Thursday, March 1, 2012

In praise of the Living Wage campaign at UVA

You might be wondering what a guy with libertarian leanings, who has actually defended the abolition of minimum wage laws, is doing praising the "Living Wage" campaign at the University of Virginia. That might be because you, like me, initially assumed upon reading the words "living wage" that the activist organization demanding better pay for UVA employees is another political action team wanting to get legislation passed to achieve their objectives. Or it might be because you, like so many of us in this world, have been fooled by stereotypes, having been taught through a steady diet of mainstream media that libertarians are greedy, selfish jerks who think everyone should have to fend for himself. Whatever the reason you're surprised, if indeed you are, I hope to explain clearly and succinctly why you shouldn't be.

The Living Wage campaign exists for the purpose of demanding better pay for employees of the University of Virginia. Its specific wage demands (which can be read here) are based on the Economic Policy Institute's estimation of what it costs to live in Charlottesville and raise a family of four. It further demands structural changes in the university that will make the improvement of wages an ongoing process. The rationale behind these demands is simple: we, as a university, ought to live up to our stated goal of being a "caring community."

Why I support this. I have joined 2,255 other people in signing a petition that the university meet Living Wage standards. As a Christian, I believe all human beings have a responsibility to care for the poor among us, and we as Christians are particularly responsible for advocating for those less fortunate. I also believe it is our duty to take part in shaping the institutions of which we are part. Communities are shaped by powerful institutions, and we have a moral obligation to insist that those institutions adhere to good and just principles. Human beings cannot thrive without communities that look out for the common interest.

As a libertarian, I believe it is vital for individuals to be active on the ground in making the world a better place. Indeed, it is our general complacency about the needs of our own communities that invites greater and more intrusive intervention from the state. From my point of view, the point of libertarianism is not for us all to float around in an atomistic world of self-interested individuals with no ties to any institutions or communities. No, the point is for all of us individuals to be free to create, shape, and reform those institutions with which we are naturally affiliated. If the university of which I am a part does not reflect the morals which I hold dear, then I have a right and even a duty to make this known to the community.

Response to objections. So what about economics? What about the minimum wage? Doesn't that do more harm than good? (I've seen posters on campus suggesting exactly that.)

I think this is based on a misunderstanding of what is being demanded. The Living Wage campaign exists to change the values that govern UVA's policies, not to change laws. It is more than probable that many activists in the campaign would disagree with my political views very sharply. But as far as I can see, despite whatever traditional ties there may be between this kind of activism and leftist politics, the purpose of the campaign is not explicitly political. And anyway, I don't see why we libertarians can't take back some of that moral high ground that the leftists want to take from us.

(I was particularly agitated in my soul when I read this statement on the campaign web site, from an anonymous employee of the university: “The problem is that so many workers get locked into the low wage that stays there… you end up losing ground financially because of inflation and such… and so a lot of people are making less money then they were making years ago.” [Emphasis mine.] And people wonder why we Ron Paul fans keep going on about monetary policy...)

So in response to the economic argument, I would say it is not correct that a university policy of paying its employees well would do more harm than good. UVA must decide, as all firms must, how it will allocate its resources, based on its guiding principles. The Living Wage campaign simply pleads that one of those guiding principles be that we care for the needy in our community. That is a proper moral stance, and if "economics" is ever used as an argument against your morals, you must always side with your morals.

The reason minimum wage laws don't make sense (to me) is that the government can't possibly know all the legitimate exceptions to the rules they make up. What if a young teenager wants to try working on a farm one summer? What if young woman fresh out of college is willing to work a low-paying internship just to gain skills that will and her a fulfilling career? What if a young immigrant is willing to work for next to nothing because it's actually worth quite a bit in his home country? In all of these cases, it's none of the state's business if these individuals choose to take on a particular risk or hardship. Provided individuals are free to choose between competing firms, the government should have no say in their personal decisions.

But again, we have the right and the moral responsibility to help shape the values that guide our own institutions to which we belong. So long as the goal isn't the use of coercion, I have nothing but enthusiasm for a campaign to increase the welfare of the community.

I know of no other reasonable objections to the Living Wage campaign, but if there are any, I'd love to hear them. For now, at least, I'm a supporter, and I look forward to receiving campaign updates. I can only give my apologies to those (particularly of my friends) who have been active in campaigning, including the recent hunger strike, as I am a relative late-comer to this cause.

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