they
suddenly become generous enough to hire people at a loss. Who was your logic
Congressman: Can we hurry this up? I’ve got other
plans for other people I have to think about.
Socrates: I give up. You congressmen are
incorrigible. You’re the only people on whom my teaching method has no
Congressman: You ask too many questions.
At this point, in utter frustration, Socrates drinks the
hemlock. The congressman votes to price many of the nation’s most vulnerable
employees out of work and gets re-elected.
Whoever warned us to beware of Greeks bearing
gifts apparently never met a congressman.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for
Public Policy, a research and educational organization headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.