Justice at Work: Minimum Wage Laws and Social Equality
54 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2013 Last revised: 8 Aug 2015
Date Written: April 26, 2014
Are minimum wage laws just? Existing legal academic debate implies that they are not. Drawing on neoclassical labor market models, various legal scholars have argued that minimum wage laws increase unemployment and cause other inefficiencies, and therefore that direct transfers to the working poor are a superior means of ensuring distributive justice. Accepting for the sake of argument that minimum wage laws have such economic effects, this Article nevertheless defends them on grounds of justice. It builds on well-worn arguments that a just state will not just redistribute resources but will also enable citizens to relate to one another as equals. This ideal of “social equality” is most commonly associated with republican and communitarian theories of justice, but it is also central to major strands of egalitarian liberalism. Minimum wage laws advance social equality, and do so better than direct transfers, in several ways. They increase workers’ wages, which are a primary measure of the social value of work; they alter workplace power relationships by giving workers rights vis-à-vis employers; and they require employers and consumers to internalize costs of higher wages rather than mediating all distribution through the state. In short, minimum wage laws help ensure decent work, work that enhances rather than undermines workers’ self-respect. Reduced demand for extremely low-wage labor is a cost worth bearing to ensure decent work — and may even be an affirmative social good.
Keywords: Minimum wage, employment law, social justice, social equality
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